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In Search of Lost Paris

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Editions Yvon
Gargoyle atop Notre Dame; from Yvon’s Paris, a collection of postcard views of Paris taken in the early twentieth century by the photographer known as Yvon. The book has been published by Norton, with an introduction by Robert Stevens. The photographs will be on view at Higher Pictures, New York City, from December 16, 2010 to January 29, 2011.
Couldn’t an exciting film be made from the map of Paris? From the unfolding of its various aspects in temporal succession? From the compression of a centuries-long movement of streets, boulevards, arcades, and squares into the space of half an hour? And does the flâneur do anything different?1

You might momentarily think that Walter Benjamin’s suggestion could apply to any city, but in just about every other case the narrative would be too diffuse, in both the spatial and temporal sense. Paris is exceptional for having grown in a particularly concentrated and directed way, and for having maintained the vigor of districts even after fashion went elsewhere.

Most cities spread like inkblots; a few, such as Manhattan, grew in linear increments. Paris expanded in concentric rings, approximately shown by the spiral numeration of its arrondissements. Its Neolithic center was fittingly located in what is now the First (leaking into the Fourth): the islands, the Louvre, Les Halles, the Hôtel de Ville. It then spread east to the Marais, north to the foot of Montmartre, west along the Seine, and tentatively south, across the river, to what would become St.-Germain-des-Prés. Its roughly circular form was maintained by a succession of walls, built under Philippe Auguste around the turn of the thirteenth century, Charles V in the fourteenth, the Farmers-General just before the Revolution, and Adolphe Thiers in the 1840s, that last one taken down beginning in 1919. But there is a wall even now, as Eric Hazan makes plain. The ring highway—the Périphérique—which was completed in 1973, is if anything even better at separating the city from the hinterlands than its predecessors were, and today that means keeping the immigrant masses at bay in their featureless housing project clusters, the vertical slums with rustic-sounding names that make up the banlieues.

Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris is at once a study of the evolution of the idea of Paris and an attempt to preserve the experience of its physical history—the latent historical meaning that has accrued on every corner—including the many inconvenient wrinkles that have been paved over and sandblasted and designed out of existence in the past fifty years and will soon lie beyond the reach of living memory. Hazan takes in both the big picture and the minute details, and is attentive to all those nuances of ambiance and demarcation that even today can make a relatively short walk in certain parts of Paris feel like a journey between epochs.

You could say that The Invention of Paris is a work of psychogeography, in the same sense as the foundational documents of that idea, those exploded maps that Guy Debord made in the 1950s (The Naked City; Guide Psychogéographique de Paris), which isolate clusters of blocks and show their subjective connections to their neighbors, or lack thereof, with big red arrows. Hazan notes, for example:

The Arsenal triangle between the Boulevards Henri-IV and Bourdon—the starting point of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, on a bench with the thermometer at 33 degrees C—with its acute angle at the Bastille, and dividing the Saint-Paul quarter from the approaches to the Gare de Lyon.

The triangle in fact figures in The Naked City, with arrows leading to and from the train station, to St.-Paul, and from the Île St.-Louis, while resolutely ignoring the Bastille. On site you don’t need to know its history or its literary pedigree to sense those occult connections and that it is, as Debord put it, a “turntable.”2

As Hazan writes, the traces of Paris’s past are not restricted to “old stones and archeological remnants…but [include] still apparent urban consequences, as can be read on a map or noted on foot.” You don’t have to be especially postmodern to see Paris as a text, and a remarkably allusive one at that. The Marais district, for example, owes its layout and the names of many streets to three great domains, all of them gone for centuries—the best known and last to fall (in 1818) was the Temple, the mother house of the Knights Templar, where Louis XVI was imprisoned in 1792—but all of them subtly present in every step. The faint aura of honky-tonk that still hovers over the rue de la Gaîté, in Montparnasse, is owing to the fact that the street once stood just outside the wall of the Farmers-General, otherwise known as the mur d’octroi, the tax-levy wall.

One of the items taxed upon entry into the city was wine. Unsurprisingly, wineshops called guinguettes appeared in profusion outside the gates, where prices were cheaper than in town. Their conviviality inspired café-concerts and theaters, some of which have vestigially endured into the present, one of them the Bobino music hall, opened in 1800, where Josephine Baker first performed in the 1920s and gave her last performance in 1975.

The distinction Hazan observes between the quartiers of the oldest part of the city, the faubourgs of the middle ring, and the villages of the outermost arrondissements is most evident in the last of these. As different as are Belleville and Passy—the former a traditional working-class district that even now profits from the vigor of many overlapping ethnic groups, the latter the starchiest of old-money neighborhoods—they

have many things in common…both maintaining certain features of Île-de-France villages—the high street, church and cemetery, the theatre…, the lively central square where cakes are bought for Sunday.

Certain survivals are less visible and more insidious, though. “The Champs-Élysées was the major axis of Paris collaboration, following an established tradition.” The fancy western districts happily capitulated to the Prussians in 1870, “begged the Prussians to assist them against the Commune” in 1871, called for the extermination of Communards—including women and children—during the Bloody Week in May of that year, then “acclaimed Hitler in the Champs-Élysées cinemas at 20 francs a seat,” and during the Occupation housed and fed and socialized with the German upper echelon and the more important collaborators. The rue des Saussaies, site of a major Gestapo office, and the rue Lauriston, where its Vichy counterpart was headquartered, remain tainted in popular memory even if the unknowing pedestrian sees only demure white stone façades.

Good or bad, these survivals would not be possible without deep continuities in the city. When violence is done to the city’s fundamental structure it is all the more shocking because it dislodges such continuities. Paris may have undergone fewer changes than many cities—compared to New York, let alone Shanghai, it is remarkably well preserved—but the changes have been traumatic. The name of Baron Haussmann, prefect of the Seine between 1852 and 1870, has become a metaphor for heavy-handed urban planning. Haussmann demolished the narrow twisting streets of the city’s medieval center, in particular on the Île de la Cité and in the area between the Louvre and the Marais, and built a series of wide boulevards that reconfigured traffic and the flow of commerce and, not incidentally, were too broad for barricades but ideal for armies.

Destruction had been anticipated well before Haussmann’s tenure. “War on the demolishers!” cried Victor Hugo in 1832, upon hearing of a plan to build a wide extension of the rue de Rivoli that would have run all the way to the place du Trône, straight across some of the city’s most hallowed sites, such as the Tour St.-Jacques. It was never carried out, as it happens, because it fell to Haussmann, who “being a Protestant…fear[ed] that the destruction of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois would be interpreted as a revenge for Saint Bartholemew’s Night, the signal for which, it is said, was given by the bells of that church.” Haussmann’s massive project was left unfinished by the war with the Prussians and the end of the Second Empire, so that medieval survivals persisted for nearly another century:

Contrary to a widespread idea, the final eradication of the Middle Ages in Paris was not the work of Haussmann and Napoleon III, but rather of Malraux and Pompidou, and the emblematic literary signal of this disappearance was not Baudelaire’s “The Swan” but rather Perec’s Les Choses.3

As rich in poetry and lore as had been the unreconstructed area on the Left Bank centered around the place Maubert and the place de la Contrescarpe that was forcibly gentrified in the 1960s,4 the real tragedy was the destruction of Les Halles, the ancient marketplace in the center of the city. It dated back to the reign of Philippe Auguste, had been modernized by Victor Baltard’s great cast-iron pavilions in 1851–1857, and was more central to the idea of Paris in the minds of its own citizens than any tower or monument could ever be. The pavilions were unceremoniously taken down and scrapped beginning in 1970, when a new market, convenient for trucks but closed to individual shoppers, was opened in distant suburban Rungis.

Les Halles had been a vital connection to the cycle of nature, a living embodiment of the chain of production and consumption, a tremendous social equalizer, a place where the jobless could always find pickup work and the hungry could scrounge for discarded but perfectly acceptable food, a hub with its own culture and customs varnished by nearly a millennium of use. It was often called the “soul” of Paris as well as its “stomach,” and it was destroyed impersonally, by administrative decree, and eventually replaced by a nightmarish pit of a shopping mall that appears to have been designed for maximum alienation.

Not long afterward, just a few blocks to the east, the Centre Beaubourg went up on the site of the Cloître Saint-Merri, hotbed of revolution in 1832 and the centerpiece of Hugo’s Les Misérables. For Hazan that was not an occasion for mourning—the neighborhood had been destroyed long before (by Haussmann first of all, and what remained of it in the 1930s) and, he acknowledges, “good architecture always ends up triumphing over whinging critics.” That is where he appears to part company with his distinguished predecessors Louis Chevalier, professor at the Collège de France and author of The Assassination of Paris (1977), and Guy Debord—Chevalier’s political opposite in most other matters—who in his film In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni (1978) made essentially the same argument as Chevalier in his book: that Paris had been killed by what passed for progress and would henceforth only exist as a simulacrum of itself. Hazan acknowledges that the city is a living organism, and that change is a necessary and integral part of its life. But he also specifies the most destructive aspect of change in Paris, one with a very long history: the war against the poor.

Haussmann’s demolitions and the razing of Les Halles have entered the consciousness of the wider world because they occurred in the center of the city, next door to its monuments and palaces. But few people outside Paris were made aware of the systematic destruction of the old proletarian neighborhoods over the course of more than a century. First a great swath of the faubourg Saint-Antoine, the old artisan district and a historic center of resistance, was erased under Haussmann by the cutting-through of the giant, empty, windswept place de la République. Then the ancient faubourg Saint-Marceau—where Jean Valjean took refuge with Cosette when they returned to the city—after being slashed to pieces by nineteenth-century boulevards was finally eliminated altogether in the 1960s and 1970s.5 The Glacière and Croulebarbe and Maison-Blanche quarters on the Left Bank were progressively supplanted by housing project blocks in the same urban renewal decades, so that there is no remaining trace of their onetime vigor and independence aside from the evocative names of streets (the celebrated rue du Château des Rentiers, for example).

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Mike King

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.

  1. 1

    The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 83. 

  2. 2

    Plaque tournante “; the term is used in its railroad sense. 

  3. 3

    Georges Perec’s novel was published in English as Things: A Story of the Sixties (David R. Godine, 1990). 

  4. 4

    Lyrically evoked by Jacques Yonnet in his Rue des maléfices (Paris: Phébus, 1987; first published as Enchantements sur Paris, Paris: Denoël, 1954), translated by Christine Donougher as Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City (Dedalus, 2006). 

  5. 5

    Its last surviving bits were lovingly documented by Richard Cobb in The Streets of Paris (Pantheon, 1980). 

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