A City of Sand and Puddles

Julian Barnes

  • Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb
    Picador, 476 pp, £18.99, April 2010, ISBN 978 0 330 45244 1
  • The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps by Eric Hazan, translated by David Fernbach
    Verso, 384 pp, £20.00, February 2010, ISBN 978 1 84467 411 4

Like many Francophiles, I’ve never read a book about Paris. Not a whole one, all the way through, anyway. Of course, I’ve bought enough of them, of every sort, and in some cases the hope of their being read has extended over several years. For instance, I was almost sure I would tackle the distinguished art critic John Russell’s Paris (1960), ‘with photographs by Brassaï’, but never got past the pictures. I had slightly less confidence about Maxime Du Camp’s six-volume Paris, ses organes, ses fonctions et sa vie dans la seconde moitié du XIXe siècle (1869-76), bought partly for its Flaubertian connections, or rather disconnections. (Flaubert always saw himself as being betrayed by the literary friends of his youth: one betrayed him by marrying, another by dying, while Du Camp, in the worst treason of the three, betrayed him by becoming a journalising littérateur – of which this massive work is a triumph of that form, or, for Flaubert, non-form.) More practically, I bought Paris à pied – published by the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre – after discovering from a browse that there is a red and yellow waymarked path running west-east across Paris, that the GR1 crossed the Bois de Boulogne and the GR14 and 14A the Bois de Vincennes; but no, even this exciting prospect didn’t get me lacing my boots. And then there are the cultural and literary guides which Paris regularly spawns: Hemingway at the Ritz bar, Sartre at the Deux Magots, Balzac and Victor Hugo practically everywhere – here we go again.

It’s partly that the Francophile tends not to absorb Paris in a head-on fashion. Instead, it comes at us constantly through novels, paintings, opera, cinema, chansons, popular mythology – and, mainly, through being there. And there are certain works – like, say, the Goncourt Journal – which serve as a kind of unofficial history of the Paris of their time. The city seems too inchoate to be absorbed – like, say, Venice – into a single volume; and at the same time less monumental than, say, London, which demands such treatment (and has surely received it). Paris in its history dominated France much less than London dominated England. So we perhaps prefer to read about separate, key episodes which happened to take place in Paris. There is something dispiriting about the idea of slogging through from the day the first Roman banged his palisade stake into the ground in defence against the local Parisii, and then Clovis, and on to Paris being Worth a Mass, and the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre and the Fronde and the Revolution and 1870-71 and the Belle Epoque, the American Expats, the Occupation, Liberation, 1968, and so on, even unto Whither Paris, City of Light, in the Transnational Age?

Graham Robb and Eric Hazan are both keen to avoid the Gendarme Plod approach, and well aware that, as Robb puts it, ‘a changing metropolis with a population of millions can never be comprehended by a single person.’ They also typify the difference between English and French intellectual approaches. The very title of Robb’s Parisians announces that it is going to be based on people rather than thesis or theory; while its craftily alluring subtitle ‘An Adventure History of Paris’ seems to hint at Jules Verne (not that he is mentioned), and more widely at pace, narrative, readability. The virtues of fiction are evoked from the beginning, and practised throughout. Hazan’s approach is psychogeographical and political: the ‘invention’ of his title is not specifically explained, but by the end of his book the reader will understand it more in the sense of ‘fraudulent perception’ than ‘welcome discovery’. Hazan wants to rescue individual moments from general forgetting and key sites from the bland homogenisation of international city development; he is also a passionate left-wing historian seeking to rescue the truth of Paris’s revolutionary past from the historiographical equivalent of Haussmannisation – the blasting through and laying waste to the lives and memories of the unimportant, the marginalised, the losers of the last two centuries.

Robb began his career with biographies of Balzac, Hugo and Rimbaud; they were ‘highly acclaimed’, which is both true and also a publishing euphemism for ‘anything between two and five thousand in hardback’. One reason for the acclaim was that those three literary lives were all, to use his current subtitle, ‘adventure’ stories, and the reader sensed that Robb was as much drawn to the surprising, anti-bookish trajectory of his subjects’ lives as he was to the greatness or otherwise of their writings. (The Hugo was a great relief to non-Hugolians: Robb would frequently expound an embarrassingly unread work – Les Travailleurs de la mer, for instance – in such a way as to leave the doubter relieved that, no, this one didn’t really have to be read either.) But at times you could imagine Robb fretting at the inevitable conventions of the one volume literary life. He needed a wider scope, and found it first with Strangers, an account of homosexual love in the 19th century, and then The Discovery of France, which was his ‘breakout book’ – the publishing euphemism for ‘maybe twenty thousand, maybe more, in hardback’. Now, with his ninth book, Robb confirms his reputation as our leading non-academic interpreter of France. Not that he lacks academic rigour; but it lies discreetly behind a non-academic joyfulness. The French used to celebrate Richard Cobb as le grand Cobb; and perhaps it isn’t too early to hail his successor as le grand Robb.

Of Robb’s 19 chapters, three are set in the late 18th century, six in the 19th, eight in the 20th and two in the 21st. They feature many of the best-known official names in Parisian and French history – Napoleon, Marie-Antoinette, Vidocq, Haussmann, Proust, Hitler, Juliette Gréco, De Gaulle – and yet the approach to them is invariably oblique. Thus the first chapter opens on a river boat from Auxerre to Paris in November 1787, its varied passenger list including ‘soldiers, travelling salesmen, wandering musicians, monks and peasants, and the army of wet-nurses who left their babies at home and went to sell their breast-milk in the capital’. Among them is an 18-year-old artillery lieutenant who is ‘afraid of nothing except embarrassment’ and slightly too big for his boots. Quite a few readers might guess that this is the young Napoleon, but Robb does not confirm it until the penultimate page of the chapter. He also declines historical prolepsis: the story is not about a young man’s dreams of glory, filled with had-we-but-eyes-to-see moments, but rather about the loss of the lieutenant’s virginity to a young prostitute he encountered in the Palais-Royal. The focus is as much on the place and its pleasures as on this passing, as yet anonymous client.

Robb frequently begins an ‘adventure’ by disguising his protagonist’s identity and the chapter’s theme. Sometimes he starts in the least obvious place: ‘It ended somewhere in England in 1828.’ There is one chapter whose sections are numbered in reverse order and told in reverse chronology. He casts the affair between Juliette Gréco and Miles Davis as a film script, while his account of the ‘events’ of 1968 is laid out as a parody of a sociology textbook, with questions and answers at the end of sections. Some of these techniques work better than others; and there is a tendency to internalise – ‘he remembers’, ‘he imagined’, ‘he can imagine’. If this is less dubious than the wretched ‘biographer’s past conditional’ (‘Surely at this point she would have thought …’), the reader is still left unsure whether Robb is lightly fictionalising or referring to some moment in the character’s memoirs (his chapter notes consist of a list of titles rather than being sentence-specific). So when, for instance, we are put into Baron Haussmann’s mind and told – of a memory from his student days – that ‘The image is so vivid that, without thinking, he glances down at his boots,’ the pickier reader might silently mouth the question: ‘Well, did he or didn’t he?’ Of course, not everything has to be footnoted, and truth may come from invention as well. One of the most vivid Anglo-versions of French social history was Robert Baldick’s Dinner at Magny’s (1971), in which everything that was spoken by the famous literary diners was a true quote, while the context and narrative furniture were often arranged, or rearranged. And Robb’s stories are, after all, ‘adventures’.

And very narratively exciting most of them are, like the case of the revenge-murderer François Picaud and the archivist with ‘the face of a fanatical moderate’, Jacques Peuchet; or the perennially ambiguous Vidocq, the criminal turned policeman whose Stakhanovite success meant that each year as head of the Sûreté he managed to arrest in Paris far more ‘criminals’ than there were convictions in the whole of the Seine département. Robb understands the value of the view from below: sometimes literally so, as with Charles-Axel Guillaumot, who from 1777 spent ten years propping up Paris to stop it falling in on its own centuries of quarrying and excavation (he also supervised the reburying of the dead which produced the wittily ghoulish Catacombes at Denfert-Rochereau, where the remains are stacked by bone-part rather than owner – femurs here, skulls over there). Or, the view from below may be metaphorical, as in the chapter on Occupied Paris told through the eyes of two Jewish children who escaped the trawl.

In one especially brilliant narrative, Robb recounts Hitler’s lightning tour of conquered Paris from the point of view of the German sculptor Arno Breker, who was charged with deciding which monuments the Führer would visit (and whose memoirs appeared in 1972). The trip lasted two and a half hours, and is by turns creepy, comic and an absolutely normal if rather speeded-up tourist experience. The Opéra’s rehearsal room reminds the Führer of Degas; he dismisses the Madeleine as ‘disappointingly pedantic’; expresses his high admiration for the sculptor Carpeaux; judges the Louvre façade ‘one of the greatest works of genius in the history of architecture’, and the basilica of Sacré-Coeur ‘appalling’. That we might agree with quite a few of these judgments makes Hitler more sinister, not less.

Robb’s eye is quirky, amused and très British. He notes that in the 1840s it was illegal to have a window box in your Paris apartment because ‘death by falling window box was always high up the official list of fatalities.’ He notes the commercial viability, on French eBay in May 2008, of Parisian cobblestones which had supposedly seen heroic action 40 years previously. He tells the story of a motorcyclist known as ‘Le Prince Noir’ setting the speed record for a circuit of the Périphérique – an astounding 11 minutes and four seconds, in September 1989 – with a link to the video of the feat. A case in which Vidocq is trying to unearth a criminal called Fossard, with only a rough geographical location to go on, plus the presence of a hunchback seamstress and a pair of yellow curtains, leads to the following Robbian calculation:

Assuming young men to be representative of the whole population, medical reports on army conscripts would suggest that there were something in the region of 6135 hunchbacks in Paris. The streets of Paris had a total length of 425 kilometres, and the fish-route along which Fossard lurked behind yellow curtains was 900 metres long. Allowing for variations in population density in the different quartiers, this would give the streets in question a total hunchback population of 13.

This is the most felicitous use of statistics since Patrick Marnham’s account of the Lucan case. (Noting that Lucan, in his days as an inhouse gambler at the Clermont Club, ate nothing but lamb cutlets, summer and winter, Marnham worked out the approximate number of sheep the disappearing milord must have chomped his way through during his days of dim glory.)

Robb’s final chapter is both très Robb and très British. Browsing in a Latin Quarter bookshop, he discovers that there is apparently a ‘mountain’ in the 18th arrondissement of the city. This comes as a great surprise, given that Paris is, as Robb puts it, ‘a geographical anticlimax, a city built on sand and puddles’. (He quotes Stendhal’s ‘disgust’ of 1799: ‘The environs struck me as horribly ugly – there were no mountains!’) It is also exciting news for a writer whose preferred mode of transport – as readers of The Discovery of France will recall – is the bicycle. A mountain, moreover, even if unobtrusive and urban, implies a mountain pass, or col, and there is a French cycling organisation called the Club des Cent Cols which celebrates (and defends) this topographical phenomenon. Rather like mountain climbers ‘collecting’ the Munroes, serious two-wheelers in France log the number of mountain passes they have conquered. When they get to 100 – which must have been crossed ‘for personal pleasure’ and not during competition – the cyclist may submit his or her list to the club, and provided that each col is included in the club’s official list, ‘the new member receives a colourful diploma stating that the holder has, “on a cycle propelled by muscular force alone, climbed at least 100 cols, including five over 2000 metres”.’ Robb himself has by this time overcome and logged 216 different cols. The new-found col de la Chapelle doesn’t appear on any map of the 18th arrondissement, but Robb finds a 17th-century print which shows the village of La Chapelle strung out along a slight ridge (nowadays, the Eurostar runs through a nearby cutting). He and his wife conquer this mildest of ascents and submit their claim to the Club des Cent Cols. It isn’t, apparently, easy to get a new col registered: the club is severe on those who send in for ratification either ‘invented’ cols (invented for promotional or touristic reasons) or ones with an ‘indistinct topography’. Two things usually happen when English eccentricity meets French bureaucracy. First, the bureaucracy wins: so the president of the club emails Robb to say, ‘This col has never been accepted. It is not shown on a map, nor is it named by a sign.’ Second, the Englishman declines to accept defeat. Robb consoles himself with the fact that the president has referred to ‘the col’, so is not actually denying the existence of this subtle mountain pass. And if the problem is largely cartographic in origin … The Englishman therefore writes to the Institut Géographique National in an attempt to get his precious col onto the map. At first … but no, this is a continuing Adventure, and you really should read it for yourself.

Robb’s presence in his own book is cheerful, discreet and largely unjudging. Eric Hazan’s is angry, denunciatory and fiercely partisan. If there are, inevitably, numerous overlappings of subject and personnel between the two books – Balzac, Haussmann, Baudelaire, the Palais-Royal, De Gaulle and Pompidou, the photographer Marville, Louis Chevalier’s catalogue of architectural destruction in L’Assassinat de Paris – there are very few of tone. Hazan’s book is less easy of access than Robb’s, partly because the Frenchman is busy being several things at the same time: bookish psychogeographer, rescuing historian and committed Benjaminic flâneur; he is memory, conscience and scourge. The Invention of Paris is crammed with detail and opinion (and has murkily unreadable maps in place of useful illustration). It also frequently bursts out of its own initial plotline: a systematic, historical, topographical and cultural delineation of each quartier, arrondissement and ex-village that make up the city. Just after halfway, it shrugs off this approach altogether for a lengthy essay on ‘Red Paris’, followed by two shorter ones on flâneurs and photography.

Hazan is furious at what has been done to Paris, and also to politics and history in the city, and just as furious at the subsequent rewriting and bowdlerising of history. ‘Turbulent Paris’ is what he celebrates, and he is particularly concerned to rehabilitate the easily forgotten revolts and revolutions between the two main Turbulences of 1789 and 1871. In Hazan’s view, 1848 – for Marx, the ‘ugly’ revolution – has been comparatively neglected because it cannot be usefully appropriated; also because there were fewer intellectuals involved to record and preserve it. One of Hazan’s romantic heroes is the lifelong revolutionary Charles Delescluze, who took part in the 1830 and 1848 uprisings, endured regular exile and imprisonment, until, in 1871, as an elected member of the Commune’s council, he walked to an inspiring death. Hazan writes: ‘When Oscar Wilde was asked what had been the saddest event of his life, he replied that it was the death of Lucien de Rubempré in Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life. If I had to answer the same question, I would choose the death of Delescluze on the barricade of the Château d’Eau.’

The near-century from the defeat of the Commune up to 1968 displayed ‘the pacification of political manners’, or ‘civil war by other means’. Then came the first ‘modern revolution’ – modern in the sense that ‘it did not aim at taking power.’ And since? In Hazan’s view, a long period of calm, with the city ‘stuck in the continuum of the Bergsonian time of domination and boredom’: put differently, ‘30 years of torpor, 30 years in which its centre has been renovated-museumified and its periphery ravaged in silence’. This sentence ends, ‘Paris is seeking to reawaken,’ but it sounds more a squeak of hope than a call to arms.

Le grand Cobb hated many of the things Hazan hates: the mummification and museumification of the city, the bourgeois conformism, the scattering of the poor and the troublemakers. He also detested many of the same people: Cobb called Pompidou a ‘visionary vandal’ and Baron Haussmann the ‘Alsatian Attila’. (They part company, however, on Hugo, who for Cobb was ‘France’s National Bore’.) Both Cobb and Hazan believe that walking a city is the first and best means of knowing and understanding it, and flânerie deeply purposeful. Hazan is especially alert to street names, aware that each tin sign may represent a highly politicised act. He has counted ‘31 Paris streets named after the glorious campaigns of Napoleon III in Italy, the Crimea and Mexico’. He notes more than once that writers on the left are less successful at acquiring street names than those on the right. And out in the 20th arrondissement, Hazan discovers the rue Lucien-Leuwen, which he assures us is ‘the only street in Paris to bear the name of the hero of a novel’ – even if, disappointingly, it turns out to be a cul-de-sac. (A few years ago I was walking in Toronto near the waterfront, when I saw ahead of me Yo-Yo Ma Lane. I spent the next 20 paces silently applauding municipal large-heartedness, until, yes, it too turned out to be a cul-de-sac: just a grubby 30-metre stretch between two condos, more like a goods entrance than a ‘lane’.)

Haussmann, the very symbol of civic control and clearance, is probably the most controversial and politically divisive figure in the last two centuries of Parisian history. He opened up vistas – and access for cavalry. He destroyed insalubrious slums – and centres of political opposition. During the 1848 revolution, Hazan writes, ‘There was much fighting in the Cité and the adjacent part of the Latin Quarter … and this centre of insurrection had to be eradicated.’ He continues: ‘I am aware that this last sentence goes counter to contemporary historiography. By an amalgam that is characteristic of the spirit of our time, the (useful) reappreciation of 19th-century architecture has led to a positive revaluation of Haussmann, to the point of a ridiculous minimisation of his anti-insurrectionary concerns.’ Yet Haussmann was at times quite explicit about his intentions, and Hazan does not want the baron’s contemporary apologists to get away with it. This is what Haussmann said: ‘I do not hesitate to proclaim that strategic embellishments are the most admirable of embellishments.’ The baron is also, for Hazan, a test case: if Haussmann can be rehabilitated, can Louis Napoleon be far behind?

In Parisians, Robb puts himself into Haussmann’s head – history as style indirect libre – writing that the prefect

will not be asked to die for his emperor, but he is prepared to sacrifice his reputation, which is besmirched almost every day – by liberals and socialists, who forget that the poor now have more hospital beds and proper graves; by nostalgic bohemians, who forget everything; and even by his own social equals, who find the inconvenience of moving house too heavy a price to pay for the most beautiful city in the world.

Hazan might fall into the category of both ‘socialist’ and ‘nostalgic bohemian’ – but is the very opposite of one who ‘forgets everything’. The contemporary tourist (another of Hazan’s dislikes: he used to patronise the Café de la Mairie on the place Saint-Sulpice, ‘but I avoid it now because of its clientele, made up of smart tourists and elegant ladies taking a rest there after doing their shopping in the haute-couture boutiques nearby’) might idly thank Haussmann for taxi-friendly boulevards and Malraux for having the city’s monuments scraped and cleaned while he was minister of culture. Hazan knows that Haussmann destroyed what was left of old Paris and drove politically dangerous communities out to the periphery of the city; while Malraux, along with De Gaulle and Pompidou, completed a process whose final purpose was essentially ‘American-style zoning by income’. Non-zoning had always been one of Paris’s excitements, and one of its differences from London:

Paris mingled rich and poor in close proximity, but also in a vertical order. The same building would house shops on the ground floor – the shopkeeper living on the mezzanine – apartments for the aristocracy on the second storey (the ‘noble’ floor before the invention of the lift), and workers in the attics. This mix had not yet completely disappeared even in the early 1960s.

Hazan hates façadisation – wherein a building’s front is preserved while everything behind is gutted – as ‘perhaps worse’ than demolition. He scorns the ‘sad idea’ of ‘heritage’ and sarcastically gives ‘top marks’ as ‘active agents of urban deterioration’ to the Service des Espaces Verts, who specialise in ‘plantations hemmed in by metal grilles, with plants of a particular ugliness that are found now throughout Paris, selected so that they never flower and get rapidly covered with an unpleasant dust’. Like le grand Cobb, he loathes Pompidou and all his works – which should not be held to include the Centre Pompidou, since the politician bitterly opposed the Piano-Rogers design, even though it ended up being named after him. (Hazan will therefore only use the building’s alternative title, the Centre Beaubourg – which, in any case, seems over the years to have acquired primacy.) Whereas Robb fair-mindedly applauds Giscard d’Estaing’s decree limiting the height of new buildings in Paris to 25 metres for the centre and 37 for the periphery (‘This was 13 and 19 heights of Giscard respectively’), Hazan does not even name-check Giscard. He hates what has happened to the Champs-Elysées – ‘like the duty-free mall of an international airport’ – and mocks the ‘ridiculous fate’ of the area round Les Halles: ‘As for the underground shopping mall that goes by the noble name of Forum, the most surprising thing is that its author is still classed as an architect.’

It would be easy but unfair to portray Hazan as a mere valetudinarian grouch; he is a good hater because he is also a passionate rememberer and celebrator of inner and outer Paris. Thus he devotes three pages to the obscure former village of La Chapelle – without, alas, awarding the place a col. He describes it as ‘the end of the world, lost between the overhead Métro, the tracks of the Nord and Est railways, and the big warehouses on boulevard Ney, along which young women hailing from Black Africa and Eastern Europe are busy attracting the attention of lorry drivers parked in the side streets. This is the most deprived part of Paris.’

Hazan, like Robb, spares a few sentences for the church of Saint-Denis-de-la-Chapelle, ‘buried in a cape of sick concrete’; then mentions a brief non-adventure of André Breton’s in the area. But even here he finds a ‘hidden charm’ in the little Chinese quarter, the ‘welcoming cafés on rue l’Olive’, and the covered market ‘whose clientele is a reflection of every continent on earth’. And then, suddenly, he writes:

The landscape beyond rue Riquet, where the bridge crosses the tracks of the Est railway, is for me one of the most beautiful in Paris, with an immense all-round vista towards the rue d’Aubervilliers and the disused building of the Pompes Funèbres Municipales, designed by a belated imitator of Ledoux, towards the repair shops for rolling stock of the Nord railway, whose semiconical nesting roofs suggest the scales of a prehistoric reptile.

Hazan loves what has been there because it has been there; not because he is some ‘ruin-bibber, randy for antique’, but because what has been there is true Paris, which too often loses out to fake Paris (the ‘invention’ of the title). Like many, he loves the railways, once ‘one of the great bastions of the imagination’. But like France’s revolutionary history, the railways are currently receiving a cover-up – a literal one. Over the TGV lines into the Gare Montparnasse, an ‘Atlantic garden’ has been laid out, ‘whose principal merit is to be almost undiscoverable’; similar projects are under way elsewhere. The excuse is beautification, the reason financial: more exploitable land is created by covering the tracks while offering the public the sop of a ‘paved garden’. ‘After so many horrors,’ Hazan rages, ‘one might think this very term would be proscribed, that for once the “duty of memory” would be put to some use.’ There, in two phrases – ‘covering the tracks’ versus ‘the duty of memory’ – is the essential thrust of Hazan’s fierce and necessary book.