Mixing work with pleasure

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“Place de la Republique,” by Edouard Cortes. (odonwagnergallery.com)

It is Labor Day, so permit me to combine work with pleasure. What follows are lines from the experience of the bastard London bookbinder Hyacinth Robinson, who has just signed on to a vague role in a hazy future socialist uprising but, having recently met and enjoyed the society of a princess, finds his passion for active measures waning. After his mother dies, and with £30 from his mother’s friend, he travels to Paris (the pleasure part). Hyacinth is the protagonist of Henry James’s novel The Princess Casamassima. Paris only further erodes his commitment to (it is thought) pull a trigger of assassina- tion as part of a larger plan for a leveling revolutionary tomorrow in the grimy, corrupt London of circa 1880.

The boulevard was all alive, brilliant with illuminations, with the variety and gaiety of the crowd, the dazzle of shops and cafés seen through uncovered fronts or immense lucid plates, the flamboyant porches of theatres and the flashing lamps of carriages, the far-spreading murmur of talkers and strollers, the uproar of pleasure and prosperity, the general magnificence of Paris on a perfect evening in June. …

He knew about [the café] Tortoni’s from his study of the French novel, and as he sat there he had a vague sense of fraternizing with Balzac and Alfred de Musset; there were echoes and reminiscences of their works in the air, confounding themselves with the indefinable exhalations, the strange composite odour, half agreeable, half impure, of the boulevard. “Splendid Paris, charming Paris” – that refrain, the fragment of an invocation, a beginning without an end, hummed itself perpetually in Hyacinth’s ears; the only articulate words that got themselves uttered in the hymn of praise which his imagination had been offering to the French capital from the first hour of his stay. …

The pair [Hyacinth and the imaginary presence of his mother’s husband, a watchmaker martyred on the barricades] had now roamed together through all the museums and gardens, though the principal churches (the republican martyr was very good natured about this), through the passages and arcades, up and down the great avenues, across all the bridges, and above all, again and again, along the river, where the quays were an endless entertainment to Hyacinth, who lingered by the half-hour beside the boxes of old books on the parapets, stuffing his pockets with five-penny volumes, while the bright industries of the Seine glashed and glittered beneath him, and on the other bank the glorious Louvre stretched either way for a league. …

All Paris struck him as tremendously artistic and decorative; he felt as if hitherto he had lived in a dusky, frowzy, Philistine world, in which the taste was the taste of Little Peddlington and the idea of beautiful arrangement had never had an influence. In his ancestral city it had been active from the first, and that was why his quick sensibility responded; and he murmured again his constant refrain, when the fairness of the great monuments arrested him, in pearly, silvery light, or he saw them take gray-blue, delicate tones at the end of stately vistas. It seemed to him that Paris expressed herself, and did it in the grand style, while London remained vague and blurred, inarticulate, blunt and dim.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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1 Response to Mixing work with pleasure

  1. Pingback: Henry James’s Roman ruins | Architecture Here and There

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