Unreal City

Michael Wood

  • Paris and the 19th Century by Christopher Prendergast
    Blackwell, 283 pp, £35.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 631 15788 3

Baudelaire’s city is swarming with people and full of dreams, a place of daylight ghosts.

Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves
Où le spectre, en plein jour, raccroche le passant!

It is a zone of hideous excitements and grim dislocations, and it has become, through Eliot and others, the great city of sophisticated modern mythology, the labyrinth where we love to get lost and feel homeless. As long as we are not really homeless, of course: merely not-at-home, metaphysically on the move. The tourist city offers more or less the reverse of this image, or is its sanitised and cheerified twin. The swarm is a bustle, dreams are fulfilled, and the ghosts are harmless, inviting advertisements. No one lives in this carefully edited place, but it is full of people. I think (I hope) upbeat enjoyments of the tourist city are still possible – more possible, and more permissible, than Christopher Prendergast suggests – and they are surely more appealing than the glum romanticising of awfulness by which many city-dwellers manage simultaneously to accuse and congratulate themselves. But of course Prendergast is right to point to what such enjoyments necessarily exclude or deny.

Paris and the 19th Century is an intricate and challenging book, with much to tell us not only about Paris but about other cities, and about the business of thinking about cities. It explores urban perspectives high and low, hills, towers, sewers, markets, parks, canals, boulevards, barricades, shops, taking as its witnesses chiefly poets and novelists but also painters and photographers, and the authors of guides, catalogues, essays, manifestos, reports. It is a dense and rich work, it thinks hard and it makes you think. From the man who fell into a cesspool in 1782, watched by various scientists interested in new ways of managing miasma, it takes us to the stench and dirt of the 19th-century city. From the fact that the century is taken emblematically to begin with the removal of skeletons from a cemetery we move to its equally emblematic ending with the opening of the Métro. This is work inspired by Walter Benjamin, as Prendergast says, whose ‘imprint’ is to be found ‘virtually everywhere in the following pages’. But the influence has been thoroughly assimilated, converted into practice. Benjamin has provided insights and ways of seeing, but above all, it seems, a model of modern curiosity, an assortment of hunches about where to look.

The heart of the book, as Prendergast says, is a long chapter on Baudelaire’s prose poems, seen as works where the city is not only a topic and a scene but a provocation and a problem, an interrogation of literature. It’s not that the prose poem is the urban form par excellence, as is often suggested: it’s that the prose poem, in Baudelaire’s hands, becomes a site of tension and threatened collapse, takes the stubborn realities of the city into its language. Class, for instance, appears in ‘Les Yeux des pauvres’ not as ‘a polemically contrived image’ but as a ‘brute reality ... simply there, obdurate, intractable, as that which will not go away’. Baudelaire thus undoes, as Prendergast says, ‘one of the great fictions of Second Empire Paris: that the culture of the boulevard has been fully democratised, and that the city of pleasure is available to all’: but he almost undoes his own writing in the process, and certainly undoes his aesthetic of harmony and control. ‘The question ... is whether there are any adequate, fully workable forms for the poetic representation of urban life, or whether the latter is so refractory that it puts the idea of poetry itself into crisis.’

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