By Geoff NicholsonNovember 27, 2015
The Other Paris by Luc Sante
I received the book for review in early October. I’m a fan of Luc Sante’s work. I perhaps didn’t love The Other Paris quite as much as I wanted to, but I certainly wanted to give it a positive review. I wrote in what I thought was a robust and playful way, which seemed appropriate enough — the book itself is both those things.
The review was written, submitted to LARB, and the editing was completed by November 7, a week before the terrorist atrocities in Paris. After those events a playful tone seemed a good deal less appropriate, and Sante’s complaint in the book that Paris had lost something by no longer being so wild and murderous seemed, at best, unfortunate.
Of course I couldn’t unread the book, and although there was some temptation to go back and rewrite the review, that would have been fake, and it would have been too easy to be wise after the event.
So, after discussion with my LARB editors, the review runs here as written and edited, to be taken as a modest historical document, which of course all book reviews are. It’s also perhaps a reminder, if we need one, that places, events, and books, and our perceptions of them, can and do change in a moment.
That title is just asking for trouble, isn’t it? Aren’t we bound to ask “Other than what?” Other than the one in Texas? (Well yes, but that’s clearly not what’s really meant.) Other than the tourist version? (Of course, but we’d hardly expect that, given Luc Sante’s serious track record of writing about music and literature, about the low life of old New York, and about both vernacular and art photography.) Other than the one we know or think we know? (Well possibly so, but in that case isn’t Sante making an awful lot of rash assumptions about whom his readers are?)
More than that, given that large parts of the book are about crime, food and drink, prostitution, anarchy, insurrection, and flaneurism, with a huge cast that includes Atget, Brassai, Haussmann, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and a couple of Napoleons, a lot of people might think this is a version of Paris they’re already familiar with.
Perhaps the French are better at titles. In the book’s last chapter, “The Game,” Sante describes a 1952 book by Jean-Paul Clébert as “a road novel, for all that it is entirely contained within the city limits,” titled Paris insoli, which means, he tells us, “‘unexpected’ or ‘uncanny’ or ‘fantastic’ or ‘bizarre’ Paris — insolite is a very hard word to translate adequately.” Still, this is very much the area Sante himself is working in, although Lost Paris would be another possibility.
Sante suggests that Jean-Paul Clébert was an inspiration for Guy Debord, and his kind of the Lettrists and Situationists, the begetters of psychogeography, urban explorers who used the derive, or drift, to investigate the city on foot, moving through it in search of unites de ambience. In fact he’s largely unimpressed by the results: “Clébert had mapped the territory, and his drifts beggared theirs. The only two accounts of Lettrist drifts, which appear in the November 1956 issue of the Belgian Surrealist journal Les Lèvres Nues, are pretty small beer.” And there is a case to be made that Sante is here doing for Paris what Iain Sinclair has done for London, that this book is itself a series of psychogeographic drifts around Paris.
Sante is at his best when he writes about Paris as a great walking city, and as a site for endless, eccentric urban exploration. “It virtually demands that you walk its length and breadth; once you get started it’s hard to stop,” he writes. “As you stride along you are not merely a pedestrian in a city — you are a reader negotiating a vast text spanning centuries and the traces of a billion hands.”
A bit later he tells us, “The great text of the streets was given voice by those relentless walkers who were also writers.” His list includes Huysmans, Richard Cobb, Victor Hugo, Louis Chevalier, and Restif de La Bretonne. “Many of the flâneurs were compulsively garrulous types who played the city the way they’d work a party, (or perhaps in the case of Restif, like a pervert at an orgy).” And though he regrets that there are so few flaneuses he can celebrate, he writes approvingly of Jaques Rivette’s movie Le Pont du Nord — featuring Bulle and Pascale Ogier, two women wandering around the edges of Paris with a couple of dubious maps, while being desultorily pursued by Pierre Clémenti. (This is a wonderful surprise. I knew I wasn’t the only person who loved this film, but it’s a very small group of us that even seems to know of its existence.) “That was the protocol,” Sante writes, not specifically about the movie, though it certainly applies, “to move through the city as if in a dream, interpreting artifacts along the way as clues to an unresolvable mystery.”
The protocol involves exploring time as well as space, and Sante has a very specific take on history. “The past whatever its drawback was wild,” he explains. “By contrast the present is farmed.” Then he says, “Life was of course not all fun and games; the expression of every sort of behavior inevitably included a great deal that was unpleasant if not inimical and even murderous.”
Not all of us feel deeply nostalgic for criminal behavior, and there are times when Sante seems simply to be railing against gentrification:
In the past the poor were left to hustle on their own, which might mean accommodating themselves to squalor, with accompanying vermin; the bargain they are offered today assures them of well-lit, dust-free environs with up-to-date fixtures, but it relieves them of the ability to improvise, to carve out their own spaces.
Again, some might think that wasn’t such a terrible bargain. “Up-to-date fixtures” don’t in themselves strike me as an absolute evil. But we do know that historical squalor is fun to read about, certainly more fun than to live through, and there’s plenty to savor here. Like a description of the hierarchy of ragpickers: top of the heap were the placiers who drove horse carts and were allowed to pick up dead animals. This was, no doubt, a form of recycling, a version of which also went on in the city’s commercial kitchens.
Sante tells us that,
Restaurant dishwashers could make a decent living selling not only bones and vegetable peels for various uses but also the remains on diners’ plates. These were collected by entrepreneurs called bijoutiers (jewelers), who used them to concoct a slumgullion, called arlequin (motley) or hasard de la forchette (luck of the fork), that remained standard fare in the cheapest hash houses until around the middle of the twentieth century.
Going out seems to have been a minefield in other ways; according to Sante,
Cafés developed their own codes, rituals, prejudices, depending on an intricate triangulation of management, location, and clientele. If you were unwelcome you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the street, and you wouldn’t even necessarily know it even when you were inside.
He then quotes Léon-Paul Fargue, who described the atomization of café society in the 1930s, when there were “cafés for unemployed saxophone players, cafés for Armenian tailors, cafés for Spanish barbers, cafés for nude women.” (Actually I reckon I’d realize fairly quickly that I was out of place if I stumbled into a café for nude women, and however welcome I might or might not be, I believe I’d treasure the experience.)
Fortunately there were simpler pleasures. A chapter titled “Show People” describes certain varieties of street theater:
Nerval was particularly impressed by the girl who lifted a weight (supposedly sixty pounds) with her hair. The “fireproof Spaniard” took a bath in boiling oil. The jeune fille électrique was a Bretonne who emitted something called an “influx” which could move furniture from a distance.
In this way The Other Paris is satisfyingly crammed with diverse and wide-ranging material, and as with an actual city, you pick out those aspects that appeal to you most. Information on the Occupation, anti-Semitism, or the drug trade will no doubt have their audience. But inevitably it’s sex that’s likely to fascinate most. Here we have Marcel Proust caught up in a police sweep of a male brothel at the Hôtel Marigny. We also have the police conducting a crackdown on gay sailors in Pigalle, “not because homosexuality was illegal per se, noted the police report, but to preserve the morals and the good name of the fleet.”
Sante also describes a “menu” dated 1915 from a possibly fictional, and notionally heterosexual, brothel supposedly at 69 Rue du Chat-Noir (there is no such street) — with prices for various services, which included “Journey to yellow lands” and “pissette sur la quéquette.” The latter cost 5.45 francs, which may have been a bargain: the upscale houses charged a “standard 30 francs per visit.”
Clearly Sante is a serious writer, and his research here is extensive and seems impeccable. However, in the end, the book is as much playful as scholarly, and a general reader can find plenty to enjoy. He seems to be both a more intrepid explorer and a far more entertaining writer than most of his psychogeographic forbears. And if the book lacks a grand overarching design, well that’s in the nature of his serendipitous, drifting methodology. I personally think A Bunch of Cool, Quirky Stuff I Happen to Know About Paris would have been a perfectly serviceable title, although I can see why that might not fly in today’s publishing environment.
In any case, whatever its title, a book about Paris is always likely to lead to other books, and this one’s no exception. I came away from The Other Paris with quite a reading list. Clébert’s bibliography alone runs to more than 30 volumes; I now want to know more about the works of photographer, painter, and mountaineer Gabriel Loppé; and perhaps it’s time for me to plunge deeper into the works of Restif de La Bretonne, whom Sante describes as a pioneering noctambule, “the speleologist of a city plunged in darkness” — to many of us he’s known chiefly as a pornographer and shoe fetishist.
But top of the list has to be Léo Malet, author of La vie est dégueulasse, which Sante translates as “life sucks,” a book that sounds like the most outrageous piece of Freudian noir. The antihero Fraiger talks to a psychoanalyst, who points at his gun and says, “There’s your penis.” Sante describes the denouement: “Two weeks later he bursts into a precinct house, on the point of death from starvation, but waving his gun and begging the cops to shoot him in the crotch. They oblige.”
Sante concludes his own book with the thought that “any Paris of the future […] will entail the continual experience of uncertainty, because the only certainty is death.” Asking the cops to shoot you in the crotch would, I suppose, contain both those elements.
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