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Literary escapade: the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris

January 25, 2017 30 comments

Literary escapade: The Père Lachaise Cemetery.

After visiting the Oscar Wilde exhibition, I wanted to see his grave at the Père Lachaise cemetery and thought it would be a great opportunity to do a little literary tour of the place. I had the chance to do it now even if the weather is grey and freezing. Bundled in a warm parka, equipped with a wool hat and gloves, toasty warm feet in my winter boots, I braved the cold to have a long literary walk in the Père Lachaise. Armed with a map of the cemetery, I started hunting down graves of famous writers. I have to confess that I failed at locating Beaumarchais’s and Gertrude Stein’s graves. I walked around and around but never saw them.

This cemetery was founded in 1804, per Napoleon’s order. He was convinced that everybody was entitled to a decent burial, whatever your religion or lack of. Napoleon’s decision meant that people from different religions would be buried in the same cemetery but also that actors and atheists had the same rights as others. But the Parisians didn’t want to be buried at the Père Lachaise as it was too far from Paris. Now it’s in the 18th arrondissement of Paris but at the time, it was the countryside.

Marketing came to the rescue of political decisions. To entice people to get buried in this cemetery, they built fake graves for Molière, Lafontaine and Heloïse and Abélard, the legendary lovers from the Middle Ages. Molière’s remains are not at the Père Lachaise cemetery, despite what’s written on his tombstone. How could they be? He died in 1673 and as an actor, he was considered as an infidel and banned from a Catholic burial in a Catholic cemetery. His corpse was thrown into the catacombs. See why Napoléon’s decision was relevant to actors?

moliere_lafontaineThanks to the new regulations, the famous actress Rachel (1821-1856) was buried at the Père Lachaise.

rachelShe was a role model for Sarah Bernhard and extremely famous for her interpretation of characters from tragedies.

As I was wandering in the alleys, I noticed big bombastic graves and they often belonged to military heroes. There’s just one step from thinking big ego, big tombstone but who knows if the defunct was aware of the look of his grave. They might have not approved of it. Anyway. These people were worshipped enough in their lifetime to deserve a showy tombstone. All these names are now forgotten, unless they have become street names. I mulled over the unpredictability of immortality and fame. While these men were successful and respected in the society they belonged to, their greatness evaporated through the decades and centuries. And ironically, among the most visited graves are Jim Morrison’s and Oscar Wilde’s. Both died abroad, away from their families who didn’t want them anymore. Both had fame during their life before getting in trouble with the law. Both died alone and in dire conditions.

And yet. Wilde’s a literary genius. His Importance of Being Earnest is a real gem. He was a gifted and eclectic writer.

dsc_3727Morrison is mostly famous for lighting his fans’ fire but considered himself as a poet. Some of his song lyrics are indeed poems and since songwriters can win the Nobel prize for literature, I decided that Jim Morrison belonged to this literary tour. Both yanked society’s chains and their talent was understated.

dsc_3710My tour led me to the graves of several literary giants from the 19th century.

dsc_3740Alfred de Musset is here and his epitaph says:

Mes chers amis quand je mourrai

Plantez un saule au cimetière

J’aime son feuillage éploré

La pâleur m’en est douce et chère

Et son ombre sera légère

A la terre où je dormirai.

My dear friends, when I die

Plant a weeping willow at the cemetery

I love its mournful foliage

Its paleness is sweet and dear to me

And its shadow will be light

To the earth where I’ll rest.

Always a poet, the dear Alfred and his tomb is neat. Musset is buried alone but not Balzac, who rests with his great love, the countess Hanska.

balzacHis grave includes a sculpture of a book and a quill but his famous coffee pot is missing.  Gérard de Nerval rests opposite to Balzac. His grave is less well kept than Balzac’s and its shape is quite different.

nervalProust’s grave is also a hotspot of the cemetery. It’s a bit strange for such a difficult writer. He shares a grave with his parents, his brother Robert and his sister-in-law. His relatives’ names are written on the sides of the grave.

dsc_3730

I continue with the proustian atmosphere and visited Alphonse Daudet’s grave. He was a writer (one I studied in middle school, I think) but he was also Léon Daudet’s father. Léon was one of Proust’s closest friends. Somewhere in the cemetery is the Greffühle mausoleum.

daudet_greffulheThe comtesse Greffülhe (1860-1952) was a French aristocrat and she inspired the Duchesse de Guermantes, one of the most emblematic characters of In Seach of Lost Time.

Different style, Colette. I thought that her tombstone seems a bit tame for such a flamboyant artist and woman.

dsc_3739I walked a bit to see Paul Eluard’s last home. He’s one of my favourite poets. I though his grave was too gray for the poet who wrote that the earth is blue, like an orange.

dsc_3723I made a little detour to Modigliani’s grave as he’s one of my favorite painters.

dsc_3725Of course it’s not a fancy grave since he was dirt poor. I’m glad Jeanne Hébuterne is buried with him. She threw herself through the window when he died in 1920. Her father never liked her relationship with Modigliani and only accepted in 1930 that her remains be with Modigliani’s.

Other times, other country, Richard Wright’s ashes are at the columbarium. At a corner, I saw this grave, for the Bouquin family.

bouquinIn French, a bouquin is an affectionate and colloquial way to call a book. I don’t think there’s an English equivalent to this word or I’d be glad to know it. Isn’t that fantastic to have bouquin as a surname?

I also walked by Tignous’s grave. He was one of the cartoonists who died during the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015.

tignousHe died because he believed that freedom of speech was worth sacrifices, that it is an inalienable right. In these desolate times where a powerful president would rather tweet opinions instead of sticking to facts, journalists and cartoonists are more than ever necessary. Let’s not forget Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists and discover their work ethics here, explained in the LA Review of Books by an American journalist. It is truly an excellent article. And as you can see, Charlie Hebdo has not lost their edge.

trump

Trump. Let’s give him a chance. *Buttons for choices* Espresso Hot chocolate Black coffee Nuclear bomb

To end this billet on a lighter note, here’s the grave of Victor Noir. (1848-1870)

dsc_3721He was a journalist and he was shot by a relative of Napoléon III. His death became a symbol of the opposition to the Second Empire and the fight for a republic. The recumbent effigy on his grave is supposed to represent him the way he died…erection included. A legend was born and touching his family jewels is supposed to help infertile women to conceive. See how shiny the said parts of his anatomy are compared to the rest of the effigy?

Et voilà! I hope you enjoyed my literary tour of the famous Père Lachaise. Have you been there? If yes, who did you visit?

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