The Lutèce Diaries, 25: Montmartre, copyright “Amélie” or, Why a duck shop bothers me so much

Gen Paul Montmartre rue NorvinsGen Paul (1895-1975), “Le bureau de tabac, rue Norvins et le Sacre-Coeur,” circa 1928-29. Oil on canvas, 28.74 x 36.22 inches. Signed lower right, signed again and dated on the reverse. The artist was part of the controversial writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s circle during his Montmartre years — and sometimes his target, as he had only one real leg. Estimated price for Artcurial’s March 20 Art of the 20th Century, 1900 – 1950 sale in Paris: 22,000 – 28,000 Euros.  Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

Dedicated to Martin Epstein on this his birthday. For the teaching.

PARIS — The last time I saw Montmartre, heart bleeding and gums aching, I made it as high as the grave of François Truffaut (down the path from Zola and up the hill from “Camille”), where, after imbibing a Paracetemol cocktail, I shouted “J’accuse” at the author of the five-film Antoine Doinel cycle that began with “The 400 Blows” for filling me up with an ideal of Paris love that did not exist. But Paris fairy-tale dreams die hard, so there I was  again Monday afternoon huffing and puffing my way up the 400 flights of stairs from the netherworld of the Abbesses Metro, no doubt neighboring the subterranean tunnel through which is shot the pneumatic Delphine Seyrig (as the wife of his shoe-store owner boss) sends Antoine fixing a tryst in “Stolen Kisses,” the third film.

The first indication I had that Montmartre had accelerated its downhill slide into the mother of all Tourist-lands was a sign on the rue Yvonne le Tac: “The Paris Duck Store.” As la belle-mere, who used to furnish me with a steady supply of the buoyant creatures when she had a San Francisco boutique called Common Scents, will confirm, I’ve got nothing against rubber duckies. The problem I have with “The Paris Duck Store” is that it could be anywhere. Its various canard characters — Prince, a Rasta duck that I guess was supposed to be Bob Marley, even a Trump duck (“He is surrounded by two devil ducks!,” the duck sales clerk tried to assure me) — have nothing to do with Paris. No Jean Gabin duck. No Piaf duck. No Montand duck. No De Gaulle duck and no Godard duck. No “Amélie” duck. (We’ll get back to her.) Not even a “Yellow-Vested” duck. And indeed the Duck Store, which originated in Amsterdam, is now everywhere. “We have ten duck stores all over Europe!” the sales clerk proudly informed me. (This genericizing of Paris is not confined to Montmartre. As a fellow Parisian recently complained to me, “You emerge from your apartment building, you look at the café across the street, and you could be anywhere in the world.”)

Where exactly is the Paris in the Paris Duck Store? And where is the Montmartre? (And if your answer is “It’s the free market, buddy,” mine is that in Paris, the mayor has the right to a certain degree of commerce control to preserve a neighborhood’s historic character.)

Suzanne Valadon nu sortant du bain smallSuzanne Valadon (1865-1938), “Nu sortant du bain, circa 1904.  Sanguine and crayon gras on paper. 25 x 20.30 cm.  Collection Paul Lombard.  Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial from its 2017 sale of the Collection of Paul Lombard. (Arts Voyager Archives.)

As I continued down the street towards the Square Suzanne Valadon at the base of the park below Sacre-Coeur where the funicular would take me to the “Butte” or top of Montmartre, I thought about how the Communards, who put up barricades around Montmartre and Belleville (provisions were dropped into the park from hot air balloons) in 1871 to protest Versailles’ capitulation to the Germans, might feel if they knew that the cradle of their movement had been invaded by Dutch rubber duckies. (Not to mention whether Sesame Street’s Ernie would still think that his Rubber Ducky made bathing lots of fun if the petite canard had orange hair and tried to build a wall around the bathtub to keep out Gordon, Mr. Looper, and that transspecies fruitcake Big Bird.) Pondering this revolting development as the single petite transparent Metro car took me up to Sacre-Coeur while contemplating from its window the winding stairways of the park around which a caped and masked Audrey Tatou had tantalized Mathieu Kassovitz in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain,” I decided to take the matter up with the Chevalier de la Barre.

Being burned at the stake in 1766 at the age of 19 after having his tongue and hands cut off when he refused to doff his cap before and hurled impudent ditties at a procession of religious notables earned the Chevalier de la Barre the right to his own statue, which now presides over a narrow oblong park just below Sacre-Coeur. (This is kind of a French thing; they burn you at the stake and then give you a statue.) After saluting him by removing mine (cap), I turned my back to the Chevalier so that I could sit on a bench looking out through bare winter trees over Paris and the Eiffel Tower, standing sentry in the midst of the late-afternoon dappled sky. As I sipped my hot thermos ginger-rosehip tea, the Paris moment was perfect. When the pigeons crashed the party, I left the park and, after negotiating the crowd of tourists along the rue Norvins and saluting the ghosts of Valadon, her lover Felix Utter, and her son Maurice Utrillo on the narrow rue Rustique from which their late-night arguments used to echo through the village (she served as Renoir’s model before taking lessons from Degas and becoming a painter in her own right after giving up the idea of flying the trapeze with the Medrano circus; her son is singularly responsible for the postcard image Montmartre has today), turned left onto the rue Cortot to visit with Satie, who from 1890 to 1898 created Minimalism in a small chamber at No. 6, a sign on the elevated building above the paved street informs us. (A couple of blocks below chez Satie Pissarro holed up in a studio making pastel drawings of the rue Vincent, which leads to the village’s wine orchards.)

After I repeated a future wedding ritual under the trelisse of the park at the other side of the church I’ve practiced since I used to jog up to the Butte along the rue des Martyrs from my flat on the rue de Paradis in the 2000s, I and my Montmartre retrouvaille went downhill. Descending Lamarck, I found a restaurant on a catty-corner whose high terrace looked out on a story-typical Montmartre view. The reasonably priced menu looked appealing until I noticed the non-translation (not just a bad translation; it made something up) of “Pommes Sarladoise,” which — as they should — were listed as accompanying the duck confit: “Oven-cooked with butter.” As any Perigordin worth the salt in which he preserves his duck knows, Pommes (Potatoes) Sarladoise — the recipe originated in Sarlat, 19K from the Dordogne village where I live — are cooked not in butter but duck or goose fat. When I verified with the server that his restaurant observed this rule and informed him of the bad translation (duck fat into butter), he just laughed. I don’t think he realized that if tourists come to Paris, it’s not just to get fatted up but because they appreciate that the French take their food seriously; they know the difference between duck fat and butter. (Which these days in is more expensive in France than duck or even goose fat.)

If subsequent English menus I spotted were correct — apart from that of the café off Norvins which offered “hot got cheese salad” — this was probably because there are only so many ways you can spell “French Onion Soup,” which featured on the carte du jour of most of the restaurants I passed while careening down the rue Caulaincourt (trying to avoid the omnipresent green and grey construction barriers) back towards the cemetery. In other words, at least judging by the menus Montmartre has become the worst example of Paris-land I’ve seen since I returned here in January, giving the tourists a cardboard version of Paris and France which only confirms their most tired stereotypes and has little to do with the real Paris of today.

As far as tourist traps go, the worst offender — as I discovered after turning down Lepic (where Van Gogh once talked sales strategy with his brother before heading down to the Grands Boulevards to try to sell his paintings to Goupil) from Joseph le Maistre after pausing on the bridge over the cemetery (which figures in three of the Antoine films) to watch the crepuscular Sun piercing the gathering storm clouds — is the Café des deux moulins (so dubbed because it’s midway between the Moulin Rouge and the Moulin Galette immortalized by Renoir and later Utrillo), the real restaurant where the fake heroine worked in “The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain.” The film poster which immediately went up in the wake of the global success of Jeunet’s movie was understandable; something had to tell the gaggles of Japanese girls who turned up that they were in the right place. But “Amélie,” or more precisely the exploitation of tourists in the name of everything “Amélie,” has now completely taken over what once actually was — in real life as in the film — a working-class neighborhood café. So you now have the “Amélie gouter” (afternoon snack, usually reserved for schoolchildren; in the Perigord we serve them chilled, watered down, sugared red wine in which they dip stale bread) of Viennese coffee, creme brulé, and a Polaroid (presumably with the Amélie poster): 12.80 Euros. Which is just to fatten you up for the Amélie burgers, whose prices, arrayed on a menu plastered with “Amélie”‘s puckered face, range from 17 to nearly 20 Euros, enough to get you a decent prix fix three course meal in many other restaurants. (Okay, the 20 Euro one includes foie gras, but a resto up the street on le Maistre, le Gascogne, offers the same plus fries and smoked duck breast for less than 16.)

The piece de resistance — or, as we say here, the cerise sur la gateau — is that while I was copying some of the menu down for this diatribe, a short man popped out of the entrance, wagged his finger at me and warned, “No taking notes! Copyright!” The presumption being that I was a competitor stealing his recipe for what goes into a foie gras and hamburger hamburger. (Foie gras, hamburger, and, okay, stewed onions.) In other words, a tourist trap operator shamelessly exploiting a work of art (regardless of whether he has permission to use the Amélie iconography — at presstime, I’d received no response on the question from Jeunet’s official website — it’s still shameless, and a subversion of what this movie is really about) to sell food tchotchkes at inflated prices was lecturing me about copying down recipes any kindergartner could make up.

Montmartre, copyright “Amélie.” Quelle farce! C’est le monde a l’envers.

Because “Amélie,” you see, didn’t just spring from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s fertile imagination. Like Marcel Carné / Jaques Prevert’s 1947 “Les Portes de la Nuit,” in which a lanky Yves Montand made his debut (and introduced Prevert’s “Autumn Leaves”) wandering through a fairy-tale, oneiric, cauchemaresque Montmartre after missing the last Metro at Barbes; like Piaf singing for her supper on a street corner off Clichy until a local impresario discovered her; like Patachou at her nightclub near the Lapin Agile giving a chance to a young singer-poet, George Brassens, who would go on to become the French equivalent of Bob Dylan (his songs sound better when she sings them); like Picasso and Braque forging Cubism from African artifacts at the Bateau Lavoir; like Picasso, Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin and the rest of the gang converging in his tiny flat to hear the Douanier Rousseau entertain them on his violin in 1910; like Max Jacob, who would later be slated for Deportation, hurrying across the street to his home on the rue Ravignon a few doors up from the Bateau Lavoir clutching his self-published poetry; like Toulouse-Lautrec limping home across the cemetery bridge towards his studio on the rue Tourlaque after transforming whores and can-can dancers into deities; like Boris Vian debating Pataphysics (I’m still not sure what that is) with his neighbor Prevert on their adjoining terraces over the Verdun alley; like Gabrielle posing for Renoir, pere, on the rue Fontaine before returning to comb the long golden locks of Renoir, fils, for whom she was the nanny; like Cezanne trading tableaux for powder with the Pere Tanguy while Tanguy’s dubious wife looked on; like Vuillard capturing the way the light filtered into the flat he shared with his mother looking out on the Square Adolph Max below the boulevard Clichy; like Brel coming to Madame Arthur’s to hear transvestite singers; like Maigret’s Inspector Malgraceux surveilling the flat across the way from him over the square Constantin Pecqueur or Steinlen leaving out bowls of food for his feline models in the same location (I tried taking my tea there too on Monday, but the bench was splattered with pigeon shit and the Steinlen fountain dry); like all these storied ancestors, “Amélie” sprung from the feu follet fermenting in the cemetery and all over Montmartre.

This is why a duck shop bothers me.

“La Nuit de Saint-Germain-des-Prés,” from the series “Les Nouveaux Mystères de Paris,” by Léo Malet (extract; introduction and version originale followed by translation)

The short-hand description of Léo Malet as the French answer to Raymond Chandler doesn’t do justice to the vernacular richness of Malet’s crime stories, starring the wise-cracking, high-strung, and historically erudite Nestor Burma, the “Shock Detective” who “puts the K.O. to the Mystery.” In his forays into the labyrinths of Lutece — the body of which is 14 “Nouveaux Mystères de Paris” (inspired by Eugene Sue’s 19th century “Mystères de Paris”), each set in a specific arrondissement — Malet marries the verbal virtuosity of Boris Vian to the Paris familiarity of Georges Simenon, a dexterity no doubt the by-product of an apprenticeship with the anarchists of the 1920s and graduate school with André Breton’s Surrealists. A supplementary métier as newspaper hawker informed his gumshoe’s intimate knowledge of the streets and neighborhoods of Paris. “The Night of Saint-Germain-des-Près” offers the extra treat of two real personages — bistro owners, bien sur — integrated into the action (with their approval).

Le métro me cracha à Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Je sortis du wagon pour ainsi dire à la nage, tellement je transpirais. C’était une moite nuit de juin, avec, suspendu sur la capitale, un orage de Marseille qui menaçait toujours sans jamais passer aux actes.

A la surface, il faisait encore plus chaud que dans le souterrain.

J’émergeai sur le boulevard à l’ombre de l’église et me frayai un chemin à travers la bruyante foule des promeneurs cosmopolites qui ondulaient sur le large trottoir, le long des grilles du petit square, indiférents à la vaisselle historique que le camelot de bronze Bernard Palissy, du haut de son socle, leur propose inlassablement.

L’atmosphère était imprégnée d’une stagnant odeur composite, où les vapeurs d’essence et le goudron liquéfié se conguguaient au tabac blond et aux parfums de prix. Tout à fait Montmartre en 1926, Château Caucasien en moins. Sur la chaussée, de somptueuses bagnoles, aux carrosseries éclaboussées par les reflets mourants de l’enseigne au néon d’un grand café de la place, roulaient lentement, cherchant sans beaucoup d’espoir un espace libre pour se ranger.

La terrasse du Mabillon, qui s’éntendait jusqu’au caniveau, et celle de la Rhumerie-Martiniquaise, contenue vaille que vaille dans l’espace de son plancher surélevé, rivalisaient d’animation, avec le pourcentage requis de viande soûle. Entre les deux bistrots pétant aux jointures, l’étroite rue de l’Echaudé, chére à Alfred Jarry, qui y avait situé sa station-service de décervelage, m’apparut comme une oasis de fraîcheur et de tranquillité: Par-dessus les toits des voitures à l’arrête, la rampe lumineuse de l’Echaudé, le snack-bar que tient Henri Leduc, formée d’une succession d’ampoules électriques multicolores, dans la meilleure tradition populaire des illuminations de 15 juillet, me fit signe.

Je mis le cap dessus.

Il n’y avait presque personne dans le minuscule établissement, ce qui était aussi bien, vu la température et ce qui m’y amenait. Mais il ne faillait pas s’inquiéter. Je connais l’endroit. D’ici une heure ou deux, ça allait rappliquer de partout.

Je jetait un coup d’œil à l’angle droit, la disposition des lieux n’en permettant pas de circulaire. Un couple cinématographique, vestimentairement parlant, occupait une table et cassait la croûte. Un peu plus loin, un type très digne, genre gravure de modes, l’air prétence d’un cachet d’aspirine qui se prendrait pour du maxiton, d’épais cheveux blancs surmontant son visage maigre de poète ravagé par l’inspiration — ou les soucis — mangeait délicieusement, avec des gestes maniéres, quelque chose qui me parut ressembler à un plat de lentilles. Les yeux braqués sur l’affiche 1900 qui lui faisait face et vantant la supériorité de la bougie à cinq trous sur ses rivales, il rêvait plus ou moins à son droit d’aînesse.

Au comptoir, Louis, le barman, impeccable et correct dans sa veste immaculée, disputait une partie de dés avec un client barbichu, aux sons d’une musique douce issue d’un poste de radio invisible, et Henri, l’œil vif derrière ses lunettes cerclées d’or, faisait des comptes, à la caisse, un verre embué à portée de sa main, celle qui ne tenait pas le crayon.

Je m’approchai et l’interrompis dans ses calculs :

— Salut, Duc, dis-je.

Il leva la tête, me tendit la main, me souhaita la bienvenue et demanda ce que je devenais.

— Pas plus, dis-je.

— Les machabées, ça donne?

— Je n’ai pas buté, si j’ose dire, sur un depuis deux mois.

Leduc fronça les sourcils :

— Mauvais, ça. Tu devrais voir un toubib.

— Légiste, de préférence. Je connais la réplique. Dis donc, ça ne t’altère pas, de débloquer comme ça?

— Si. Qu’est que tu offres ?

— J’ai besoin d’un reconstituant maison.

Translation by  Paul Ben-Itzak:

The metro spit me out at Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

I left the subway car more or less swimming, bathed in sweat. It was a sweltering June night with, suspended over Paris, a mistral straight out of Marseille which menaced ominously without delivering.

Outside it was even steamier than in the subterranean.

I emerged on the boulevard in the shadow of the church and waded through the tumultuous crowd of cosmopolitan promenaders undulating along the wide sidewalk beside the iron gate of the tiny square, indifferent to the historic ceramic plates that the bronze figure of Bernard Palissy was tirelessly hawking from the perch of his pedestal.

The atmosphere was impregnated with a stagnant, pungent mixture of gas fumes and liquefied asphalt mixed with blonde tobacco and luxury perfume. Evoking Montmartre circa 1926, or at least Château Caucasien. On the pavement, sumptuous jalopies, their coaches splashed with the dying reflections of the neon lights of a big café on the Place, hunted without much hope for a free parking spot to hitch their carcasses to.

The terrace of the Mabillon, which extended all the way to the curb, and that of the Rhumerie-Martiniquaise, somehow contained in the confines of an elevated deck, competed for liveliness, with the requisite percentage of Pernod-marinated meat. Between the two bistros bursting at the seams, the narrow rue de l’Echaudé, dear to Alfred Jarry, who used to conduct his weekly brain surgery sessions there at Rachilde’s salon *, beckoned to me like an oasis of freshness and tranquility: Above the roofs of parked cars, the luminous garland of the Echaudé, the snack bar run by Henri Leduc, formed by a string of multi-colored light-bulbs in the best tradition of Bastille Day, hailed me.

I set my course and plunged.

The miniscule establishment was practically deserted — which suited me just fine, given the heat and the delicate task confronting me. But this was nothing to worry about. I knew the place. An hour or two from now, the joint would be jammed to the rafters with regulars.

I cast a furtive glance at the right corner, the layout not allowing for a wide-angle view. A cinematic couple — wardrobe-wise — was breaking bread at a table. A little further back, a distinguished character straight out of the pages of the fashion magazines and with the pretentious air of a sleeping pill which mistakes itself for No-Doze, his thick white hair crowning the emaciated visage of a poet ravaged by inspiration — or worries — sipped with delectation and mannered gestures a bowl of something which resembled lentil soup. His eyes riveted to a Belle Epoch poster vaunting the superiority of five-hole candelabras  over their rivals, he seemed to be dreaming more or less of his senior citizen prerogatives.

At the counter, Louis, the barman, impeccable and appropriate in his immaculate vest, was tossing dice with a bearded customer, to the soothing sounds of music coming from an invisible radio, and Henri, his eyes alert behind gold-rimmed glasses, was going over the books at the cash register, a frosted glass within reach of his hand, the one which wasn’t holding the pencil.

I walked up to him and interrupted his calculations:

Salut, Duc.”

He lifted his head, offered me his hand, welcomed me and asked what I’d been up to.

“Not much,” I responded.

“Stiffs keeping you busy?”

“I haven’t tripped over one — if I dare say — for at least two months.”

Leduc frowned. “That’s no good. You ought to see a specialist for that.”

“Preferably a coroner — I know the routine. So tell me, doesn’t it make you thirsty to turn the pages like that?”

“Indeed it does. What do you propose?”

“I could sure use a glass of the House poison.”

Excerpt from “La Nuit de Saint-Germain-des-Prés,” originally published in 1955 as “Le Sapin Pousse dans les Caves” as part of the series “Les Nouveaux Mystères de Paris” and copyright Éditions Fleuve Noir. Collected in Léo Malet, “Les Enquêtes de Nestor Burma et Les Nouveaux Mystères de Paris.” Édition presented and established by Francis Lacassin. Éditions Robert Laffont, S.A., Paris, 1985. Excerpt translated by Paul Ben-Itzak.

*Among the regular visitors to the salon held by Marguerite Eymery, Madame Alfred Vallette, known as Rachilde (1860 – 1953), in the offices of the publisher the Mercure de France at 15, rue l’Echaudé, was Alfred Jarry, whose influential 1896 play “Ubu Roi” included “La Chanson du décervelage.” Décervelage translates literally as the operation of removing someone’s brain, and can also be defined as taking someone’s reason away. While Malet rightly includes none of this elaboration for his 1955 French audience, I’ve decided that this short expansion is appropriate for an anglophone audience in 2017. Malet here is also playing with the sense of the word echaudé , which evokes the sensation you have, figuratively or literally, at the approach of something that’s already burned you.