Paris in late November reminds one what a Catholic city Paris remains. The Christmas decorations are up, the churches display posters for musique sacrée in Advent and the tourists have largely gone.
I found myself almost alone as I stood in Balzac’s modest study in his little house, once in the village of Passy but now in the 16th arrondissement, where he lived from 1840 to 1847 under the assumed name of “Monsignor Brugnol” to avoid his creditors. The five-room apartment on the top floor was where he wrote much of La Comédie humaine, working in his “prison” of a study as a “galley slave to ink”.
This study has been preserved as it was with its leaded windows, library red walls, small book collection (he rarely used any research notes) and large embroidered writing chair. Rarely have I stood in a room possessing such artistic spirit of place where one senses Balzac’s books were not so much written as sweated out.
His desk is not some fancy leather-topped partners desk but rather a simple wooden table. The sense of an artist’s “cell”, as he described it, was compounded by the fact that Balzac would rise after midnight to start writing with the curtains closed to block out the morning light of Paris.
Drinking black coffee, with six candles burning, he dressed like a Carthusian monk, wrapping himself in a loose robe – dark cashmere in winter, thin white linen in the summer – before beginning to write. “Yesterday I wrote 19 hours,” reads one Balzac letter. “Copy is my master, 16 or 20 pages are required.”
The writer Stefan Zweig says that Balzac’s monastic attire was an unconscious reminder that his vocation as a novelist was a form of “service to a higher law” and bound him, so long as he dressed like an eccentric abbot, “to abjure the outside world and its temptations”. Despite numerous affairs, Balzac took his faith as seriously as his art.
Hung above the fireplace is a beautiful 18th-century wooden crucifix, mounted on dark green velvet, that Balzac had bought in Turin in 1836 for a bargain 150 francs. Ever the Catholic optimist – about human nature and his own financial prospects – he confided in a letter to his wife Eve that it was “un Christ” by neo-classical sculptor Edmé Bouchardon (whose clients included Pope Benedict XIII) that was probably worth 3,000 francs.
My wife and I went to see the ruined shell of Notre-Dame (largely covered in scaffolding) not so much because I suffer from the affliction that German academics call “ruin-lust”, but rather because I wanted to imagine for myself what a rebuilt Notre-Dame would look like with a modern spire, as has been suggested. Only a few days before our trip, the papers were full of the architectural row over a general telling France’s top architect to “shut up” for daring to challenge his plans for a new contemporary spire on the 12th-century Gothic masterpiece (which plans to re-open before the 2024 Olympics).
As I looked up at the cathedral, standing by the Seine, beside the closed shutters of the secondhand book stalls (whose trade has badly suffered from fewer tourists), I reminded myself that Notre-Dame was controversially remodelled in the 19th century by the French architect and architectural theorist Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, in an attempt to make it more grandly Gothic than the medieval original.
Did such renovation improve the cathedral? To my mind, no, and I’m with John Ruskin and William Morris that the idea of restoration to “improve” the original is misplaced. Our own little Norman church at Upton Cressett, where I live, is a case in point after its medieval spirit was despoiled by an unnecessary “Neo-Gothic” Victorian alteration. But in Notre-Dame’s case it is different as it was desecrated by fire not Neo-Gothic vanity.
As I stood there, looking at the gaping missing flèche, I thought the French general was right: a new spire for a new age.
The Luxembourg Gardens feel smaller in the winter than in the spring. The last time I had been with my wife to the famous gardens was before we were married. We had sat drinking hot chocolate on one of the iron benches that had featured in the 1930 bittersweet love poem of the imagist Richard Adlington, A Dream in the Luxembourg. As an 18-year-old, I had identified with the narrator who is unexpectedly summoned by his ex-lover to visit her at her seaside house in France where they have a delirious few days. Only he wakes up on the hard park bench to find it was all a dream.
As I felt the warmth of the winter sunlight and looked towards my wife, some five years on, I felt so happy to feel so alive and to have lunch booked nearby at the classic Latin Quarter bistro Allard, on the rue Saint-André-des-Arts. Founded in 1932, and now run by Alain Ducasse and his protégé Laetitia Rouabah, Allard – where you can still get frog legs – is the perfect example of why change is not always necessarily a good thing.
@williamrpcash is chairman of the Catholic Herald