All cities have ruts—paths worn by the routines of their inhabitants as they go about their business. Paris is especially rutted, and the Parisians have an expression for the sense of imprisonment that it imposes on them: “métro, boulot, dodo” (subway, job, sleep). But there is another Paris, the city inhabited by those who don’t have jobs, either because they can’t find employment or because they have opted out of life in a rut. The marginal, the poor, the eccentrics, the bohemians, the dropouts, and the down-and-outs haunt the pages of Luc Sante’s vivid tour of that other Paris, most of it buried under what remains of the nineteenth century.
Subterranean Paris still exists, some of it inhabited. I have a small apartment in an old building in the second arrondissement. One day, after leaving my bike in the cellar, I decided to explore the subcellars. There were two of them, consisting of caves, filthy and unlit. Groping in the dark, three floors below street level, I stumbled upon a body. I ran up the stairs and out the front door, looking for help. The first person I encountered was a man washing dishes in the kitchen of a restaurant next door. When I shouted through the open window that there was a body in the bottom cellar, he replied calmly, “It’s nothing. He’s our clochard.” I hadn’t known that our apartment building provided a refuge for a homeless man; and after a moment’s reflection, I realized that the “our” used by the dishwasher did not include me or any other apartment owner. It referred to another Paris.
Although it is steeped in history—thoroughly understood and expertly narrated—The Other Paris is not a historical study. Nor is it a guidebook, although there exists a genre of “other” guidebooks: This Other London, The Other Side of Rome, etc. (The genre has especially flourished in German; most European cities have inspired guidebooks beginning Das andere…; the earliest Das andere Paris dates from 1983, and there is one currently available on YouTube.) Part of the fascination of The Other Paris is that it slips between genres. It can best be characterized as a historical-cultural tour of a great city, or flânerie, for Luc Sante invokes flaneurs throughout the book and writes as one of them.
According to the ideal type invented by Baudelaire, the flaneur takes in a city by strolling through it. He (Baudelaire did not envision female flaneurs) does not follow a fixed itinerary but rather loses himself in the crowd, swimming wherever its currents take him and letting the cityscape work on his consciousness in unexpected ways. When inspired, flaneurs have produced some important literature. The line of their books extends from the greatest of them all, Le Tableau de Paris…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.