Yesterday something drove me to search for refrences to Paris in Gravity's Rainbow (1973, by Thomas Pynchon). I first read it only a few weeks after it was published. I was completely mesmerized by it and I think I read it ten times through on first encounter. This is, of course, as much a comment about my state of mind in 1973 than the book. Since then I have read it through maybe ten times more. It is to me the great American novel. I put it in my list of ten greatest novels of all time. Sometimes now I just read it at random as a saner person might a holy text.
Set in post World War Two Europe late 1945, I wanted to see how the narrative treats Paris. The central character Slothrop is an American but their are important English, Russian, and German characters also. One thing I was delighted to find was a clear Coco Chanel allusion I never picked up on before. I will not try to draw any big conclusions in this post, just present maybe for myself alone, what I found. Some of the material I will quote is X rated.
The first reference to Paris is innocuous. It refers to something that happened at a psychological warfare station in England on the cliffs looking out toward France.
"Then at the fall of Paris, a radio transmitting station was set up on the cliff, antennas aimed at the Continent, themselves heavily guarded and their landlines back mysteriously over the downs to the house patrolled night and day by dogs specially betrayed, belted, starved into reflex leaps to kill, at any human approach. Had one of the Very High gone higher—that is, dotty? Was Our Side seeking to demoralize the German Beast by broadcasting to him random thoughts of the mad, naming for him, also in the tradition of Constable Stuggles that famous day, the deep, the scarcely seen? The answer is yes, all of the above, and more."
The fall of Paris seems to indicate at least the fall of the European tradition of high culture. Germans in Paris were mad men, beasts. Paris is depicted as the very epicenter of European culture.
As readers of GR know as you go on the book gets stranger, the narrative more dense and it begins to lend it self to be read as a Kabalistic text.
This section is a reverie of Jeremy. He and Roger were rivals for the beautiful Jessica. It is set in England. Roger was the lover Jessica could accept during the war, Jeremy is meant to be her post war husband. Jeremy embodies her with a reference to Paris.
"They are insane. Jeremy will take her like the Angel itself, in his joyless weasel-worded come-along, and Roger will be forgotten, an amusing maniac, but with no place in the rationalized power-ritual that will be the coming peace. She will take her husband’s orders, she will become a domestic bureaucrat, a junior partner, and remember Roger, if at all, as a mistake thank God she didn’t make. . . . Oh, he feels a raving fit coming on—how the bloody hell can he survive without her? She is the British warm that protects his stooping shoulders, and the wintering sparrow he holds inside his hands. She is his deepest innocence in spaces of bough and hay before wishes weregiven a separate name to warn that they might not come true, and his lithe Parisian daughter of joy, beneath the eternal mirror, forswearing perfumes, capeskin to the armpits, all that is too easy, for his impoverishment and more worthy love."
Jeremy reduces Paris to a fantasy city of perfume and luxury clothes and seems to regard it as a childlike city of Joy in comparison to the mature world of sanity and good sense of England. London the father, Paris the child, but a child one can possess sexualiy.
Paris clearly has a sexual connotation to most male characters. Paris needs to be protected from those who would despoil it.
I take this short reference to suggest Parisians are incompetent at the work of war, best left to English speakers. (ETO means European Theater of Operations)
"Caserne Martier in Paris, the worst stockade in the ETO."
"Marvel hitched a lift on a P-47 out of Paris, far as Kessel"
Major Marvey was the director of an American intelligence unit, now head quartered in Paris. Paris is the hub from which Europe will be recivilized..
I take this as a reference to cafe culture, a romantic view of Paris as seen by the American central character, Slothrop
"Slothrop hears a girl singing. Accompanying herself on a balalaika. One of those sad little Parisian-sounding tunes in 3/4: Love never goes away, Never completely dies, Always some souvenir Takes us by sad surprise.
The Schwarzkommandos were a troop of African pigmies the Germans imported to fight the allies and as possible suicide pilots for a new rocket. They took up little weight and spaced so the Germans saw them as useful. I see this passage as another Anglo/American slight at the cognitive limitations of the French who now that the war is over have returned to Cartesian logic.
Schwarzkommando struggle knee-deep in mud, engaged entirely with the salvage, with the moment. The A4 they’re about to uncover was used in the last desperate battle for Berlin—an abortive firing, a warhead that didn’t explode. Around its grave they’re driving in planks for shoring, sending back mud in buckets and wood casks along a human chain to be dumped on shore, near where their rifles and kits are stacked. “So Marvy was right. They didn’t disarm you guys.” “They didn’t know where to find us. We were a surprise. There are even now powerful factions in Paris who don’t believe we exist."
Page 393 - A Coco Chanel refrences!! - she invented the little black dress. To me Coco would be a perfect character for GR.
"A woman in a black Parisian frock, with a purple-and-yellow iris at her breast. Even damped by the velvet, Slothrop can feel the shaking of her hand. He stares into eyes rimmed soft as black ash, separate grains of powder on her face clear as pores the powder missed or was taken from by tears. This is how he comes to meet Margherita Erdmann, his lightless summer hearth, his safe-passage into memories of the Inflationszeit stained with dread—his child and his helpless Lisaura."
This is how Coco entrapped hyper wealthy men in her younger days, decadence, exquisite beauty combined with a mask of a woman in need of male protection who will offer sex in gratitude or payment but a woman you know you will one day lose to a richer man.
Paris is then seen as a very sophisticated expensive woman (I almost typed another expression) who can make us think she is leading us back to post war days but is really only taking us deeper into the war. I am reaching on this but for sure this is a Coco reference.
Page 467 - extreme sexual references in the quote
This depicts an orgy aboard the ship Anubis (a book of the dead reference). It embarked from Paris. My a further Coco coincident, she help keep the Russian Imperial Ballet (the source of many mistresses of the rich and powerful) going with her sponsership.
"a major of the Yugoslav artillery in dress uniform, who kneels with nose and tongue well between the bruised buttocks of a long-legged ballerina from Paris, holding up her silk skirt for him with docile fingertips while her companion, a tall Swiss divorcée in tight-laced leather corselette and black Russian boots, undoes the top of her friend’s gown and skillfully begins to lash at her bared breasts with the stems of half a dozen roses, red as the beads of blood which spring up and soon are shaking off the ends of her stiff nipples to splash into the eager mouth of another Wend who’s being jerked off by a retired Dutch banker sitting on the deck, shoes and socks just removed by two adorable schoolgirls, twin sisters in fact, in identical dresses of flowered voile, with each of the banker’s big toes inserted now into a downy little furrow as they lie forward along his legs their anal openings the cocks of the two waiters who have but lately been, if you recall, eating that juicy blonde in that velvet dress back down the Oder River a ways. . . ."
I take the school girl's reference as also a Paris allusion to catholic school girls. The velvet dress was black, Coco often made velvet black dresses.
Paris is seen as a place of great sexual possibilities. Anything goes.
Page 469 - more extreme sexual refrences and I see another Coco allusion
"Bianca’s little feet shifting in a nervous dance and scarlet nails digging sharp as needles underneath her stocking tops and into her legs as he goes planting hickeys, red nebulae across her sensitive spaces. She smells like soap, flowers, sweat, cunt. Her long hair falls to the level of Slothrop’s eyes, fine and black, the split ends whispering across the small of her white back in and out of invisibility, like rain . . . she has turned, and sinks to her knees to undo his pleated trousers. Leaning, brushing hair back behind her ears, the little girl takes the head of Slothrop’s cock into her rouged mouth. Her eyes glitter through fern lashes, baby rodent hands race his body unbuttoning, caressing. Such a slender child: her throat swallowing, strummed to a moan as he grabs her hair, twists it . . .
away and stand up, high-heeled Parisian slippers planted to either side of him, swaying, hair softly waving forward to frame her face, repeated by the corset darkly framing her pubic mound and belly. Raising bare arms, little Bianca lifts her long hair, tosses her little head to let the mane shiver down her back, needle-tipped fingers drifting then down slowly, making him wait, down over the satin, all the shiny hooks and laces, to her thighs. Then her face, round with baby-fat, enormous night-shadowed eyes comes swooping in as she kneels, guides his penis into her and settles slow, excruciating till he fills her, stuffs her full. . . ."
This is Gigi, from Colette, gone very bad dressed by Coco (they were in fact close).. Bianca is a changing character, of course she evokes Dante, she maybe a quite young girl or an intelligence operative dressed to look like one and play on the fantasies of men.
Page 570. This is the last Paris reference in GR.
"Materializing from their own weird office silence, the coppers show up now, two black ’n’ white charabancs full of bluegreen uniforms, white armbands, little bucket hats with starburst insignia, truncheons already unsheathed, black dildos in nervous hands, wobbling, ready for action. The eddies in the crowd break up fast, jewelry ringing to the pavement, cigarettes scattered and squashed under the feet of stampeding civilians, among the instant litter of watches, war medals, silkstuffs, rolls of bills, pinkskinned potatoes all their eyes staring in alarm, elbow-length kid gloves twisted up fingers clutching at sky, smashed light bulbs, Parisian slippers."
A charabanc is a, in French, open top kind of bus. This is the second reference to Parisian slippers in GR. This has to also be viewed as a Coco influenced scene.
There are four other refrences to Paris in GR but they are just in passing references.
What do we then see Paris as representing in the world of Gravity's Rainbow? it is not a flattering portrait but I will leave any interested parties to draw their own conclusions.