“For many years now, the author of this book, who is reluctantly compelled to speak of himself, has been away from Paris. Meanwhile Paris has been transformed. A new city has sprung up which is in some sense unknown to him. It is unnecessary for him to say that he loves Paris; Paris is his heart’s birthplace. Through demolition and reconstruction, the Paris of his youth, that Paris he devoutly treasures in memory, has become a Paris of former times. Let him be permitted to speak of that Paris as though it still existed. It is possible that where the author is about to lead his readers, saying, “In such a street there is such a house,” there is now no longer either house or street. The reader may verify it, if he chooses to take the trouble. As for himself, the author does not know the new Paris and writes with the old Paris before his eyes in an illusion that is precious to him. It is comforting for him to imagine that something still remains of what he saw when he was in his own country, and that all is not vanished. While we come and go in our native land, we imagine that we are indifferent to these streets, that these windows, roofs, and doors mean nothing to us, that these walls are strangers to us, that these trees are like any other trees, that these houses we never enter are of no use to us, that the pavement where we walk is no more than stone blocks. Later, when we are no longer there, we find that those streets are very dear to us, that we miss the roofs, windows, and doors, that the walls are essential to us, that the trees are beloved, that every day we did enter those houses we never entered, and that we have left something of our affections, our life, and our heart on those paving stones. All those places that we no longer see, which perhaps we shall never see again, but whose image we have preserved, assume a painful charm, return to us with the sadness of a ghost, make the holy land visible to us, and are, so to speak, the true shape of France; and we love them and call them up such as they are, such as they were, and hold onto them, unwilling to change a thing, for one clings to the form of the fatherland as to the face of the mother.”
— victor hugo, les miserables (translated by lee fahnestock and norman macefee, based on the earlier english translation by charles wilbour). one of the purest pleasures of the novel is, in fact, the author’s love of paris (which he left because he was exiled for political reasons, not of his will, although he was able to return 8 years after les miserables was published). i love when authors write with a rootedness of place, and the joy he takes in his absent city reminds me of the way frank o’hara writes new york: portions of the works become love letters to the cities that held their hearts.