After the flood

May 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

A couple of months ago I bought a postcard at a flea market in the Marais. There were several postcard dealers selling that day, but one of them had, among his several boxes of views of turn-of-the-century Paris, a small pile of postcards that cost five times as much as the rest: photographs of the great flood of 1910, when the Seine, for a month, turned Paris into a latter-day lost city of Ys. Despite my strange affection for postcards of the most banal, workaday, unpicturesque corners of Paris (perhaps I should take a page from Martin Parr and build a collection of boring postcards of old Paris), I couldn’t resist the collision of the surreal and the ordinary in the flood postcards. I handed over the princely sum of €5 and went away clutching my treasure.

The front of the postcard – a man rowing two others (one of them – wonderful detail – still dapper in a top hat) down the avenue Ledru-Rollin past a partially submerged Morris column – was worth the price alone, but the back was an unexpected bonus. On it is a letter dated 27 February 1910 from ‘your little twins Marthe and Renée’ to an unnamed friend, written in that elegant, perfumed language that nobody uses anymore and makes me nostalgic for the days before letter-writing went extinct. The contrast between the content of the letter – a perfectly ordinary missive talking about flowers, the weather, news of Henri (a cousin? a brother?) having done brilliantly in his exams – and the photo is all the more jarring in that the flood itself passes completely unmentioned, apart from a little note scrawled on the front: ‘See how the church where Henri’s marriage was celebrated was affected by the flood!’

The postcard isn’t addressed, isn’t stamped or franked – did Marthe and Renée go to all that trouble buying and writing it only to let it sit unsent? (Or perhaps they had to put it in an envelope because they’d used every square millimetre on the back?) There must be other examples of it out there, somewhere. Who would have bought them, written on them? Maybe the mysterious Henri sent one to his maiden aunt in the country, and it went something like this:

 

Dear Aunt Philomène

 

Ignore my sisters

Exam results not brilliant

 

Have chucked it all to become a ferryman

Pay not brilliant either

Have had same passengers for weeks now

Have been trying to row them home exactly that long

 

Keep losing my way

Misled by wandering lampposts

forever being lit and extinguished by mad lamplighters

 

Trees wading ankle-deep constantly getting up and walking away

A dragon with Prince Rupert’s drops for teeth

curls its tail around a Morris column for anchorage

(défense d’afficher)

 

Nights the moon floats up from the depths into my last bottle of marc

 

The weather is

Wish you were here

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