On ‘Paris Vagabond’

One of the dozens of photographs of Paris taken by Patrice Molinard for the 1954 edition of Paris Vagabond
One of the dozens of photographs of Paris taken by Patrice Molinard for the 1954 edition of Paris Vagabond

Paris Vagabond, first published in 1952, is one of the most extraordinary books ever written about that city.* It follows in the lineage of great narratives by champion walkers—Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s Le Tableau de Paris (1781–1788), Nicolas-Edme Restif de la Bretonne’s Les Nuits de Paris (1788–1794), Alexandre Privat d’Anglemont’s Paris anecdote (1854), Léon-Paul Fargue’s Le Piéton de Paris (1939), among others—although its focus is more pointed and specific. Had a translation come out in the 1960s or 1970s, heyday of budget travel guides, someone might have been tempted to call it “Paris on Nothing a Day.” It is primarily concerned with all the ways in which people managed to survive in the city on no money at all, a way of life shared by Clébert himself. As he told the journalist Olivier Bailly in a 2009 interview:

It was not a reportage but a personal investigation; it was me in the streets of Paris, rediscovering a city that was still as it had been during the Occupation, which is to say that in some ways it was still the pre-war city, that of the Surrealists and of [Pierre Mac Orlan’s concept] le fantastique social, which lived on…. It was a clandestine Paris that I came to know as a clandestine myself.

Clébert was born in 1926 to a bourgeois family (whose identity remains unknown) in the wealthy suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine and educated in a Jesuit boarding school in Passy, from which he ran away at age seventeen and joined the Resistance. Somewhere along the line he shed his surname and became Clébert, a relatively uncommon name that I can’t help but think he chose because of its proximity to clebs, argot for “dog.” At loose ends once Paris was liberated, he took on a variety of jobs, including hauling produce crates at Les Halles, hawking the newspaper L’Intransigeant, and more colorful employment that he describes in the book, such as the inimitably French and positivistic task of taking measurements of random apartments all over the city.

From there he slid into living as the lilies of the field, who neither toil nor spin. Between 1944 and 1948 he spent time with the ragpickers in the Zone (the roughly thousand-foot-wide ribbon of land that surrounded the city’s former military wall and for a century served as a refuge to marginals of all sorts), with the Roma of the Maximoff clan at Porte de Montreuil, with the surviving Jewish community on Rue des Rosiers (Clébert spoke a bit of Yiddish), with the clochards around Place Maubert and Rue Mouffetard, with hoboes and lamsters and eccentrics and living ghosts all over the city. The whole…

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