Issue 179, Winter 2006
I had published a first novel to considerable acclaim in New York, but small word of the book’s existence, and nothing of its success, had reached France during that balmy and beautiful spring of 1952, and I suppose I was a little disappointed that Peter did not display the deference I thought fitting to the situation.
—William Styron, This Quiet Dust, 1982
In early spring of 1952, one William Styron, sallow, dark-haired, in his mid-twenties, bearing a scrawled note of introduction, turned up on the landing of the top-floor cold-water walk-up at 14 rue Perceval in Montparnasse that was to serve as the first home of a new and as yet unnamed literary review.
Rue Perceval is or was an obscure small street of artists’ studios that ran between the open light over the railroad tracks of the Gare Montparnasse and the big market street called rue de l’Ouest, whose nose-filling food stalls overflowed with fresh comestibles, everything from celery root to blackbirds—“a hidden, sleepy street,” as it was to be described by young novelist Styron, who used it as a location in his third novel, Set This House on Fire (1960). What he would recall as a “huge room with a sunny terrace overlooking all of Paris” was in fact a modest one-room studio (twenty-seven dollars a month) left in my keeping by a kind françaisewho had gone away to Venezuela. Minimally and filthily heated by a stove that fed on compacted coal dust lumps humped up in buckets four dark flights from the dungeon cellar, this sequestered lair had a red tile floor and a two-story window of opaque glass on which, in the long dank Paris winter, tendrils and dead leaves of ivy scratched and fluttered as if trying to get in out of the cold; from some coop below rose the unceasing disputations of the concierge’s chickens and not infrequently the concierge herself, a little black stump of an old countrywoman from Dordogne. A narrow stair led to a balcony bed and its pinched bathroom, also an outdoor balcony—the “terrace”—with a grand prospect, if not of “all of Paris,” at least of all one might wish to behold of this makeshift railroad neighborhood.