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• • • Being a journal by artist and designer John Coulthart, cataloguing interests, obsessions and passing enthusiasms.


 

The Court of the Dragon

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50 Rue de Rennes (1900) by Eugène Atget.

I live in the Court of the Dragon, a narrow passage that leads from the Rue de Rennes to the Rue du Dragon.

It is an “impasse”; traversable only for foot passengers. Over the entrance on the Rue de Rennes is a balcony, supported by an iron dragon. Within the court tall old houses rise on either side, and close the ends that give on the two streets. Huge gates, swung back during the day into the walls of the deep archways, close this court, after midnight, and one must enter then by ringing at certain small doors on the side. The sunken pavement collects unsavoury pools. Steep stairways pitch down to doors that open on the court. The ground floors are occupied by shops of second-hand dealers, and by iron workers. All day long the place rings with the clink of hammers and the clang of metal bars.

Unsavoury as it is below, there is cheerfulness, and comfort, and hard, honest work above.

Five flights up are the ateliers of architects and painters, and the hiding-places of middle-aged students like myself who want to live alone. When I first came here to live I was young, and not alone.

In the Court of the Dragon (1895) by Robert W. Chambers.

Drawing the King in Yellow for the Karl Edward Wagner story in Lovecraft’s Monsters (see yesterday’s post) sent me back to the Robert W. Chambers story collection where the strange and terrible regent first appears. Despite having written in the past about the covers for Chambers’ book, I hadn’t read the stories for some time. Chambers’ blending of bohemian romance, fantasy, horror, and early science fiction is just the thing to point to when people ask for a definition of weird fiction, writing that comes from a period before the straightjacket of genre definition had fastened itself about imaginative writing.

Chambers’ collection contains ten stories but only the first four are weird tales: The Repairer of Reputations, The Mask, In the Court of the Dragon, and The Yellow Sign. Of the four In the Court of the Dragon is the weakest although my re-reading caused some surprise when I realised that the story takes place in a location in Paris which the great photographer of the city, Eugène Atget, had memorably fixed five years after the book was published. Chambers was American but pursued a career as an artist in Paris before he took up writing; the description above can be taken as the result of his time in the city.

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Undated postcards showing wider views.

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Atget is a photographer whose work I’m always happy to return to, especially his views of the streets and courtyards of a Paris now cleaned and tidied, if not altogether redeveloped. His view of the dragon balcony in the Rue de Rennes features everything I like about his street scenes: an unpeopled vista, weathered cobblestones, curious architectural detail, and the hazy distance of the courtyard itself. Chambers’ story may not communicate the same atmosphere but the pair for me are now inextricably linked. This place couldn’t have survived, could it?

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Well, yes and no. The dragon is still there on the wall at 50 Rue de Rennes but the court was apparently redeveloped in the 1950s. Behind those blue doors is a tidy little park for the use of the locals, a common feature in Paris although tourists seldom see more than a glimpse of these places when gates are opened.

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The satellite view below shows the park, the red A marking the position of the blue doors. Nothing in Paris looks like Atget’s photos any more—that’s a part of their fascination—so these kinds of changes are no surprise. But I’m pleased to discover that the dragon still exists. Next time I’m there I’ll have to pay homage.

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Fourth collage from the La Cour du Dragon chapter of Une Semaine de Bonté (1934) by Max Ernst.

The King in Yellow at the Internet Archive.

Update: Added a couple more pictures.

Update 2: Thanks to Herr Doktor Bimler for reminding me of Ernst’s collage novel, Une Semaine de Bonté, whose second chapter takes its title from the court. Considering this is a favourite book I really ought to have remembered it. Two of the collages show the entrance to the court but the dragon isn’t seen, its presence having been transferred to creatures lurking at the edges of the picture, and the Doré demon wings that many of the characters are sporting.

Update 3: Laurent drew my attention to this post which includes more photos and historical detail. Thanks, Laurent!

Previously on { feuilleton }
Atget’s corners
Rue St. Augustin, then and now
Brion Gysin’s walk, 1966
The King in Yellow

 


 

Posted in {architecture}, {books}, {cities}, {fantasy}, {horror}, {photography}.

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7 comments or trackbacks

  1. #1 posted by herr doktor bimler

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    Not to mention the third section of “Une semaine de bonté”.

  2. #2 posted by herr doktor bimler

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    Incidentally, what is it about Americans and euthanasia booths? I’m thinking of their appearance in “Repairer of Reputations”. But also in Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, Futurama, and Soylent Green. Other literary traditions seem to be better at imagining dystopias without adorning them with encouraged or compulsory euthanasia.

  3. #3 posted by John

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    Thanks for the Ernst reminder, no excuse forgetting that one!

    I don’t know what the thing is with Americans and euthanasia booths but there may also be some in British fiction of the time; all sorts of sf ideas that became staples later on were circulating circa 1900, and not only in the books of Verne and Welles. I expect the fiction reflects a general discussion trend of the period, as with the huge interest in eugenics from around the same time, something that many otherwise sober intellectuals were happy to propose as a real solution to social problems. Futurama parodies all manner of sf clichés so it’s no surprise to find the idea there.

  4. #4 posted by Wiley

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    Answers quite simple, most Americans hate their jobs. I am no exception, though I don’t think I am suicidally inclined.

    Problem is, at least in my opinion, there’s too much propaganda everywhere. People are brought up thinking happiness is more abundant than it really is, and they feel cheated.

    Personal opinion aside, yet another post that immediately grabs me. I am starting to stalk this place again John. I am not terribly worried though. There’s enough diversity in subject matter here that quite soon you’ll undoubtedly post something I lack any frame of reference with.

  5. #5 posted by Saneshka

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    Curiously, I had to do the same research some time ago, while translating this story into Russian: http://fantlab.ru/blogarticle8545 (in Russian, obviously, but you may find some interesting pictures and drawings). Also, my friend, a painter from Ukraine, made an illustration: http://sergiykrykun.deviantart.com/art/The-Court-of-the-Dragon-221274463

  6. #6 posted by herr doktor bimler

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    Considering this is a favourite book

    I encountered the Dover reprint in 1978 or 1979, and as the cliche has it, my mind was opened.

  7. #7 posted by danyey

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    I used to live nearby and had wondered about the dragon (sadly next to a depressing Monoprix), but I hadn’t made the connection between it and Rue Du Dragon. Merci!

 




 

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