Monday, 17 March 2014

Who Weeps For Gertrude Stein?

I spent the morning of my birthday in a cemetery. By my own choice, with my boyfriend on a brilliantly sunny day in Paris. We took to wandering around Pére Lachaise with a map bought from a street vendor who asked if I wanted it in American English or British English. He then produced a map with a grid and names, how one was different to the other I'll never know.

Pére Lachaise is larger and more rambling than you can begin to imagine. It is still a functioning cemetery, it is only a tourist attraction by default. There is no gift shop, no entrance fee, no handy signs to direct you towards the famous dead while you trample upon the other ones. We picked four names out of the list of hundreds, and much like our venture through the Louvre, conducted our hour-long masterpiece tour through the necropolis.

There are tour guides, and punctured along the silence and birdsong they arrived like, well, herds of farm animals with a man much too loud for the sombre beauty of a cemetery walk. I had already learnt more from people's reactions to art than the art itself when we visited the Louvre.

The front of the Venus De Milo is almost impossible to see from close-up, there is a constant stream of tourists taking photos, five people deep. The sides and back are completely tourist free, although they amusingly offer just as good a view, if not a different and possibly more beautiful perspective altogether. Yet that is not the case when visiting the Venus De Milo, it is not about taking a moment to reflect on the intention and the craft. From the back of the Venus De Milo, I spot a woman holding up her tablet to take a grinning photo of herself in front of the statue. Except the photo is about 90% tourist head and 10% Venus De Milo. The woman looks triumphantly at her photo, there she is. Herself.

The audio tour mocks the goat rodeo in front of the Mona Lisa in a tone that is unashamedly French. This somewhat small portrait is now behind a large sheet of glass, a wooden barrier, and a velvet rope. About fifty arms are outstretched at all times, madly taking photos of a quality that would be best served by a postcard in the gift shop. I take a photo of the crowd, it interests me more than trying to scramble to the front of the mass. At the very front however, is another tourist taking a selfie, grinning wildly while the Mona Lisa looks on in amused disapproval.

We picked four names to visit in Pére Lachaise, and while I am making my way through the cobbled pathway I am wondering at my insistence in coming here at all. I hate cemeteries. I hate death. I hate the glorification of celebrity. Why am I here?

Maybe because I have a profound literary infatuation with Paris that started when I was about ten years old. More so than London's Bloomsbury and New York's St. Mark's and Chelsea Hotel, I have been aching to see the streets where Hemingway ran to, where Rimbaud destroyed himself. The day before we had visited Coco Chanel's apartment, or at least the facade of it, with no desire to enter the very first Chanel store and see the hordes of wild-eyed tourists pushing their way towards this season's bag.

I don't know what I hope to connect to wandering around this cemetery, except it always looked like one of the more interesting and offbeat things to do in Paris. There is a great amount of legend attached to this place, both in the form of significant people buried here and otherwise. Oscar Wilde died broke and alone in Paris, a ruined man who now has an impressive tomb in the form of a modernist angel. It says everything you need to know about this man's life and death, in a way.

Famous for its lipstick marks left by visitors, it has since been cleaned up and surrounded by glass panels, with a sign urging for people to not continue defacing the monument with lipstick that has eaten into the structure and is causing it to erode. Not that anyone listens, and it is obvious that many have climbed onto the next grave to get kisses onto the stone. The epitaph is a verse from The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, the angel's genitalia have long since been chipped away by some vandal. Here lies Oscar Wilde, covered in women's lips and missing a penis.

I am surprised by the relative emptiness of the place, until we reach Edith Piaf's grave. This one is simpler, a family site in a traditional tomb on top of which lies a crucifix. Piaf's name on the side of the tomb, every other grave in the vicinity stepped on, leaned on, disregarded by a dozen tourists taking photos of themselves smiling proudly at a dead woman's site. More lessons on the living in a place of the dead, it is too much to bear and we leave feeling somewhat confused and saddened at the lack of respect. The large crucifix morbidly amuses me though, as Piaf was denied a Catholic mass by the archbishop of Paris due to her "lifestyle".

The third name on the list was Maria Callas, but we learn that her ashes were taken from here and scattered on the Aegean Sea. Only the urn remains.

The last person on our list is Jim Morrison, and his grave proves hard to get to. There are now barriers completely surrounding the discreet site, the bust of the singer having been stolen years ago. The barriers themselves are covered in graffiti, the trees nearby have been wrapped in bamboo to keep anyone from carving their name on them. Instead, they carve their name on to the bamboo. This is it really, this is humanity. There lies James Douglas Morrison, side by side with opulent Frenchmen with tombstones the size of houses.

Gertrude Stein's name was not on the list, but we pass her on the way. A simple tomb, with nobody standing or leaning or taking photos with beaming smiles. One of the most influential voices in literature, the strange, imposing woman from Hemingway's A Moveable Feast which made such an impression on my teenage years. Her grave is covered in rocks, it is plain and simple and completely disregarded. In the same site, is her lifelong companion and lover, Alice B. Toklas. Could you ask for anything more?

Maybe it doesn't matter though, this is the lesson that is so cliché but so pressing and effective. When you're dead, you are dead. You are no longer able to reap benefits of your influence or celebrity. You could have been one of the richest men in France with instructions for the largest grave, but everyone will come to see the showgirl, the heroin addict, the faggot poet. You could have been the greatest rock star in the world but you still died alone in your bathtub from a heroin overdose at the age of twenty-seven, and you're buried James Douglas Morrison and everyone just writes all over your tomb. You can have not even been given the grace of a Catholic service but they'll still put a great big cross on the top of you.

To live, and live well is the lesson. That the money you amass will only help your family entomb you in a larger piece of stone, but a piece of stone in the dirt it remains. The only comfort I can glean from death is that the influence you leave behind may shape the people of tomorrow. That you can be loved, that you can spend your life loving someone, being a better person for them, them being a better person for you. On my journey through Pére Lachaise, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas' simple tombstone was the greatest one there.