The Avenue in literature

From Montaigne to Balzac

Avenue Montaigne has often been an inspiration for the silver screen, most recently for Fauteuils d’Orchestre, a French fi lm by Danièle thompson in which the action revolves around the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the Drouot-Montaigne auction house and the Bar des théâtres. But it has also inspired songwriters: In Avenue Montaigne, Serge Reggiani sings a tribute to Marlène Dietrich who lived “In the shadow that bathes/ the room where she reigns/ on Avenue Montaigne/ Lily sees/ her life in retrospect”. And, of course, the Avenue has its place in literature. In the past, it was known as “Widow’s Avenue”, a somewhat ill-reputed meeting place, as the nickname implies, and Balzac wrote about it in la Cousine Bette: this was the site of the Mabille ball where people came to dance and “slum it” in the most charming company.

 

Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac, 1799-1850

Champfleury defends Courbet

A little later, in 1855, journalists took up the gauntlet. Gustave Courbet, defying
convention, decided to snub the Salon of the Exposition Universelle, which had rejected his paintings. Not far from Avenue Montaigne at the Rond-Point de Alma, he constructed, at his own expense, a pavilion open to the public where he exhibited around forty of his works, including two immense and extremely controversial canvases: L’Enterrement à Ornans and L’Atelier du Peintre. He even printed a catalogue which he sold for a small sum. The art critic and journalist Champfleury wrote with enthusiasm about this in his correspondence with George Sand: “At this very moment, Madame, just a few steps away from the Exhibition one can see on the Avenue Montaigne, a sign reading: REALISM G. COURBET (…). It is incredibly daring, it is a direct call to the public, a snub to institutions and the voice of the jury.”

 

L'atelier du peintre

L’atelier du peintre, 1855 – musée d’Orsay

From Alphonse Daudet to Emile Zola

In 1867, Edouard Manet followed Courbet’s example, showing in his little pavilion at Alma works depicting bullfighting that were greeted with mixed reviews. He may have been visited by a writer who lived on Avenue Montaigne around this time, Alphonse Daudet, who was not yet the celebrated author of Lettres de mon Moulin. Like Courbet and Manet, Auguste Rodin, in turn, opened his own personal exhibition room in 1900 during that year’s Exposition Universelle. In this third “Alma pavilion”, he showed more than 200 works illustrating his entire career. An entrance fee was charged during the week, but on Sundays, it was free. Emile Zola was very impressed by Courbet’s initiative. In his own scenes of Paris – in the Rougon-Macquart Cycle – he couldn’t resist sending his heros to the Avenue Montaigne. Astride Rougon (called Saccard) and her son Maxime found themselves, as did the characters of Honoré de Balzac, at the Bal Mabille, which
truly nourished French literature.

 

Alphose Daudet Auguste Rodin Emile Zola

Alphose Daudet

1840-1897

Auguste Rodin

1840-1917

Emile Zola

1840-1902

 

Montaigne – from farces to mysteries

But Avenue Montaigne has not only been synonymous with drama and seriousness. It has at times lent itself to farces. In X Roman Impromptu, (republished by léopard books), great authors, at the time young and little known (tristan Bernard, Jules Renard, Georges Courteline), set about writing a novel by committee, each one contributing a chapter. the plot was a little tangled, as revealed in the fi rst lines: “There you are,” said the offi cer, “a strapping lad that we pinched throwing stones through the window of the widow Coignet, 53 Avenue Montaigne. He’s an anarchist of the worst sort.” And in the spirit of
crime novels, léo Malet also had his famous detective working in the neighborhood. In
Corrida aux Champs-Elysées, an investigation leads Nestor Burma to the rue Jean-Goujon and the nearby Avenue Montaigne.

 

Tristan Bernard Jules Renard

Tristan Bernard

1866-1947

Jules Renard

1864-1910

Georges Courteline Léo Malet

Georges Courteline

1858-1929

Léo Malet

1909-1996

 

Cendrars, Blixen and others

It would be impossible to cite them all. Blaise Cendrars, an eternal globetrotter, also lived and thus wrote on Avenue Montaigne. He roomed at the Hotel de l’Alma, long since closed, and it was here where his daughter Miriam came to fi nd him in 1936 after hitchhiking from Switzerland. He certainly drank a few whiskies in the area with friends including Henry Miller. other foreign writers also featured the Avenue in their literary works. In The Old Chevalier, one of the Seven Gothic Tales by Karen Blixen, the Danish
writer made famous by the fi lm Out of Africa, a young aristocrat suffers a terrible sentimental upset. He stops on a bench on Avenue Montaigne to collect his thoughts, and this is the site of a meeting he will remember for the rest of his life. It’s a story that reads like a pretty parable: on Avenue Montaigne, everything is possible.

 

Blaise Cendrars Karen Blixen

Blaise Cendrars

1887-1961

Karen Blixen

1885-1962

 

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