Friday, January 20, 2012

Brasserie Wepler

Brasserie Wepler is just up the street from my work.  It’s one of those famous artists’ cafés that could have easily fit into Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (i.e., Picasso, Utrillo, and Modigliani slurped here)…if it were still in its original state.  It’s not, but who cares?  It’s still a great place to go and drink coffee and watch the world go by on Place de Clichy.

So after gulping down another “formule” at one of the cute sandwich/salad places on rue de Clichy, I went for a coffee at Wepler.  It was a suitably soggy Thursday, and the view from the covered terrace was suitably gray and Paris-like.  The Place de Clichy is probably as noisy and crowded as it was in the days when Henry Miller hung out there, though the café itself was much more scenic, if the paintings by Bonnard can be trusted for historical accuracy (somewhere along the line it got a boring, modern revamp).  I imagine there were less cars and more people milling around the enormous bronze statue dedicated to Maréchal de Moncey.  This huge trilogy of symbolic figures hovers over the circular square, giving an otherwise average Parisian traffic circle a touch of drama.

As well it should.  While today passers-by may ask themselves: “who the heck was Maréchal de Moncey?”, back in 1814 he was the man of the hour.  Does anyone remember that de Moncey led a valiant defense against the Russians at the “Clichy Barrier”?  Does anyone even remember why the French were fighting the Russians in 1814?  Certainly not me, though a quick whizz through Wikipedia tells me that our friend de Moncey was one of Napoléon’s loyal generals who remained loyal even after the disastrous Russian campaign.  He then bravely defended Paris against those same Russians when they attacked our beloved place de Clichy. 

You see, at that point, Napoleon was in trouble.  Several European countries, who were sick of being invaded, had formed a coalition designed to put that tiresome little Corsican in his place.   On March 30, 1814, the coalition attacked Paris.  There were horrific battles all over the city, but it was the Russians that attacked Place de Clichy.  Though it was pretty clear that he was in the process of being trounced, de Moncey stood firm and hence, was declared a hero.   France seems to be one of few countries that routinely celebrates its defeats. From Alésia to Agincourt, French history books are full of brave deeds in the face of certain catastrophe.  Perhaps this is part of what makes French “humanité” so human.  Anyone can celebrate a victory, but how many can make defeat seem so poetic?

Today there are no drunken whores passing out on Wepler’s tables like they did back in Henry Miller’s day, just wealthy business people fleshing out their expense accounts and sober literary agents frowning at manuscripts.  For despite everything, Wepler has maintained its literary heritage, and even sponsors an annual writer’s prize.  Miller, Vian, Prévert, Verlaine, and all the other old habitués would be proud.