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  • Writer's pictureMike Gould

Chasing fame in a Paris cemetery

So how did we end up here? We're standing in the driving rain by the side of the much-visited grave of a 21 year old, whose unlucky fate in a duel with a great-nephew of Napoleon landed him here in ‎Père Lachaise in 1870. His name is Victor Noir and we stumbled across him by accident while looking for Oscar Wilde, 'though Mr Black is himself an attraction to those who find these sorts of thing compelling. More of him later.

Actually, with the exception of Jacob Epstein's grand homage to Wilde, it is notable that many of the greatest writers have the simplest graves. Not for them the huge mausoleums of a forgotten aristocrat. Molière's is relatively plain - notable mostly for being raised to eye-level, but still difficult to find as the autumn rain crashes into us. Paul Eluard, writer of the beautiful 'Liberty' during the Nazi occupation has a ridiculously simple black stone, if I recall correctly - as beautifully concise as his verse. Piaf's is hidden away down a slim alley off one of the sub-arteries of this huge city of the dead. A tiny grave for the largest talent.

The rain drives us and pretty much everyone else away before we can visit the myriad resting places of the great and the good. But, we pause awhile, huddling under the thin umbrella, by the side of Monsieur Noir's grave. It is said that if you kiss his crotch, you derive fertility from a body snatched from the world far too quickly. The golden lustre in the photo is where the sheen of bronze has been worn away from 150 years of women, as custom has it, placing a flower in his top hat, kissing his lips, and rubbing the, ahem, 'genital area'.

100,000 people marched in Paris in protest at his demise at the time. He was a journalist and his death at the hands of a Bonaparte who was acquitted of the killing, came at a time when the then Napoleon III was deeply unpopular. That the rich and powerful could strike with impunity then as now is not a surprise. According to the IFJ (International Federation of Journalists) 95 journalists were killed in the course of their work in 2018. Not many will have huge, mansion-like tombs erected to their memory, nor even a slab of granite with a life-size sculpture. Nor would they seek it.

That a young journalist attracts attention almost a century and a half after his birth may say more about the collision of morbidity and sex, a kind of awful glamour that nevertheless touches on matters of our own mortality. Coincidentally, my previous visits to Père Lachaise came when I was a student in Paris in the early 80s - not much older than Victor Noir, and beginning my own first tentative steps into writing. We that are young will never see so much.

This weekend, too, saw major demonstrations on climate change swell the boulevards of Paris; a movement if not sparked by a young person, then at the very least galvanised by it. I suspect her words will go down in history, memorialised in whatever new ways we find to honour the young we have let down.

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