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 his own experience of the city.
Undated postcards showing wider views.
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 quite the same atmosphere but the pair for me are now inextricably linked. This place couldn’t have survived, could it?
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.
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.
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!