The Lady of Paris

When I first saw her, a few weeks ago, while crossing the Pont Saint-Michel, she looked like the ghost of a bygone age, her earthly life a memory, her soul gone from the stone.  Grey against the bleak, overcast night sky, her two towers seemed bereft without the roof or the timber flèche that used to pierce the heavens.


In one of his beautiful essays on Notre Dame, writer Sylvain Tesson ponders the significance of the flèche (arrow) as a sense of direction, and speculates about its destruction in the fire, last 15th April, as perhaps a symbol of the loss of direction on the part of our society.  A thought-provoking remark.  I remember the spire snapping in two, devoured by the flames.

I noticed the news headline on the BBC website.  I rushed to switch on the television with an overwhelming sense of Tragedy.  With a capital.  With that life-changing quality presented in Greek plays.  Both spiritual and visceral.  Tears were flooding my face and I sobbed from the depths of my belly.  Shaken by grief, anger and disbelief.  Also incomprehension.  My crying while watching the news is nothing new.  I weep at the sight of children maimed by war, people hunted down by religious intolerance, and other human injustices.  But I couldn’t understand why I was crying so hard over a building.  A building, moreover, that I greatly admire but do not love.  In city that does not touch me.  H. loves Paris.  It’s his heart’s home.  For me, Paris is the handsome, learned, interesting, charming and generally perfect man you keep meeting and, frustratingly, just cannot bring yourself to fall in love with, to the point of wondering what’s wrong with you.

Perhaps, like many other people watching the devastating images, I felt a sense of grief and outrage at the very possibility of continuity, of stability being snatched away from me.   Whether or not it is your favourite church, and whether or not you are a Christian, Notre Dame is a point of reference in our geographic, cultural and literary (Victor Hugo made sure of that) consciousness.  We can no more imagine Paris without Notre Dame than New York without the Empire State Building, or Barcelona without the Sagrada Familia.  For all my telling myself that there were no doubt other splendours that had been and gone throughout history, and that human civilisation was still alive even though the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were no longer visible, a powerful No was resounding in my body and mind.  No.  This can’t be happening.  No.  I don’t want this to happen.

I began thinking about the people I knew in Paris.  None of them close acquaintances.  Heedless of whether my gesture was inappropriately over-emotional, I grabbed my laptop and e-mailed them messages of shared sorrow and heartbreak.  I needed to reach out to them, connect with them, weave a bridge over the void of this destruction.  One of the recipients was Alexis Ragougneau, a writer I’d not yet personally met, and whose debut novel, The Madonna of Notre Dame, I had translated a few years earlier.  I had only been to Paris once before, so when I went again a year or so after my translation was published, I walked around Notre Dame Cathedral with A. Ragougneau’s descriptions still fresh in my mind, like a mini-guide.  In particular, I stood staring for a long time at the Madonna of the title.  The most beautiful statue of the Blessed Virgin I have ever seen.  She holds the infant Christ supported on her hip.  She is young, slender, with elongated eyes and the hint of a knowing smile.  And so, while H. sat next to me, hoping his beloved Rose Windows would be spared, I prayed that the Madonna with the discreetly knowing smile would survive.


Notre Dame had been a part of my cultural formation even before I first went to Paris.  As I child, trying to acclimatise myself to the French language, I struggled with the pages of Notre-Dame de Paris.  When I see her towers I instantly picture Gargantua hanging the bells around the neck of his horse.  And, above all, there is the music.  L’école de Notre-Dame  and the birth of polyphony, the twin of the Gothic church.  The Magnus Liberi Organi of Léonin and Pérotin.  Voices like moonbeams, rising to the vaults, quivering against the stone, filling the air with sparks of colour in a perfect marriage of mathematics and faith.  Music I could listen to for hours – and, H. will say long-sufferingly – frequently do.  A sound I yearn to hear someday in a Gothic cathedral.

After a few hours, something inside me suddenly rebelled.  I couldn’t stomach the news coverage anymore, watch Notre Dame burning, and listen to the reporters’ fears that she might not make it.  I don’t know why I did it.  It made no rational sense.  I left the room and spent the rest of the evening writing my own mental script for the future.  I filled my imagination with images of the fire extinguished, of Notre Dame whole, in all her glory, and reporters’ voices rejoicing that she had been saved.  



I stopped on the Pont Saint-Michel and stood looking at Notre Dame, fenced off, grey against the bleak, overcast night sky.  Strange without its usual illumination that throws a cloak of gold over her, and it occurred to me that this is how she would have looked in her early days, in Mediaeval Paris, when her power required no electric floodlights to inspire awe.  And, although gravely injured, she suddenly seemed more alive to me.  Grey against the bleak, overcast night sky, she was like a woman who, without the embellishment of her customary make-up and cosmetic enhancements, finally radiates with the inner beauty and splendour of her soul.  Grey against the bleak sky, I could feel the power of the Lady of Paris.  I could almost feel her breathe. 

Scribe Doll


This entry was posted in Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Lady of Paris

  1. Anonymous says:

    I have been thinking about you today and knew I needed to catch up on your blog. I also felt grief as I watched Notre Dame burn. One of your commentators catalogued some of the losses our world has experienced in 2019. Others mentioned 9/11. I remember buying theater tickets at a kiosk in the World Trade Center on a visit to NYC in 1988. Having been in the place that is the site of tragedy makes it all the more real. Now we are experiencing the loss of thousands of human beings through Covid-19. My great-grandfather Sigurd lost his first wife Goldie in the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918. She was 34. Their youngest of five children was 2. My great-grandfather then married my great-grandmother. If Goldie hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be alive, but I can’t wish she died. I think of the children she left behind. Because of this family history, a global pandemic does not feel like an abstraction. Your blog reminded me how important it is to cherish those we love and what we love, like the madonna you saw in the Notre Dame. Our own lives are so fleeting, but what I loved about living in Europe was being surrounded by history and architecture, like the ceiling of King’s College’s chapel, that had been in place centuries before my birth and that I hoped would outlast me by centuries. Your essay reminds me that we can’t take anything for granted, so on this day let me say how grateful I am for our long friendship and for your lyrical prose!

  2. Carrie says:

    “Voices like moonbeams, rising to the vaults, quivering against the stone, filling the air with sparks of colour in a perfect marriage of mathematics and faith.”
    I know you translate for others – however your own writing is so often a lyrical joy to read.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Love this one. A woman without embellishments reveals her inner beauty- and strength. As women are known to do!

  4. Sue Cumisky says:

    It is a minor consolation that it was not caused deliberately or by the hands of an enemy. I had never seen the great Buddha statues in Afghanistan, yet their destruction and that of Palmyra seem like an act of abhorrence and hatred beyond all reason. The fire at Notre Dame brings a deep sadness. A loss of something that we could never lose. Banal almost.

    I saw the forest fires in America and now Australia and the power of the flames is horrifying. Notre Dame can be rebuilt. Those trees are mostly gone. That particular landscape has gone. I do hope they do not rebuild Notre Dame as it was completely. I hope they preserve a reminder of the fire in case in the future we forget, and pretend all is well.

    • Scribe Doll says:

      Oh, I think there’s no comparison between the destruction of art in Afghanistan and Syria and Notre Dame. I hope they rebuild it as it was – and not with some modern twist.

  5. Yes, of course. I said only “a certain similarity,” and i was speaking of the nature of the societal loss other than that of human life, which of course in NYC was incredibly shocking on its own, and which is still going on because of the continuing illnesses and deaths of the first responders. But in terms of the two edifices being monuments to each people’s pride and identity, their natures and losses are related.

  6. writingroma says:

    Yes. I live in NYC and just in the past few months have I decided to visit the site of WTC. In 2001, I lived far downtown the Trade Center Towers were at the end of several avenue vistas as I moved around the neighborhood. Just a few days ago, I went underground to the 9/11 Museum and Memorial (it’s more memorial). Amazing place. There I saw again the posters created for so many individuals, “Have you seen ….” You would see those posters on buildings for years after 9/11.

    • Scribe Doll says:

      I can’t begin to imagine how harrowing the 9/11 must be. I don’t think one can compare the accidental fire of Notre Dame with the deliberate attack on the WTC, in which so many people died.

  7. Yes, though the World Trade Towers in New York were the victims of terrorists, and Notre Dame the victim of a senseless fire, possibly started by a workman’s cigarette (or so one early report read), there is a certain similarity in the loss: 9/11 extinguished some of the financial and economic pride of the commerce central of the world, the fire at Notre Dame nearly extinguished an important worship center and monument in the cultural capital of the world. Two losses for different reasons and different places, but both shocking in the extreme.

Please note that you do not have to fill in the E-mail, Name and Website fields to leave a comment. Just leave your comment and click "Post Comment". It will still be sent to me for moderation (and I will then only see you Whois and IP information). For further information, please see the "Privacy/Data/GDPR" section of this blog site.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s