Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover (also available as an e-book and an audiobook), 978-0-5256-5762-0, 265 pgs., $26.95
April 20, 2021
There never was penned a more poignant, vivid, and heartfelt memoir, yet Gregory Curtis’s Paris Without Her is so much more than remembrance. Yes, there are the beautiful, visceral, cold-fresh mornings of youth on time-burnished Paris backstreets, the plangent discoveries of self and each other against a backdrop of French old-world elegance: you can almost taste the flaky, buttery croissants and whiff the freshly pressed coffee. There is the elemental dichotomy of two living as one and loving, as Curtis quietly declares, in the only authentic way: from first sight. Such is also Curtis’s and wife Tracy’s love of the timeless touchstone that is old-school Paris.
But dichotomy is the wiry-thin, electrified filament charged and running through the back-and-forth narrative of then and now and ultimately, for the reader, anticipation of Curtis’s solo return to Paris: how will the richness of then collide with the irrevocable loss of now?
Along the way, splendid remissions from a grinding daily life in Texas play out in similar dichotomy. First, they explore—bumble, really—as a young DINK (Double Income, No Kids) pair immersed in the storied grandeur of French antiquity yet savoring equally the quirky-fun serendipity (they once trudged through an acre of mud only to discover what they thought was a museum was actually a barn) of strangers adventuring in a strange yet elegant land.
Later, they share their passion for all things France with their succeeding generation, with mixed results and more dichotomy: Curtis learned riding in Austin simply to share his daughter’s passion, but she’s the one kicked and bruised by a horse on their wondrous five-day ride through the French countryside. And it’s just the two of them, split off from non-riding mom and son who wait patiently with the luggage. In retrospect—which Curtis’s easygoing, habitable prose allows the reader—Paris with teenagers falls short of the passionate engagement that captivated the older Curtises. But how could Paris with parents possibly engender the unique and irresistible cataclysm of love at first sight, anyway?
The ping-ponging between then and now could have been disorienting, but it is not and in fact, in Curtis’s deft storytelling, becomes a comfortable motif that at once supports and advances a central transaction of the story. That is, in a real way, Derrida’s authentically French deconstruction termed “hauntology,” a mashup of “ontology” and “haunting” which is exactly Curtis’s live wire of remembrance: how does who we were then play out against who we were with children versus who we are after versus who we will be in the future? Curtis and Tracy do what all couples do midway to anywhere on the road of life: how do we want to be tomorrow, and what roadmap will get us there? And how does the daily mundane square with the glorious, periodic escapes into the idylls of Paris? What does that, both now and then, mean?
The story is real, visceral, empathetic, and in fact, almost too close to home. The reader can see in the Curtis’s odyssey the journey of every couple’s life, and struggles, hopes, disappointments, and dreams in the footless continuum of days and years we assume will pass as we plan, yet Curtis foreshadows, and readers must face the tragic folly of presuming to know just how many grains of sand remain in the hourglass.
Curtis transcends yet another haunting discovery, finding presence in the vacuity—for him—of a cathedral service; and the present inverting an unachievable hope for the past (“I wish we’d known of this [wine with a street performance] tradition when Tracy and I were there”) that colors his yesterday and our tomorrow with reflection and perhaps hopes beyond our grasp. We think we know what is, we pretend to know what is to come, but as Curtis reveals, it’s all predicated on a past that takes on an elusive life of its own in the rearview mirror. Derrida would give a good, knowing smile.
Paris Without Her is a precious, moving, and wonderfully drawn sketch of meaningful, powerful, and ineluctable life and love at first sight, lived and relived. “What cannot be said,” Jacque Derrida urged, “above all must not be silenced but written.” That Gregory Curtis has accomplished, and it’s a treasure not to be missed.
Gregory Curtis is the author of The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists and Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo. He was editor of Texas Monthly from 1981 until 2000. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, Fortune, Time, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. A graduate of Rice University and San Francisco State College, he lives in Austin, Texas.