Summary Part 1
Set in Paris, France, in the fall of 1931, “Babylon Revisited” is a story in five parts. When the story begins, thirty-five-year-old American businessman Charlie Wales, who lives and works in Prague, Czechoslovakia, is returning to Paris after an eighteen-month absence. At the bar in the Ritz Hotel, he inquiresabout some of his former friends and associates in the city. Many have moved away, he learns. One friend is still in Paris, however, a Mr. Schaeffer, and Charlie gives the barman Alix a piece of paper on which he has written an address in Paris where he can be contacted. He asks that is be passed along to Schaeffer.
There are few Americans in the bar, unlike the way he remembers it. Charlie, who no longer drinks much, unlike in former days, learns from Alix about one of his former friends, a man named Claude Fessenden, who piled up so much debt from drinking and food that Paul, the head barman, would no longer allow him into the bar. Claude has also put on a lot of weight, Alix tells Charlie. Charlie tells Alix that he has come to Paris to visit his daughter.
Charlie leaves the bar and takes a taxi and passes throughParis’s Left Bank. It is late afternoon. He thinks back with regret about how he squandered his wealth there, over a period of a couple of years. Then he arrives at the home of Marion Peters, his sister-in-law, and her husband Lincoln. They have two children, a boy and a girl, and Charlie’s nine-year-old daughter, Honoria, who has been living with them for the last ten months. Honoria greets her father warmly. In answer to Lincoln’s inquiry, Charlie says he is doing well in Prague and plans to have his sister come out there to keep house for him. Charlie and Marion dislike each other but they converse politely. It comes out that Charlie now restricts himself to one drink per afternoon, and no more. Charlie does not discuss the reason he has come to Paris, which is to reclaim custody of his daughter, even though Marion and Lincoln know this is his intention.
After dinner, Charlie goes to Montmartre and watches people going into the clubs he used to frequent, where he spent so lavishly. He peeks inside and hears an orchestra and a couple of dancers about to perform. But he does not linger there. He passes some cafés but the crowds are thinner than he remembers, and some places have closed. He recalls how he would offer ridiculously high tips to an orchestra just to play one particular number, and he realizes what a waste it all was. The worst thing about it was that it resulted in his daughter being taken from him and the death of his wife Helen.
He takes a taxi and returns to his hotel.
During the prosperous period known as the Jazz Age or the Roaring Twenties, many wealthy Americans flocked to Paris, where they enjoyed the culture and night life. They also spent lavishly. The stock market crash of October 1929, however, ended all that. Fortunes were lost overnight, and the crash led directly to the Great Depression in the 1930s. The first part of “Babylon Revisited” alludes to this background. Charlie Wales was rich and spent money in Paris as if there was an infinite supply of it, only to lose everything in the crash. He has rebuilt his financial standing, however, and is now having moderate success in Prague. But he is full of regrets about the past and what happened as a result of those days of excess in Paris. He now sees how empty it all was, and it has cost him something more than money, something that he can never regain. Although the first part of the story does not reveal all the details, it is clear that something happened that led to Honoria, his daughter, being taken from him, and his wife Helen dying.
In part 1, Charlie is struck by how things have changed in Paris since his last visit. The Jazz Age is now over and fewer Americans have the means to travel to Paris to enjoy the night life. There is a feeling of emptiness there, at least as Charlie experiences it. Many people he remembers have now gone. This gives the story a slant that can be described in the Latin phrase ubisunt, which means literally, “Where are they?” A work of literature with the ubisunt theme is often a meditation on the transience of human life and the passing of things. Thus, Charlie recalls an age that, while recent, is now past. Indeed, the very first words of the story pose exactly this kind of ubisuntquestion: “And where’s Mr. Campbell?”
Part 1 also introduces the basic conflict in the story, which is between Charlie and Marion.