“Paris is the city of the imagination. But when you get there the myth holds true. Because it is a city that makes writing seem like a worthwhile thing to do. It’s a myth that’s been created by fact.”
So claims Sydney writer Patti Miller, whose latest book Ransacking Paris: A Year with Montaigne and Friends, finds her in the French capital in the real company not just of her husband Anthony and friends old and new but in the imagined company of Montaigne, Simone de Beauvoir, Stendhal, Rousseau, Annie Ernaux, Madame de Sevigne and others.
For example, after imagining having coffee with Rousseau at Les Chant des Voyelles in the rue Lombard “because I thought the name, The Song of Vowels, a poem by Rimbaud, would appeal to him,” she and that great 18th century philosopher and author of the Confessions part “with no arrangement to meet again. I suspect we don’t like each other that much, our mirrors too self-reflective.” She fares better with her beloved Montaigne: “He talks in a rambling fashion for ages. I enjoy his dry ironic humour and his eclectic mind, the way he explores ideas without dogmatism.”
In one of his essays, Montaigne writes of turning over and ransacking “now one book, and now another.” And indeed, Miller has prefaced her gloriously layered part-memoir, part travelogue which flits between reality and fiction (“I like the idea of memory as a palimpsest, a parchment where remains of earlier writing or drawings can be seen through the present text”) with Montaigne’s “Bees ransack flowers here and flowers there. But then they make a honey which is entirely theirs.” Decades before, her French teacher Mrs Berman told her and her fellow students about “the novels of Balzac and Zola, and we read Guy de Maupassant’s stories and the short essays by the exquisitely truthful Michel de Montaigne, for whom I was not yet ready.” Now she was ready to meet the inventor of the essay on his home turf — literally and literarily.
“I didn’t want Ransacking Paris to be seen as another Year in Provence kind of book,” laughs the prize-winning author of The Mind of a Thief. “That was a huge worry for me. Because it really wasn’t about that kind of escape. It was actually about the examination of the self that is the territory of memoirists. And it’s a very hotly contested territory, because people often think that it’s navel-gazing. So it was claiming the territory of memoir through the French memoirists themselves.”
Although Ransacking Paris has just been published, it’s been 10 years since Miller and Anthony spent their Year in Paris — although she’s returned each year since then, for up to two months at a time. But that year was different. But this was different. “It was a year in Paris,” she writes near the end of the book. “I finished a manuscript. I had coffee with Montaigne and all the other memoirists. I discovered many looking-glasses in other centuries, other minds. I found the imaginary world did not disappear when I stepped into it.”
“It was very enriching,” she says. “I would write every morning and wander around in the afternoon, soaking up Paris. It made me feel I was doing something worthwhile, valued and acknowledged. Often in Australia, you feel like writing’s not something the world values or recognises.”
Miller says memoir, essay and narrative nonfiction are areas she’s worked in for about 30 years. “The personal essay in particular is such a wide genre. It can include a minute examination of the inner life, but it can also be a look at sociology and politics and psychology and science and nature. It can include everything. It’s a very ecologically sound form too, because you can recycle everything you've ever known and seen. I've had quite a few personal essays published over the years, and every writer I've ever read, everything that’s ever happened to me, even something my kids said 20 years ago, can all be recycled. It’s like going into a second-hand shop and finding the most extraordinary things and making something out of them.”
She also teaches memoir writing, and has written books on the subject. “So I've thought about it a lot. And I do think some people in the literary community look down on memoir as a kind of self-indulgence. I want to defend it. Why shouldn't the self be a legitimate topic for literature? It’s as contradictory and fascinating as anything, and as Montaigne said, both the observer and the observed are changing all the time. It’s a complex thing and something that we’re all experiencing, that concept of the self in relation to the world. Montaigne said we need to look into the mirror of the great world so we can know who we are. And he did that brilliantly.”
Ransacking Paris is published by University of Queensland Press ($29.95). For more information about Patti Miller, visit lifestories.com.au.