Many of these newly arrived, hopeful young authors were American, fleeing Ronald Reagan but nonetheless enjoying one of the consequences of Reaganomics: the incredible exchange rate between the US dollar and the French Franc. If the British and Australians were Charles Strickland, they were definitely Jay Gatsby, and could be sighted outside famous literary cafés like Les Deux Magots and Le Select, wearing white shirts, red scarves and blue berets.
Back then Paris was a party city and the parties tended to be held in other people’s places, often without their knowledge. Someone – invariably an au-pair or exchange student – always had a key to an enormous apartment whose unsuspecting owners were out of town. The Americans didn’t need to resort to such measures: they lived in huge lofts or luxury apartments in the Marais, the Bastille and the Left Bank. This economic division led to two types of get-togethers: last métro parties, which ended round midnight in the Americans’ places; and first métro parties in the “borrowed” apartments, which lasted till daybreak.
The exception to this rule was a retired American diplomat who held open house until dawn. Word was that he used to be a high-level CIA operative prior to retirement. We called him “the spook”. When he found out I was a writer, he told me an amazing story about a kidnapping plot that was linked to an assassination attempt on JFK, before adding with a sigh, “Anyway, we got him in the end.” We? He stared at me for a long moment. “All you have to do is link the dots,” he said, patting me on the back and disappearing into the next room, leaving me standing there with a chill down my spine.
Rich or poor, there were several hangouts where all the wannabe writers and poets would mingle: bookshops like Shakespeare and Company and The Village Voice and restaurants like des Beaux-Arts, le Polidor and Chartier. Information would be exchanged, leads on new publications shared and glorious futures imagined.
There was plenty of work for authors, doing features for the English language magazines that were springing up, or writing for English language textbooks and training films. There was also an underground market in ghosted theses that was very lucrative and that once paid for a four month holiday in Spain.
But none of us had come to Paris just to pay the bills. We were, after all, aspiring novelists and poets in search of fame. But, as the days of the Olympia Press were over, and the offices of the Paris Review had long since moved to New York, there were very few outlets for literature. If you wanted to have something published, you had to do it yourself.
As a consequence, a surprising number of literary magazines and journals started up around this time. I worked on one of them, The Traitors’ Review, which was only published thanks to one of the associate editors possessing a key to an office with impressive printing and photocopying capabilities. The downside was that we had to sneak into the building at night and on weekends without signing the register and were at constant risk of being discovered by the security guards. Luckily for us they spent an inordinate amount of time in their office with their girlfriends.
Our first and only issue carried interviews with Raymond Carver, Anthony Burgess, JP Donleavy and Mavis Gallant. That was the impressive part. The not so impressive part was the fiction from every single one of the innumerable “associate editors” – aka office burglars.
It was the first time any of us had seen our fiction “published”, yet it wasn’t enough to justify the incredible amount of time and work in those pre-computer days, not to mention the anguish of nearly getting caught on so many occasions. One time, one of the associate editors left a tap running in the toilet. We were only made aware of the accident when firemen burst in – scaring us half to death – to deal with the “emergency”: a flooded ground floor and basement.
Who called in the disaster remains a mystery – certainly not the security guard, who we witnessed being disturbed in flagrante delicto as we were being evacuated. Perhaps it was somebody else printing their own journal? In any case, the first issue of The Traitors’ Review was also its last.
“Everything changes but not without reason,” Gertrude Stein once said, and who could argue with her? A terrorist bombing campaign led to the introduction of strict border controls and visas. The Black Monday Crash plunged France into recession. Work dried up, magazines folded and expats decamped. Almost all of my writer friends left and the next wave of aspiring authors skipped Paris for Barcelona or Prague.
I got lucky, found work in cinema and was sent to some of the most remote and beautiful locations on earth. But always in the back of my head was the spook’s story about JFK. I made a vow to myself: one day I would connect all those dots and tell that story . . .