In Search of Lost Paris

December 23, 2010

Luc Sante

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A map of Paris showing some of the places referred to in this review

And then there was the sustained campaign against Belleville and Ménilmontant, beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century when they were in the city but not of it; that is, they stood within the walls of the city but were not incorporated into the municipality, the limits of which remained fixed by the previous wall. During and after the Commune, “Belleville” was a term employed by the bourgeoisie to stand for a much wider region of northeastern Paris, inhabited by the enemy—indeed, the rocky heights of Belleville, along with those of Montmartre, provided the last holdouts of Communard resistance.

When the area was finally taken into the city, the arrondissements were rigged to split Belleville into four, weakening its political power. Although urban renewal did not succeed in effacing the neighborhood as thoroughly as it did the equivalent districts in the south of the city, it did manage to turn the place des Fêtes from a lively village square into a no-man’s-land ringed by monoliths.

A less visible, more insidious form of social control practiced in the 1960s was the elimination of the ancient practice of mixité: “The same building would house shops on the ground floor—the shopkeeper living on the mezzanine—apartments for the aristocracy on the second storey (the ‘noble’ floor before the invention of the lift), and workers in the attics”—the theme of Zola’s novel Pot-Bouille. Under Malraux, Pompidou, and their minions, zonage à l’américaine—zoning by income—was ruinously introduced to the oldest parts of the city. The results of all these social-engineering strategies include high prices, a fetishistic but skin-deep style of historical preservation, an antiseptic street culture, the further polarization of classes, and the gradual strangling of vertical mobility. But contrary to the crêpe-hangers, Hazan knows that even the ensemble of these factors cannot kill a city that is open to change, and that Paris can be redeemed by expansion, both cultural and geographic:

The tacit understanding with past generations is beginning to be renewed, and another “new Paris” is taking shape…. It is leaving the west of the city to advertising executives and oil tycoons, and pressing as always towards the north and east…. It is spilling over the line of hills from Montmartre to Charonne, crossing the terrible barrier of the Boulevard Périphérique…and stretching towards what is already de facto the twenty-first arrondisse- ment, towards Pantin, Le Pré-Saint- Gervais, Bagnolet, Montreuil….

In order for its vitality to endure, that is, Paris must incorporate the banlieues and their inhabitants, just as in previous centuries it had knocked down its walls and taken in the masses crowded outside them.

It is important to note that Hazan’s book is far more than a polemic. Its tour of the arrondissements is never dull, with his lean and pointed prose montaged—in the cinematic sense—with citations chosen for color, depth, and economy from an apparently bottomless well of lore; its dynamic momentum makes it the closest thing yet to Benjamin’s imaginary animation. The tour is followed by three hefty appendices: on “Red Paris,” on flâneurs, and on the graphic imagery of the city. Hazan doesn’t dwell on the obvious—for example in the first of these he assumes that his readers already know a great deal about the Commune, so he instead focuses on 1830, 1832, and especially the huge but largely forgotten tragedy of 1848.

The book is clearly aimed at people who already possess significant knowledge of the history of Paris and have worn considerable shoe leather on its pavements, and this makes for assumptions that may slow or deter the foreign reader. That would be a shame. The Invention of Paris is one of the greatest books about the city anyone has written in decades, towering over a crowded field, passionate and lyrical and sweeping and immediate. Hazan, son of the art-book publisher Fernand Hazan, was born in 1936, was trained as a pediatrician and worked for years in that capacity in Palestinian refugee camps, then returned to France to take over his father’s company, which he sold; he then founded the activist publishing house La Fabrique. This is, improbably, his first book, written when he was in his mid-sixties (he has since written six others).

Graham Robb’s Parisians is another ambitious attempt to take on the entirety of the city and its history. Robb, the gifted biographer of Balzac, Hugo, and Rimbaud and author of the charming The Discovery of France, has hit upon a novel way to approach the breadth and complexity of his subject. He focuses on individuals at intervals over the past two hundred years, each chapter self-contained and each one a different sort of narrative experiment. His subjects are well chosen, both as stories and as illustrative vehicles. There are figures who were once well known but have undeservedly been neglected in recent times, such as Vidocq, the first head of the Sûreté and the pioneering detective whose exploits underlie an entire literary genre, and Henry Murger, who named the idea of Bohemia and gave it its mythology. There are glimpses of famous figures in unexpected settings: the young Napoleon dallying with a prostitute at the Palais-Royal; Marie-Antoinette lost in the unmapped streets as she attempts to flee the city in 1789; Proust uneasily coming to terms with modern innovations.

Some of his tales are genuinely gripping. Robb has turned up the figure on whom Dumas seems to have based the Count of Monte Cristo, a cobbler from Nîmes who was betrayed by his friends, received an extraordinary education from a nobleman in prison, and emerged from confinement to exact his vengeance, if not quite as satisfyingly as Dumas’s hero. The story is given an additional layer of intrigue by its backstory: it originated as a deathbed confession, which was transcribed by the confessor and sent to the city’s archives, where it was found by an enterprising archivist, who included it among a vast assortment of such tales that he compiled into a book-length manuscript.

However, he died before the book could be published; the manuscript was given to an editor who turned out to be a self-serving hack; the original manuscript was lost; and the archives themselves were destroyed by fire during the Bloody Week of 1871. The story survives only as a remote and distorted version of the unguessable original. Even more complex and tortuous is the tale of the connection between Pierre Curie and the shadowy figure known as Fulcanelli—a latter-day alchemist and author of Le Mystère des Cathédrales, whose actual identity has never been established—and all that is suggested by such a link between alchemy and modern science.

Robb’s literary ambitions do not always serve him well. The more his stories resemble fiction—the more they are fleshed out with dialogue and incident—the more they are hobbled by his historiographic imperative. They can be as wooden as the sort of edifying biopics that Warner Brothers issued in the 1930s: The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola.

“That’s good. Write it down. It’s two o’clock. There’s nothing at the printers!… Oh, I forgot…Monsieur Baudelaire is a genius—we can’t expect him to soil his hands with ink…”
“You must imagine,” said the Führer, “the ladies in their ball-gowns descending the staircase between lines of men in uniform.—We must build something like this in Berlin, Herr Speer!”
VIAN: …Mademoiselle Gréco is in search of a song.
BEAUVOIR (striped pullover, hair tied back, red fingernails; to Sartre): You said Gréco ought to be a singer. Why don’t you give her a song?
SARTRE, thinking: What about “La Rue des Blancs-Manteaux”? I wrote it for Huis Clos, but (raising his vodka glass to Juliette), I hereby offer it to Mademoiselle.

Yes, he writes the story of Juliette Gréco’s affair with Miles Davis as a film script, for no good reason beyond flashiness, and to not much effect.

More puzzling, and rather disturbing, is “Regression,” a reverse narrative after the fashion of Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow. It begins in 1988 with a fruitless search in the attics of the École de Médecine for the severed head of a New Caledonian rebel leader, which was sent to Paris after the quashing of an insurrection in 1878. Then it describes the end of that uprising, its start, the arrival in Nouméa of the Communard deportees who inspired the revolt, the aftermath of the Commune, its beginning, the siege of Paris, and it ends with peasants devouring the crops that would have been sent to Les Halles in the autumn of 1870. He quotes the account in Le Figaro: “Poor, benighted creatures, for whom a day of such calamity is a day of feasting and celebration!”

Robb, who calls the Commune a “psychopathic democracy,” seems to be suggesting that attempts at popular rule are inevitably destined to result in murder and mayhem, just short of actual cannibalism. He appears to have inherited the mindset of the educated enemies of the Commune, of the Goncourt brothers and Maxime du Camp and Leconte de Lisle and Théophile Gautier and Barbey d’Aurevilly, who wrote:

The atrocious bandits of the Commune, with Monsieur Courbet as their clown, are not political enemies. They are the enemies of any society and any order.

The fact that between 20,000 and 36,000 men, women, and children were murdered in a single week by the Versaillais authorities does not seem to impress him as being worse than the publication in the Communard sheet Paris Libre of the names and addresses of citizens who had volunteered to spy on their neighbors for the Empire.

Robb’s contempt flares again a few chapters later, when he frames the events of May ‘68 in the style of a French academic exercise (the subheadings begin with I.A.i.; some paragraphs are followed by parodic questions) and suggests that the whole thing stemmed from confused abstract thinking and sexual repression. To his credit, however, he manages a couple of very moving chapters that imagine the lives of the populace. “Occupation” is a believable, intimate account of the experiences of Jewish children during the roundups of 1942, and the escapes of a few of them. And “Sarko, Bouna and Zyed” accounts for the recent history of the banlieues by telling the story of the three boys from Clichy-sous-Bois—”a Black, an Arab and a Kurd”—who were hounded by cops into seeking refuge in a power substation, where two of them were electrocuted, and whose deaths set off the riots of 2005.

Robb cannot avoid addressing the matter of demolition and zoning, although his approach is oblique. The chapter, called “Périphérique,” alternates without particular emphasis among a set of vignettes: the puzzled Giscard coming to power; his predecessor Pompidou being truculent; Louis Chevalier—Pompidou’s classmate at the École Normale Supérieure—stalking the city, physically in the present but mentally in the past; a daredevil motorcyclist accomplishing the tour of the Périphérique in eleven minutes and four seconds. Everything is everything, the story seems to say, and what fools these mortals be. He ends his book (in a differently but equally oblique chapter) on a similarly chilly note:

…The city, built by human beings, is indifferent to their desires. It shows them the solid form of their fictions…. It educates even the most successful megalomaniacs in the smallness of their dreams. Paris shows its true face from the top of the Tour Montparnasse, where guards patrol the suicide fence. Most of that galactic scatter of illuminations reaching out to the horizons is darkness.

Perhaps he deliberately sought an inversion of Rastignac’s famous dare to the city, addressed from an equivalent height, in Le Père Goriot: “À nous deux maintenant!” Even though Balzac tells us in the next sentence that Rastignac’s first act of defiance was to go dine at the home of Mme de Nucingen, it is the cry that sticks in the mind. Robb is patently devoted to the city he first encountered at the most impressionable age, but his book is distinguished chiefly by its cleverness. His Rastignac might have skipped the cry and gone straight to the table.

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