Beneath Napoleon's Hat: Tales from the Parisian Cafes
Volume 1 Eagles without a Cliff
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Beneath Napoleon's Hat: Tales from the Parisian Cafes

Volume 2 A Black Violet


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Beneath Napoleon's Hat: Tales from the Parisian Cafes

Volume 3 Sylvia Beach and the Melancholy Jesus                


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The Café Procope can claim to be one of the oldest cafés in Paris. It began serving coffee in 1686 in the rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the sixth arrondissement. Its clever proprietor was a Sicilian, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli. He offered coffee or sorbet in porcelain cups to men of fashion.


Three years later, in 1689, the Comédie Française appeared opposite, hence the Procope’s current address, rue de l’Ancienne Comédie. The café became ‘theatrical’ and its customers of international renown. It changed owners in 1702 but, by the end of that century, men of science, philosophy, art, and artifice, politics and war would meet there to plan their changing of the world.


A famous etching draws together Condorcet, La Harpe, Diderot and Voltaire—with his arm in the air —about to ask a question that might enlighten us all, or perhaps it is simply distress at having consumed his daily quota of forty or more cups of coffee diluted with chocolate. The Procope hosted the Encyclopaedists and other luminaries of the Enlightenment.


The Comédie Française was built on the site of a royal tennis court. It was long and narrow with three tiers of boxes along each of its sides. The socially significant stared straight at each other, seeing themselves as the drama rather than the theatrical performance at the end. Often, the stage had more spectators than actors who could barely find space enough in which to act. Famously, one of Voltaire's coup de théatres was delayed with cries of ‘Make way for the ghost!’


Whatever its physical limitations, the Comédie Française had the monopoly of success, fame, reputation and wealth. It was the only theatre supervised by the Court and, as the play was the only valued form of public entertainment, success at the Comédie Française was necessary and coveted.


Voltaire’s very first play Oedipe was a huge success, running to thirty-two performances. His second play, Artemire was hissed off stage on its first night, never to reappear. Rousseau's play Narcisse was also wished off stage. The whistles and catcalls of the crowd might have been loud enough to hear in the Procope, where Rousseau was drowning his anticipated sorrows with his friends, during the actual first night performance. The Café Procope was a refuge, a sympathetic anteroom to the Comédie Française for its suffering dramatists, whatever their reputation.


The Phrygian Cap of French Revolutionary fame made its first appearance in the Procope when a bust of Voltaire was crowned with a red bonnet from the production of his play Brutus.  Robespierre, Marat, Danton and Desmoulins would sport their bonnets rouges over Republican whisperings at the Procope. Benjamin Franklin probably overheard them and took their message westwards.


Upstairs, quietly, a young Napoleon Bonaparte, still a junior officer of artillery, was playing chess. Whatever he ate or drank that night he couldn't pay for. He left his hat as security for the unpaid bill but never returned. Perhaps once he was Emperor he had little use for the hat, or was simply too embarrassed to reclaim it.


As you walk into the Procope, just to your left, secure in a glass case and surrounded by an ornate frame, is that very hat. It sports a red, white and blue rosette above a single gold chevron. The hat rests on a barley-twist wooden stand. Beneath it, a bronze relief shows the great man in profile, wearing something very like the splendid object displayed before your astonished eyes.


Every time I visit Paris, I go to the Café Procope, doff my imaginary hat to Napoleon’s, turn immediately left and sit in the seat just inside so I can drink my coffee beneath Napoleon's hat. I fumble in my pocket for my moleskin notebook and begin to scribble, sketch and to stare, people watching, with a slightly self-conscious manner.


It is here, beneath the hat, that I begin my stories, some far too long to be short; others not quite long enough to become novels. They are all set in cafés of the past, famous for their would-be famous writers. Two bookshops have been given the honorary status of café: Shakespeare and Company and the House of the Lover of Books.


Most of the characters we meet would be considered minor players, the forgotten or little known visitors to the cafés, yet it was they who often enabled the then equally unknown to take their first steps to fame.


Together the tales explore the plight of the aspiring, the achieving, the lonely and the inconsolable as their creative minds seek understanding and belonging in the tribal security of the café. Perhaps finally they all might agree with Voltaire.


‘I rush around Paris and I seem to find myself, I know not how, overburdened in the midst of idlers; and though I am always running after the phantom of pleasure, the reality eludes me.’


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© 2014 by Colley Books Ltd