John Baxter is an acclaimed Australian-born writer, journalist, and filmmaker who has made his home in Paris since 1989. His career successfully spans several different genres and mediums from science fiction to screenwriting, documentaries to memoir.
Baxter is a bibliophile (the first of his memoirs written in Paris was A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict) and a serious movie buff. He’s authored several biographies of famed film luminaries including Federico Fellini, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, and Robert De Niro, just to name a few.
Baxter’s latest work, out this month from Short Books, is The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris. Composed of 37 chapters, each elegantly linked to the next, the book is a delightful stroll through the city, its history, and the author’s own observations about his adopted home.
What I particularly liked was Baxter’s seamless weaving of personal anecdotes with fascinating facts, a fluid prose that makes it one of the most pleasurable Paris books I’ve read in a long time. His love of the city comes through, as well as his wit and intelligence. A vignette might evoke Paris’ classic beauty (Luxembourg Gardens, for example), but is just as likely to veer into lesser known terrain (mass murderer Henri Désiré Landru who often met his victims in those very same gardens!) Hemingway haunts, opium dens, “political walks” (manifs) – Baxter covers wide ground. I also liked his asides (“Not great laughers, the French…Interestingly, there’s no French equivalent of the phrase ‘bedside manner.’” That one gave me a chuckle).
Explaining that my blog is called “paris (im)perfect” because I like the quirky and offbeat and because the imperfect is a verb tense used for recounting stories, I asked John Baxter if he’d be willing to write about one of his strolls off the beaten path. Happily he agreed! I’m so pleased to be able to share an original piece by him here. He also provided the photos.
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Plastered on the haunch of the butte of Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement is off the beaten track, with an architecture and lifestyle all its own. Along rue Marcadet, diamond-shaped lots from the days when these were market gardens or guinguettes have dictated apartment blocks with parallelogram floor plans. What does it do to your brain, to live in a room with no right angles? Maybe it accounts for the pale faces that stare out from a few windows; shut-ins, with nothing to do but watch the world go by.
Caught in the gaps between these crooked habitations, like bits of gristle in a set of crooked teeth, businesses survive that you seldom see in more prosperous districts; plumbing supply shops, shoe repairers, furniture movers, moulders of false teeth.
And probably undertakers too, along with makers of funerary monuments. The Montmartrois joke that once you visit the dixhuitieme, you stay forever – because it’s the arrondissement with the largest number of graveyards.