LAST NIGHTS OF PARIS Paperback – 2 May 2007
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"A haunting depiction of a world in which the characters find themselves both the ghosts and the spooked." -- Review of Contemporary Fiction
"Soupaults nocturnal ramblings include street murders, stopped clocks, and unexpected breezes. This sweet strangeness may very well make you sentimental." -- Voice Literary Supplement
About the Author
William Carlos Williams (1883 1963), author of Paterson and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Pictures from Brueghel, is widely considered one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. Also a short-story writer, novelist, essayist, and translator, he helped in a big way to establish modernism in America.
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I've always admired this book, and it seems I go back to it almost every day, and try to peek into it. I first read it twenty years ago, and still don't feel that I know what it is about, and I don't think anybody else does either. The French criticism doesn't go into the obvious Spenglerian feeling of the title, nor does it go into detail concerning the strange murders and deaths that take place within a double love-story. As the Seine winds through Paris, so the narrator winds, with a strange and curious indifference as well as passion. This book details odd meetings with thieves, prostitutes, and the clock at the top of what is now the Musee d'Orsay (but was then a major train station). But why? The book is so strange, and yet so familiar, like walking in Paris at night, and yet more vividly observed than one would believe possible. Nothing happens in the book, and yet everything happens. This book is a freak that no one will ever understand. It just has to be experienced, like a dream that seems to have a mysterious cogency that one can never formulate into anything that can be logically understood.
-- Kirby Olson
"Last Nights of Paris" concerns the after-dark exploits of its narrator who gradually becomes acquainted with the various nocturnal creatures of the City of Lights. Ever since witnessing a bizarre, weirdly staged spectacle conducted on the rue de Seine around midnight - involving a procession of laborers, a desperate woman, and a giant sack - the narrator has grown obsessed with his companion at the time, a young prostitute he had just met named Georgette. Hearing a newspaper account the next day of a sailor who had killed and dismembered one of his friends, the narrator finds himself slowly drawn deeper and deeper into an underworld that comes to life only in the dark. Presiding over it all is Georgette, whom the narrator comes to view as the embodiment of all the moods and mysteries of the Parisian night.
If Paris's real-life career criminal-turned-police investigator Eugène François Vidocq influenced Edgar Allen Poe's creation of the detective story, so too does "Last Nights of Paris" represent a mingling of two distinct cultures. With its cast of tough, amoral characters (including the obligatory femme fatale), evocative urban setting, and the protagonist's quest into the urban labyrinth unlock a puzzle, "Last Nights of Paris" is very reminiscent of the contemporary development of American noir and hardboiled detective fiction. Sam Spade would hardly be out of place.
At the same time, however, Last Nights of Paris is an undeniably Surrealist novel, following a recognizable plot but infused with the atmosphere of a dream. The night is a living character in its own right, personified by Georgette. It stands for the Surrealist fascination with the subconscious and for its desire to create art out of pure imagination, unordered by thought or reason. Although the narrator eventually arrives at an explanation (of sorts) for the events that transpired that first night he met Georgette, he does not get there, as your average detective hero would, by seeking, arranging, and interpreting clues. He drifts. He meanders from place to place. He pursues Georgette like the white rabbit. Coincidences arise: he meets a man in a cafe who claims to be a thief who meets regularly with other thieves to discuss the news of the trade. Later on, wandering through one of his favorite nightly haunts, the aquarium at the Pont d'Jena, the narrator comes across precisely that meeting, and hears Georgette's name mentioned.
I have been dying to read "Last Nights of Paris" since I first heard of it. So many of my favorite things intersect in it: Paris, Modernism, the literary avant-garde, the 1920s. I was absolutely not the slightest bit disappointed. Despite its experimental nature, "Last Nights of Paris" is a very accessible read that can be enjoyed by a broad audience, even without any background in Surrealism, Modernism, or French social history. I absolutely recommend it to anyone and everyone.
Let us say it is not a typical read. The narrator lives and wanders in a Parisian world of prostitutes, thieves and murderers. He follows various characters, from Georgette to her brother Octave, through the streets, making mental notes about the men and women he meets and their opinions of each other. The novel focuses on chance, the happenings that could be coincidental.
It is a fascinating read and certainly, if you enjoy twentieth-century French literature, a must. Translated by William Carlos Williams, this book is considered more of a Dadaist classic. Soupault was apparently kicked out of the Surrealist group by Breton and his followers for adhering to the old rules of literature. This would explain the narrative strength of Last Nights of Paris.
Where it diverges from the average narrative is that you never get the feeling or sense you are actually coming to a conclusion about this book. Characters appear, more and more and the narrator listens to the different people telling their stories. I really have to shake my head. I don't know if this is supposed to be about something. Usually we can say of a book it concerns a certain plot or a series of incidents. Or we talk about character development. This book is more about how life really cannot be understood or contained by a linear structure. Life is life and Last Nights of Paris is simply Last Nights of Paris.
I will say, the prose is beautiful, closer to poetry at times. Soupault's narrator describes the rue de Medicins as "the street of everlasting rain". "The days which followed that night were like a cloud" give an example of the texture of his writing. "Paris swelled out with boredom...". Reading Soupault reminded me of some of the poetry of Prevert.
The only qualm I have is that the energy of the beginning falters in the middle and rises towards the end. It feels as if Soupault launched into his work with the best intentions, threw the best poetry into the first forty pages and then tired until towards the last twenty. At first you are confused but it is beautiful. Slowly, you are still confused and the prose doesn't have the same vibrancy.
Nonetheless, worth checking out.