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Down Among the Dead Men

John Fleming

The Other Paris: An Illustrated Journey through a City’s Poor and Bohemian Past, by Luc Sante, Faber & Faber, 320 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-0571241286

The city of light. Of lovers. Of writers, painters, dead rock stars. Seldom has a city been so let down by clichés and trite romanticisation. But you’ll get no easy city of light here. No lovers walking by the Seine. No soft focus mush. Luc Sante’s Paris is an aged yet ever-evolving ant colony: he avoids tedious references to exactly where this or that famed insect might have lived within that colony, to which a less brilliant writer might have stooped. The Other Paris harvests a city that is way bigger and far more mysterious, much more radiant and infinitely more squalid; its yield is greater than mere accounts of any individuals within it.

Sante’s fresco incorporates old flaked-paint coats and forgotten figures from across the centuries and works as a multidimensional portrait of the faceless, seething masses who have lived in Paris, the dwellers whose waste you fancy you can smell in the bowels of Metro stations dug so deep down they are contiguous with the bountiful sewers that rise and fall on urban biological tides. Through his multiple, detailed sociologies, he recreates a cross-era model of a Paris that is composed of nothing but its people.

An ant colony requires insects and they must be respected. Sante has no interest in the kings and queens and bishops and mayors, none in the higher ranks that usually monopolise the history books: he generally ignores the leeches whose ultimate act of leechery is the pedestal upon which they force history to place them. His cast from across the ages includes thieves, alcoholics and whores; his history is that of the ragpickers and pickpockets, the homeless and the pimps, the entertainers and vaudevillians. While he filches the insights of intellectuals whose street wandering was weighed down by concepts, his real stars are the clochards whose bedraggled perambulations were uninformed by ideas that interfered with or framed their city.

Across twelve tight chapters, Sante rebuilds a city of prisons, abattoirs, poisonous fumes, factories, canals and gasometers. Stockpiles of anecdotes and insights from Balzac and Hugo and prototype investigative journalists such as les frères Bonneff and novelist Eugène Sue furnish him with vivid accounts of life in Paris in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But there is an authority and love behind his telling of everything. You can hear his footsteps down the streets he describes – even those subsumed centuries ago. But the past is no safe haven for speculation or the beatification of long-vanished deadbeats. Medieval conditions persist to the modern day: Sante quotes a text by Blaise Cendrars which accompanied Robert Doisneau photographs of the banlieues around the city as recently as the latter part of the twentieth century: “The only real thing is misery: tuberculosis in proportion to the continual increase of children in cramped quarters, cuckoldry on every floor, worries drowned in drink, and women beaten like rugs.” And he drags you right up into living memory with the reminder that “wartime privation lasted in some areas until the 1970s”.

Paris looms up out of the fog of life and hits you. It might be a glimpse of a famous building in a film or a Duroc-family stereotype illustration in a school French textbook. For me, it was initially the miniature metal Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower on marble bases in the family china cabinet. Then it was a faux-canvas scrolled painting of Eiffel’s stark metal edifice brought back for me by some childhood friend. Later, the films of Truffaut etched the arrondissements into my heart, particularly a scene in Baisers Volés (1968) of street names and pneumatic tubes beneath the ground, along which were blasted canisters of mail to central city addresses.

I would be twenty-eight before I set foot in Paris, by which time I had watched countless triple bills of Godard and Rohmer in the Scala in King’s Cross and generous broadcasts in the 1980s on early Channel 4. There must have been musketeers and swordfights and Madame Guillotines across the sweep of cartoon kid culture before that. One moment stands out from 1979 when I saw the cover of an album featuring the Pompidou Centre – its guts-turned-inside-out building represented a fantastical externalised pipe-dream. That was Euroman Cometh by Stranglers bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel. Filmwise, it was probably Truffaut whose evocations reached deepest for me. While avoiding explicit icons of Paris in 400 Blows (1959) he stretches the yarn across both innocence and crime for young Antoine Doinel. The character grows into an amusing and immature caricature of the dreamer male in the subsequent films that chase him into middle age as he clowns around Paris. Godard nails something more knowing in Band à Part (1964) as a trio race through the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa against the clock so as to beat a record set by some American culture vultures. That trio racing past paintings to see the enigmatic smile references the gentle ménage à trois of Truffaut’s earlier Jules et Jim (1962). But such easy and closely connected links are nothing compared with the scale of the layers through which Luc Sante trowels in his rich and inspiring excavation of the sociological and historical topology of Paris.

Even when food was short, wine was generally pervasive in Paris’s various incarnations. In the nineteenth century, absinthe was “often sold in laundries, employment agencies, in places that rented handcarts to market porters”. I’ve always taken wise heed of the salvaged public information posters on the walls of bars there that portray in four or five panels the perilous descent of a life destroyed by absinthe. The first frame shows a happy man with his beautiful wife and a gurgling baby. But by frame five the ravages of absinthe have placed a wretched skeletal figure behind bars as his indebted wife and child weep. A parallel lifestyle or route to alcoholic ruin was facilitated by bars in the old Les Halles markets which offered overnight credit to their drinking clientele until 10am the next morning– when the porters and other likely zinc-counter creatures got paid and could clear their slates.

Key to Sante’s cityscape is the notion of ghosts. You are blind to the soul of Paris if you are not tuned to the cacophony of tenancy claims that greet you in stairwells as you trudge up to your fifth-floor apartment; you are dead deep inside if you do not heed the joyous calls from beyond the grave of deceased city residents. There is little coverage here of people whose names are recorded and lives memorialised on blue street-name signs or plaques. Great cities are not tombs to great men and women: they are crypts of the inconsequential, mass memorials to the cogs that turned within those cities whose sweat and tears and joy and smashed hearts are the landfill and ballast that allow them to still stand. Let us imagine you did not know this about cities. Let us imagine you never thought about the value and messages of accumulated human experience. Reading Sante’s book will make you realise that every step you have ever taken in any city anywhere has not been so much across its width as a lesson in learning along the gradient of its sloping temporal depths.

Repeatedly in this book, there is a striking truth about urban experience: there is “lively belief in ghosts that does not particularly assume a belief in the supernatural. The past is always present … All the tyrants and landowners and monopolists in vain set their shoulders to bulldoze the past out of existence but it stubbornly remains … sometimes as a bad conscience.” A mid-nineteenth century chronicler is usefully quoted: “I don’t know what secret instinct impels the same classes or the same professions always to the same places. Thieves, pickpockets, beggars, streetwalkers, street performers have still not left the haunts they have inhabited since the Middle Ages.” The area referred to is rue Pierre-Lescot: a scrap of today’s sprawling Les Halles still carries that name, and Sante points out that the street continues to exhibit the very traits described. He talks of “occult forces in the city [that] are always at work, indifferent to rationality, scornful of politics, resentful of urban planning, only intermittently sympathetic to the wishes of the living … they have worn grooves like fingerprints in the fabric of the city … they have created zones of affinity that are independent of administrative divisions and cannot always be explained by ordinary means”. Historian Louis Chevalier is quoted on how ghosts of the past must be operating on Paris: “Circumstances beyond those of the present must be exercising an influence.”

You will feel this vividly if you just give yourself a chance. You may fall into the trap of loneliness, but you will never be alone. For you walk not so much in the footsteps of giants as over the calloused barefoot smudges of Paris’s forgotten. One of the giants Sante has little affection for is Georges-Eugène Haussman, the nineteenth century urban designer who wrote “Paris belongs to France and not to the Parisians who inhabit it by birth or by choice, above all not to the floating population of its furnished rooms …” The architect of modern Paris, he constructed the huge boulevards and six-storey houses that can be seen to suggest moats and the repeating phases of former city walls, at once accommodating the residents but also hemming them in. Cold in his commitment to his own brand of progress, he razed the house in which he was born (to construct the street in the eighth and ninth arrondissements that was to take his name). While some 60 per cent of Paris’s buildings were affected by his plans and twenty thousand of its houses demolished, he nevertheless gave the city parks, sewers, streets, bridges, a new morgue, public urinals, bus shelters, aqueducts and street lighting. (Those were the street lights the smart-alec Situationists later suggested switches be put on so that pedestrians might turn them off or on as required.) Sante pillories Haussman for having paved the way for others, those “who liked right angles and acronyms” and who eventually turned Paris into what he calls a modern power city: its signatures are Les Halles (although this is being dismantled once more), the La Défense commercial quarter to the west, road tunnels, the Bibliothèque Nationale by the left bank quays, the destruction of Montparnasse station on that same side of the river and its replacement by a skyscraper, and the “aggressively repellent Pompidou Centre”. For Sante, these constructions are acts of violence against the city, impositions of the ordered mind, of order itself. For Haussman’s geometry was the city’s enemy and there were many others throughout the following twentieth century who would come “playing Haussman, only with motor vehicles and mechanical means of destruction”. While Corbusier never got to enact his plans to demolish the Marais and replace it with a vast modernist vision, part of me, fiendishly possessed perhaps by ancient Parisian lowlifes, perversely wishes he had wrought such imaginative destruction.

The modern city of twenty arrondissements started at Les Halles: the place from which it radiated outwards (since the twelfth century). That market’s earthy interface of things rural with an evolving urban Paris was a place of easily imagined pungency, of rancid pre-fridge animal flesh and vegetative stench. That function was outsourced to the distant and nearly six-hundred-acre wholesale Marché International de Rungis at the end of the 1960s as Les Halles was converted into a gigantic city-centre shopping mall and cinema complex peopled by value-seekers, drug-dealers and occasional junkies lingering outside afternoon film matinees. Prior to that, Les Halles’s “biosphere” became the “living embodiment of the chain of production and consumption”, something which is “not just the stomach of Paris but its soul”. I have French friends who recall being taken to Paris as children and seeing the immense crater that was dug where the old Les Halles once stood. As car parks, and a massive Metro and RER (regional/outer suburban network) interchange were gouged out of the earth to create escalator-accessed indoor floor levels numbered in the pluses and minuses, the construction/destruction of the site echoed years of previous works in the city. For all the time, as Sante reminds, there is a “centrifugal force” of slum clearance, flinging the poor out to the periphery of Paris.

It is a touching delight to read novelist Victor Serge’s reference to Belleville as “an ardent plebeian capital, as indigent and levelled as an anthill”. He moved there in 1909. And it is informative to learn that Belleville’s curious straddling of four arrondissements was a deliberate administrative attack on its cohesion and identity, an attempt to clip its wings. Even its raggle-taggle good people saw fit to complain of the dreadful stink from the Montfaucon dump which once occupied the site of today’s Buttes Chaumont park in the nineteenth arrondissement, to which were made countless daily deliveries of tonnes of human excrement, the carcasses of dead donkeys and the like. The dump is a ghost too which reminds us of the industrial scale of living without which any capital city would not have come to exist. Today, boulevard de Belleville’s twice-weekly street market is a raw yelling landscape as stall-owners shout prices for grapes, tomatoes and figs. Other sell broken shoes, sellotape, sticky scissors, rusting screwdrivers, items of dubious origin. It runs from Couronnes up past Tunisian Jewish restaurants and a side turn where a presumed castrato takes your order cheerfully, eventually leading to the Chinese exuberance of Belleville crossroads. The Asian prostitutes ply daylight trade beside the supermarkets selling live fish, as simple Wen Zhou restaurants flog tasty dumplings of pork, chives and ginger on rue de Belleville. A sea of complementary nationalities and skin tones surges past: it really feels like the family of man, almost like an ad for cultural diversity. A little further up the hill, a Chinese “PMU” bookies bar, where people watch the racing on TV and place bets over beers, has been reborn as a place of occasional weeknight tango. No need to dress up: come as you are, clodhopper – just stand at the bar gazing, drinking, loving this wonderful life.

Sante’s book explains that with the development of leisure and the phenomenon of people sitting outside bars and restaurants on terraces, the passing poor were afforded glimpses of what the wealthier were eating and learned to imitate such meals and place them on their own plates as best they could. Such class interaction was built into the structure of houses and inculcated a “social ecosystem” in each building, with different classes living on the different floors: economics empowered people to trudge up as few flights of stairs as they could afford. Such vertical communities are the infrastructure of George Perec’s masterwork, Life: A User’s Manual (1978). It is a novel not mentioned by Sante in these pages, it is a Decameron of tales about people in Paris, leaping across the class structure as it profiles tenants in various rooms across various floors of a large house. Naming his chapters along the lines of “Third floor right” or “On the stairs, 8”, Perec wove his literary jigsaw of tales around inhabitants of rooms, the ghosts of previous inhabitants of those very same rooms all too present and influential, along with the flotsam and jetsam found on the stairs over the years. Perec was a prose poet of Paris’s magnificence, whose own childhood home was on the steeply inclined rue Vilin, a street all but erased in the construction of the soaring and beautiful jardin de Belleville in the mid-1980s.

Sante states his goal in writing this book: to create a reminder of what life was like in cities “when they were as vivid and savage and uncontrollable” as Paris.

It was a city composed of myriad small undertakings, momentary decisions, fluctuations of enthusiasm, accommodations to fortune, which accrued and weathered and developed a patina, and were built on top and next to and around in an endless process of layering. Even now, the layout of streets in some parts of town derives from ancient and forgotten circumstances … over time this curve and that angle, having no logical sense, developed as it were personalities. They coloured the ideas and habits of those who lived on the street or used it every day, allowed for dark corners in which dark thoughts could be stored, and created off-kilter rhythms that prevented monotony. And then those subtle turns and nudges slowly and invisibly engendered all sorts of things: beauty, curiosity, ambition, skepticism, discontent.

He exudes wonderful urban understanding here, a detached god’s view of disparate human strains forced together – presenting in the process every city of people as a fascinated and motivated insect colony always worth an even closer look.

Many will wax lyrical about the flâneur concept, but it never appealed to me, seeming to be little more than a heavy-handed textbook approach to Paris that any sane, hungry, intelligent person would implicitly devise better for themselves. Bars were always to be stood at – who in their full health and with all five gears of energy fully functioning would not drink the cheaper beer and coffee available au comptoir? Sit en terrasse? Nah. If there was such a terrasse of any scale in the bars I liked in the twentieth (and generally there was not), I would switch between observing the kitchen chores of the servers and winning small smiles and looking out the door at the people lolling on wickerwork chairs and consuming double-price beverages.

The life of Paris bars was always best au comptoir. No surprise that the poorly perceived versions of Paris recycled by practitioners of what is termed “travel writing” make much of such terrasses. Crassly pencilled forty-eight-hour “insider” itineraries of the city tend to suggest the bizarre activity of “people-watching” while sitting at such terraces. “People-watching” is often recommended as a perfect way to relax after the requisite tourist sites have been clocked up. “People-watching”? If experience and perception of fellow humans has to be ringfenced and corralled into such trite activities, perhaps after all one can find a little more space in a nasty heart for the rather more enlightened, if still obvious activity of the flâneur. The flâneur is one whose “imaginative empathy … overrides mere tourism”. And Baudelaire apparently offers some shorthand by which to understand such characters: “The crowd is his domain as air is that of a bird, as water is that of a fish.” Sante tells us the flâneur is in sympathy with time “not from nostalgia but from an obligation to truth”.

Sante respects Paris in the present as he reaches into the well of its past: “The city’s principal constituent matter is accrued time. The place is lousy with it … History is always in the gun sights of planners and developers, and of reactionaries, who in the absence of a convenient past are content to invent one, winding their fantasies around some factual nugget suitably distant and fogged by legend.” Also: “Official approbations of history, however ostensibly benevolent in intent and graced with accredited consultants, will always be chary of the actual mess and stink of the past, and as a consequence they always gravitate towards the condition of the theme park. Those paddle-shaped markers planted here and there throughout Paris are very nice, but they are like historical multivitamins, meant to be ingested and immediately forgotten.”

Too many well-intentioned fetishists flock to Paris for dead heroes, focused on the greatness of a deceased Beckett, Joyce or Morrison. They may be blinded by nameplates; they become understandable and innocent but dangerous agents of the aspic that twists Paris into the museum within which many would incarcerate it. Tourists can serve as damaging spades in the Père Lachaise or Montmartre graveyards they visit to worship at the graves of cultural heroes. They heap further levels of clay upon the living city, forcing it to become an ancient ruin set firmly in the past, where it is easier for them to see it. Such expectations of Paris enslave it as the city of light, the city of love, the city of left bank intellectuals, of tired Les Deux Magots and La Coupole existential clichés. Ninety-five per cent of all writing about Paris is soggy, worn, lazy, star-struck, formulaic merde. This book serves as a magnificent antidote: it is a compendium of insights and shards. Its history of streets and communities reeks of respect for human life.

Paris, like any city, has its own history of illness: its lower classes were locked into a “cycle of infection and rot”. Sante is illuminating in his observation that they were not so much victims of disease as seen to be carriers of it. The purpose of hospitals was deemed less to alleviate the sufferings of the afflicted than to minimise contagion – hospitals were “warehouses of misery”. Across the nineteenth century the frail body of cholera tottered, with five nasty outbreaks from 1832 to 1884.

Despite squalor and poverty, Paris was painted as a safe city in the early nineteenth century, “crowded with unfortunates, but not with criminals”. However, in the sputtering dimness of that century’s gas light, crime was not understood to be a result of social deprivation. Instead criminals were perceived as “an organised alternative society” – the criminal classes of the city festered cheek by jowl with the wealthy, who lived among them. The classic French tool of punishment, the guillotine, fell upon the first outstretched neck in 1792. It chopped off its last head as recently as 1977, down south in Marseille, from whose bay island prison Dumas’s fictional character Edmond Dantès escapes only to return as the Count of Monte Cristo. The guillotine, we are told, was described by Céline as “le Prix Goncourt for murderers”.

The development of music halls and popular entertainment is described, as is the emergence of dandy criminals or stylised gangsters in suits and fedoras from 1925 on. These took over the cocaine trade from the Germans and engaged in the requisite bank and warehouse robberies, along with brothel management and the smuggling of booze and fags. The smart-suited Americanised ganglords in Jean Pierre Melville’s films, such as Le Samaurai (1967), are familiar representations, although Sante refrains from making the connection. In general, he avoids reference to film except for Jacques Becker’s Le Casque D’Or (1952), to which he returns several times to illustrate crime and community along the outer edge of Paris’s twentieth arrondissement. 

Sante’s chapter on insurgents across the centuries is detailed and evocative but ties itself, however colourfully, to a history of facts and dates and salient events. By chapter 11 even the most uptight reader of this book will long have surrendered to the decadent and slovenly miasma of its portrayal of Paris. The book has by then convinced you of un certain regard. It has opened your pores to a city of dossing down in doorways and addicted you to its history of impressions and characters, its cast of underdogs offered up with immense human insight. The struggles of these dead ancestors help us recognise our own foibles. These Parisians beam back down to us a spectrum of familiar traits: being constrained by economics, taking care of one’s affairs, seeking to escape it all through music, dance and drink. The observations in these pages include those of documenters and social historians, who themselves are worthy citizens of the shifting urban pile that is Paris. The book fuels a desire to be other people in the past, to have lived other lives. You may find yourself wanting to have been one of these thieves, one of these gangsters or molls, maybe a whore or a pimp enlivened in Sante’s lamplighter luminance.

I am reminded of numerous personal escapades and investigations of Paris over four years in the mid-1990s. One such night adventure, banal enough yet vivid, followed several hours swigging the demonic Huit Six beer, the flattened navy cans of which on any street always suggest doorways populated by lost drinkers and people fallen through the cracks. With my friend Philippe M, a fellow swaggering pastmaster of the twentieth arrondissement, I had scrambled up a rough ancient wall to find some type of flat-field nuclear or electrical-type space from which mushroom-shaped vents sprouted. This was a different planet, a phase of science in the shadow of the St Blaise church on rue de Bagnolet just up from a squat that later decayed into a Starck-designed boutique hotel. What should have been a country churchyard or series of outer-rim city graves appeared to be some type of suburban reservoir. Our arms weakened on the wall and we slid back down to earth, chests cut and grazed, two cats scalded by curiosity.

Sante tells us that in 1894 there were five hundred anarchists in Paris. Earlier he bemoans the city’s shift to routine and conformity, and alludes to his hope that “the perverse human capacity for disobedience will prevail in the end, the way worms can undermine a wall”. One can savour his use of “respectable” when he writes of “people whose collections had taken over the lion’s share of their lodgings and those who earned a respectable living from mail order fraud”. He quotes Louis Aragon, writing about the Buttes Chaumont park in 1926, in which he describes Paris at night: “It’s an immense monster made of sheet metal, pierced by a thousand eyes.” This is a nugget of urban description to cherish. And he tells us that the “past is always in flux … surviving as a dynamic undercurrent … among a great many people lying low who remember things.” Sante’s heart is with those people lying low who remember things. His book is a vivid protection and fortress for a collective and popular memory of Paris.

1/2/2016

John Fleming is an Irish Times journalist and fiction writer who lived in the eleventh and twentieth arrondissements of Paris for half a decade in the 1990s and keeps going back.

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