Research Notes · 12/01/2012

Grey Cats

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Adam Biles shows us Paris by night in his novel Grey Cats (3:AM Press).

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It began as two stories, both of them sweated over and abandoned during a period of months. The first was the idea to rework a certain Greek myth — I won’t tell you which — to anchor it in a world that, to some extent at least, could be mapped onto our own. The second was a desire to write about Paris. I had been living here five years before growing the backbone to write about the city. You see, it was books about Paris that convinced me to move here in the first place — the writings of Henry Miller, Blaise Cendrars, Louis Ferdinand Celine and, though to a much lesser extent, Ernest Hemingway. I had expected — stupidly — to find a city not greatly changed from that time, when coffee, wine and women could still be had for the few grubby francs rattling about in the your greatcoat’s pockets. Francs? Greatcoats? Yeah, those should have been clues. Paris, of course, had moved on, it was dumb to imagine it had been waiting around for me…

And yet Paris is as nostalgic about its own history as the people who come here. Its municipal bodies do their best to preserve and protect, to stifle change, to stamp on progress, to indulge the idea of the City of Light that still exists in the minds of people all over the world, and so attract their tourist dollars. But any city of six million won’t stand still in deference to planning laws or tourist authorities, and Paris is no exception. The city I moved to was a complicated, conflicted one, struggling, all thumbs, with the challenges that face any twenty-first century metropolis. So I knew that when I wrote about it — if I ever did — I wouldn’t be able to pander to expectations by gilding the tale with references to croissants, high-handled bicycles and the Eiffel Tower, but neither could I deny the presence and the force of these clichés. The task was too daunting, and so I wrote about other things.

Then, about four years ago, I got a commission to write an article about the relationship between Henry Miller and Brassai, the photographer who made his name with the nocturnal collection Paris de Nuit. The original idea was to republish Brassai’s photos alongside my text, but the cost of this proved prohibitive, so it was decided that I would accompany Lea Crespi, a young French photographer, on a night shoot in Paris. It was the research for this article, and that night spent on the streets, that sowed the seeds for Grey Cats and that allowed me, for the first time, to write about Paris. It was also what gave me my title. There’s an old expression here that I discovered in the introduction to Brassai’s collection: la nuit, tous les chats sont gris (at night, all cats are grey). It means that at night everything looks the same, distinctions break down, physical distinctions, but moral and emotional distinctions too. It was an idea that appealed.

Paris is different at nighttime. Perhaps every city is. How a place is lit — or isn’t — is one of the most important factors in how we experience it. As is how it’s populated, and that changes too when night falls. One of the most drastic examples, used in Grey Cats, is the Boulevard Haussmann. I’ll pass over to our narrator to explain exactly why:

In the daylight hours moneyed swarms, with their grotesque, over-nourished, lolloping progeny, criss-cross from one store to the next, between cavalcades of shunting, honking automobiles, fumigating the neighbourhood with the tart and floral miasma of bourgeois despair.

Now though, with the doors bolted, the bars and cafés closed, the boulevard has metamorphosed, become the arena for a kind of dossers’ ball, where the losers in life’s crapshoot — those denied the luxury of dice loaded in their favour — have forced their way up through the city’s clogged and filthy pores to congregate. It’s lousy with life. (Grey Cats, Chapter 7)

I realised that writing about Paris at night freed me up. I could include monuments, as well as monumental clichés, in the work, while presenting them in a new light (or perhaps, rather, a new darkness), subverting them, taking the familiar and twisting something unexpected out of it.

It was with this realisation that the two different stories were stitched together in my mind. I use the passive voice here because I don’t feel I had much to do with it. Somewhere, deep in the mind’s bureaucracy where these kind of decisions are taken with little consultation with the surface, two stories became one and Grey Cats was conceived.

More or less. It still lacked something. A character that would act as the thread, a real fil d’Ariane that would hold the two stories together, make sure they didn’t pull apart, unravelling everything. Thankfully, the world intervened. In the spring of 2010 Eyjafjallajökull, an Icelandic volcano, erupted, and for a few weeks it played merry Hell with flights all over Europe. It’s always humbling when Nature chooses to remind us just who is in charge. There was nothing anyone could do but sit it out, wait for the volcano to stop erupting and the air to clear. Although Paris was spared, more or less, the idea that it might not be, that a cloud might impend over the city, depositing its flakes, like snow, indiscriminately over every arrondisement, proved too delicious. It wouldn’t just be the cats that were grey in my fictionalized Paris now, it would be the whole god-damned city! I wrote the ash cloud into an early draft, and Grey Cats, after a difficult conception, a long gestation, and an awkward breach birth, finally saw the light of day. And then it started mewling!

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Grey Cats was one of three finalists in the inaugural Paris Literary Prize for the Novella, run by the legendary Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Company. It has just been published by 3:AM Press. It is available as an ebook now (US link | UK link, and will be released in print in spring 2013. Adam Biles still lives and works in Paris, he is close to finishing his second novel, Feeding Time.