Paul Auster: four years in Paris and high-wire reflections.
American author Paul Auster lived in Paris for four years from 1970 to 1974. He wrote an article about it in an introduction to French aerial artiste Philippe Petit’s 1985 book On the High Wire which was reprinted in The Paris Review on 3 June 2019.
Although most noted for his novels set in New York, Paul Auster (1947-), was a translator after graduating in literature from Columbia University. He moved to Paris in 1970 at the age of 23 and earned a living translating French literature into English – especially the works of Stéphane Mallamé and Joseph Joubert.
Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallamé (1842-1898) wrote under the pen name Étienne Mallamé. Mallamé was an English teacher but wrote in French. His poetry included Afternoon of a Faun written between 1865-1867 which French poet Paul Valéry regarded as the greatest poem in French literature, and A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance (1897). His poetry collections include Poésies (1887) and Divagations (1897).
Joseph Joubert (1754-1824) was largely undiscovered and unpublished until after his death. His wife passed on his works to the diplomat François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) as Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was also, at various times, the French Ambassador to the Papal States, the United Kingdom, Prussia, and Sweden. Chateaubriand published Joubert’s notes under the title Recueil des pensées de M. Joubert – Collected Thoughts of Mr. Joubertin 1938. Paul Auster translated this publication into English.
In his introduction to Philippe Petit’s book On the High Wire, Paul Auster witnessed Petit juggling in the streets of Paris. A few weeks later Philippe Petit (1949-) secretly installed a cable between the two towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on 26 June 1971 at the age of 22. Petit walked across the high-wire juggling and dancing for three hours. The police arrested him when he returned to the ground – charged with disturbing the peace.
Paul Auster wrote:
“This Notre Dame escapade made a deep impression on me, and I continued to think about it over the years that followed. Each time I walked past Notre Dame, I kept seeing the photograph that had been published in the newspaper [New York Herald Tribune]: an almost invisible wire stretched between the enormous towers of the cathedral, and there, right in the middle, as if suspended magically in space, the tiniest of human figures, a dot of life against the sky … my perception of Paris had changed. I no longer saw it in the same way … Danger, however, is an inherent part of high-wire walking. Working under the greatest possible contraints, on a stage no more than an inch wide, the high-wire walker’s job is to create a sensation of limitless freedom.”
Paul Auster added,
“There was another element of the Notre Dame spectacle that moved me: the fact that it was clandestine … No press conferences, no publicity, no posters. The purity of it was impressive.”
Two years later, in 1973, Philippe Petit walked on a high-wire, again without permission, and without payment and publicity, on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia – the largest steel arch bridge in the world.
Auster left Paris in 1974 and returned to New York a month before Philippe Petit secretly walked between the two towers of the World Trade Centre.
Paris has inextricably brought Paul and Philippe together – two young men in their early twenties who eventually meet each other in New York City in 1980 in their early thirties. They were brought together in a kind of spiritual pilgrimage of life long freedom.
Paul wrote that the most important lesson he learned from Philippe Petit and his subsequent book On the High Wire was that:
“the high-wire is an art of solitude, a way of coming to grips with one’s life in the darkest, most secret corner of the self. When read carefully, the book is transformed into the story of a quest, an exemplary tale of one man’s search for perfection … anyone who has ever made personal sacrifices for an art or an idea, will have no trouble understanding what it is about.”
Photographs of Notre Dame Cathedral: Martina Nicolls