Tag Archives: Paris

Georges Perec: Species of Space

Georges Perec Species of SpaceGeorge Perec is an author whose work fills me with delight, Species of Space and the other pieces found in this collection are wonderful. Insightful. Playful. Everyday. Extraordinary. Not least because he loves lists as much as I do, more perhaps. I read his piece on the  Place Sans-Sulpice, and meant to read this too before going to Paris. So now it calls me back.

I particularly love how Perec is obsessed with space, but approaches it completely differently than would a planner, an architect, an urbanist. He approaches it from multiple directions, but almost none of them overlap with such work. The whole of Species of Space is to be found in this compilation, and excerpts from a few other works. I am almost annoyed at this stolen peek at them, because I loved this so much I shall have to go back and read all the rest.

Species of Space

It opens with this:

Perec map of the oceanHurrah.

In short order you have a wonderful definition of our experience of space.

In short, spaces have multiplied, been broken up and have diversified. There are spaces today of every kind and every size, for every use and every function. To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself. (6)

There are poems from Paul Eluard, playful drippings of words and letters across the page, plenty of empty white space between black typography.

This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, like those portolano-makers who saturated the coastlines with the names of harbours…

Space as inventory, space as invention. Space begins with that model map in the old editions of the Petit Larousse Illustre, which used to represent something like 65 geographical terms in 60 sq, cm., miraculously brought together, deliberately abstract. (13)

I remember my own childhood pouring over something like the English equivalent of such a book, full of maps and descriptions and magic. A memory of being inordinately proud of a map of South America I drew. I feel as though that memory is housed in the trailer, which means I was not more than five.

Perec gives us this, a gift:

Sitting deep in thought at their tables, writers are forming lines of words.

An idealized scene. Space as reassurance. (15)

Is this partly what I love about writing?

From here he starts on the spaces of lived experience. He starts from the inside out so to speak, with the bed itself. An interesting choice, I feel a good one. Each thing he describes, he begins with the most banal and simple of descriptions, but it serves to take something familiar and make it suddenly unfamiliar — and because the time and space between us, what is familiar to Perec is in fact not always familiar to me.

4.
A few other banalities:

We spend more than a third of our lives in bed. (19)

Moves on to the bedroom, notes the curious fact that he can visually reconstruct every room he’s ever slept in. A few observations:

3.

What does it mean, to live in a room? Is to live in a place to take possession of it? …

4.
Placid small thought no 1

Any cat-owner will rightly tell you that cats inhabit houses much better than people do. Even in the most dreadfully square spaces, they know how to find favourable corners. (24)

That is honestly one of the most insightful things I have ever read … because of course cats do. The question is, how?

From there to the apartment.

I don’t know, and don’t want to know, where functionality begins or ends. It seems to me, in any case, that in the ideal dividing-up of today’s apartments functionality functions in accordance with a procedure that is unequivocal, sequential and nycthemeral. (28)

The footnote? ‘This is the best phrase in the whole book!’

I might agree. I had to look up nycthemeral:

Adjective — Designating or characterized by a variation that occurs in a period of twenty-four hours, especially corresponding to the contrast between day and night. (Oxford Dictionary)

From here he proceeds to give an outline in three columns — time | activity | room. Again, the taken-for-granted of French housewife– working husband–child in school becomes estranged, and for me now so removed from such a life, really quite interesting.

The final section:

Staircases

We don’t think enough about staircases.

Nothing was more beautiful in old houses than the staircases. Nothing is uglier, colder, more hostile, meaner, in today’s apartment buildings.(38)

I suddenly thought what a difference it would make to give modern apartment buildings wonderful, beautiful staircases.

We move on to the apartment building. Then to the Street.

The buildings stand one beside the other. They form a straight line. They are expected to form a line, and it’s a serious defect in them when they don’t do so. They are then said to be ‘subject to alignment’, meaning that they can by rights be demolished, so as to be rebuilt in a straight line with the others. (46)

I can’t believe this is a thing everywhere, it definitely was in LA.

He looks at ‘practical exercises’ for understanding the street —

Carry on
Until the scene becomes improbable.
until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavement… (53)

Wonderful.

On to the neighbourhood.

Death of a Neighbourhood

What I miss above all is the neighbourhood cinema, with its ghastly advertisements for the dry cleaner’s on the corner. (58)

A curious question, a provoking question that immediately raises in me a great rushing of answers:

Why not set a higher value on dispersal? Instead of living in just one place, and trying in vain to gather yourself together there, why not have fix or six rooms dotted about Paris? (59)

On to the Town. On to the countryside.

I don’t have a lot to say concerning the country: the country doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion.

For most people of my kind, the country is a decorative space surrounding their second home…(68)

That I find rather hilarious. As I do the whole section on the ‘Village Utopia’ (70), where you know everyone, live happily, recognize all the birds. It kind of reminds me of the Stuart Lee sketch about the family who leave London for the country and start by praising the pony and end begging for him to visit and to bring cocaine. This is not nearly as obvious, however. The next section is on the ‘Nostalgic (and false) alternative’ (71) — between putting down roots or living completely rootless. They are interesting posed this way.

On to the country. Europe. Old Continent. New Continent. The World.

In getting to know a few square meters, Perec writes

And with these, the sense of the world’s concreteness, irreducible, immediate, tangible, of something clear and closer to us: of the world, no longer as a journey having constantly to be remade, not as a race without end, a challenge having constantly to be met, not as the one pretext for a despairing acquisitiveness, nor as the illusion of a conquest, but as the rediscovery of a meaning, the perceiving that the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors. (79)

And on to space. A quote from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. I don’t really like Italo Calvino, but I love Lawrence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, which Perec seems to love as much as I do and quotes from often and at length.

Then there is this extraordinary list, already pulled out and set in a blog alone because I treasure it, but repeated again in its context, where perhaps it sits a bit differently:

The Uninhabitable

The uninhabitable: Seas used as a dump, coastlines bristling with barbed wire, earth bare of vegetation, mass graves, piles of carcasses, boggy rivers, towns that smell bad

The uninhabitable: The architecture of contempt or display, the vainglorious mediocrity of tower blocks, thousands of rabbit hutches piled one above the other, the cutprice ostentation of company headquarters

The uninhabitable: the skimped, the airless, the small, the mean, the shrunken, the very precisely calculated

The uninhabitable: the confined, the out-of-bounds, the encaged, the bolted, walls jagged with broken glass, judas windows, reinforced doors

The uninhabitable: shanty towns, townships

The hostile, the grey, the anonymous, the ugly, the corridors of the Metro, public baths, hangars, car parks, marshalling yards, ticket windows, hotel bedrooms

factories, barracks, prisons, asylums, old people’s homes, lycees, law courts, school playgrounds (89-90)

Followed by another disquieting paragraph

Such places don’t exist, and it’s because they don’t exist that space becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated. Space is a doubt: I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it. (91)

Species of Space closes with the best index I have ever seen.

Georges PerecPenser / Classer (1985)

In ‘Notes on What I’m Looking For’, Perec describes four modes of his work, and this makes great sense of Species of Space and the other things I have read — and have yet to read. They are

‘sociological’: how to look at the everyday.

an autobiographical order (141)

The third is ludic and relates to my liking for constraints, for feats of skill, for ‘playing scales’….

the fictive, the liking for stories and adventures, the wish to write the sort of books that are devoured lying face down on your bed. (142)

Then there is ‘Notes Concerning the Objects that are on my Work Table’, a list, a thinking through of all the ways to arrange a desk (he has an ammonite in his desk!).  There is ‘Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books. The stacks of books to read, half read, to be shelved…the constant rearranging by theme, by author. It is such an intimate look at a life so like mine it is uncanny, a  friendship across years and miles.

A little later on you discover in ‘Reading: A Socio-physiological Outline’ that when Perec visits a friends house he raids their bookshelves for all the things he has long wanted to read, then retreats with a stack of them to his room to read through the night.

‘L’Infra-ordinaire’ (1989)

From ‘Approaches to What’, one of my very favourite quotes from the book, one that unexpectedly captures as well as Rob Nixon’s concept of ‘slow violence’ the difference between the spectacular and the everyday:

In our haste to measure the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. ‘Social problems’ aren’t ‘a matter of concern’ when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. (209)

He perhaps captures even better at the level of the individual why these kind of problems are not better understood, better struggled against.

To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if carried within neither questions nor answers … This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space? (210)

A final, brilliant admonition that shall remain with me forever in the daily rituals of life.

Question your tea spoons. (210)

He wrote an amazing piece on the Rue Vilin — where I am headed next time I am in Paris. The street his family lived on, where he lived until he was five. He returns and describes it shop by shop, building by building, sign by sign, at different times of day (all noted of course) in February 1969, June 1970, January 1971, November 1972, November 1974, November 1975. We witness the death of the street as it was. It is poignant, extraordinary, while it never rises above concrete description.

A collection of postcard messages rendered extraordinary by being grouped together. A puzzle, recurring styles, so many good meals and sunburns.

A list of everything Perec has ‘ingurgitated’ over the whole of 1974. What struck me most? He gives years for each of the wines.

All together, as I say, this was a book combining delight and insight. I also loved that this ended with some of Perec’s (impossible, also slightly problematic) word games constructed for his friends, and a few from the translator.

I will now go read everything else he has written. Except maybe the novel without the letter e.

[Perec, Georges (1997) Species of Space and Other Pieces, edited & translated by John Sturrock. London: Penguin Books.]

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Victor Hugo’s Paris in Les Miserables

It is hard nowadays to picture to one’s self what a pleasure-trip of students and grisettes to the country was like, forty-five years ago.

But Victor Hugo will do his best to picture it for us.

The suburbs of Paris are no longer the same; the physiognomy of what may be called circumparisian life has changed completely in the last half-century; where there was the cuckoo, there is the railway car; where there was a tender-boat, there is now the steamboat; people speak of Fecamp nowadays as they spoke of Saint-Cloud in those days. The Paris of 1862 is a city which has France for its outskirts.

Hugo writes to inscribe Paris in the memory, to immortalize it as it was, to make sure that generations never forget. This has an immense weight to it, a ponderous feeling as though an ancient uncle were pressing your hand and whispering truths about things you will never see but he expects you to hold dear. In this case, the setting of the Gorbeau house, where Jean Valjean flees with Cosette.

Gorbeau-house-largeThe barrier was close at hand. In 1823 the city wall was still in existence.

This barrier itself evoked gloomy fancies in the mind. It was the road to Bicêtre. It was through it that, under the Empire and the Restoration, prisoners condemned to death re-entered Paris on the day of their execution. It was there, that, about 1829, was committed that mysterious assassination, called “The assassination of the Fontainebleau barrier,” … Take a few steps, and you come upon that fatal Rue Croulebarbe, where Ulbach stabbed the goat-girl of Ivry to the sound of thunder, as in the melodramas. A few paces more, and you arrive at the abominable pollarded elms of the Barrière Saint-Jacques, that expedient of the philanthropist to conceal the scaffold, that miserable and shameful Place de Grève of a shop-keeping and bourgeois society, which recoiled before the death penalty, neither daring to abolish it with grandeur, nor to uphold it with authority.

Leaving aside this Place Saint-Jacques, which was, as it were, predestined, and which has always been horrible …

Bourgeois houses only began to spring up there twenty-five years later. The place was unpleasant. In addition to the gloomy thoughts which assailed one there, one was conscious of being between the Salpêtrière, a glimpse of whose dome could be seen, and Bicêtre, whose outskirts one was fairly touching; that is to say, between the madness of women and the madness of men. As far as the eye could see, one could perceive nothing but the abattoirs, the city wall, and the fronts of a few factories, resembling barracks or monasteries; everywhere about stood hovels, rubbish, ancient walls blackened like cerecloths, new white walls like winding-sheets; everywhere parallel rows of trees, buildings erected on a line, flat constructions, long, cold rows, and the melancholy sadness of right angles. Not an unevenness of the ground, not a caprice in the architecture, not a fold. The ensemble was glacial, regular, hideous. Nothing oppresses the heart like symmetry. It is because symmetry is ennui, and ennui is at the very foundation of grief. Despair yawns. Something more terrible than a hell where one suffers may be imagined, and that is a hell where one is bored. If such a hell existed, that bit of the Boulevard de l’Hôpital might have formed the entrance to it.

Nevertheless, at nightfall, at the moment when the daylight is vanishing, especially in winter, at the hour when the twilight breeze tears from the elms their last russet leaves, when the darkness is deep and starless, or when the moon and the wind are making openings in the clouds and losing themselves in the shadows, this boulevard suddenly becomes frightful.

Only suddenly. Only at night.

He explains the importance later, of these long descriptions of the city that of all his many long digressions I did really appreciate:

The author of this book, who regrets the necessity of mentioning himself, has been absent from Paris for many years. Paris has been transformed since he quitted it. A new city has arisen, which is, after a fashion, unknown to him. There is no need for him to say that he loves Paris: Paris is his mind’s natal city. In consequence of demolitions and reconstructions, the Paris of his youth, that Paris which he bore away religiously in his memory, is now a Paris of days gone by. He must be permitted to speak of that Paris as though it still existed. It is possible that when the author conducts his readers to a spot and says, “In such a street there stands such and such a house,” neither street nor house will any longer exist in that locality. Readers may verify the facts if they care to take the trouble. For his own part, he is unacquainted with the new Paris, and he writes with the old Paris before his eyes in an illusion which is precious to him. It is a delight to him to dream that there still lingers behind him something of that which he beheld when he was in his own country, and that all has not vanished. So long as you go and come in your native land, you imagine that those streets are a matter of indifference to you; that those windows, those roofs, and those doors are nothing to you; that those walls are strangers to you; that those trees are merely the first encountered haphazard; that those houses, which you do not enter, are useless to you; that the pavements which you tread are merely stones. Later on, when you are no longer there, you perceive that the streets are dear to you; that you miss those roofs, those doors; and that those walls are necessary to you, those trees are well beloved by you; that you entered those houses which you never entered, every day, and that you have left a part of your heart, of your blood, of your soul, in those pavements. All those places which you no longer behold, which you may never behold again, perchance, and whose memory you have cherished, take on a melancholy charm, recur to your mind with the melancholy of an apparition, make the holy land visible to you, and are, so to speak, the very form of France, and you love them; and you call them up as they are, as they were, and you persist in this, and you will submit to no change: for you are attached to the figure of your fatherland as to the face of your mother.

I’m just throwing this sentence in because I loved it:

Every flight should be an imperceptible slipping away.

I also love that we arrive here at Saint-Sulpice, the church I know from Georges Perec’s study of a Paris square, and one of the more touching stories between father and son:

While he was growing up in this fashion, the colonel slipped away every two or three months, came to Paris on the sly, like a criminal breaking his ban, and went and posted himself at Saint-Sulpice, at the hour when Aunt Gillenormand led Marius to the mass. There, trembling lest the aunt should turn round, concealed behind a pillar, motionless, not daring to breathe, he gazed at his child. The scarred veteran was afraid of that old spinster.

Everyone, it seems, writes about the Fauberg San-Antoine, again here is Hugo in phrases eminently quotable:

The Faubourg Saint-Antoine had also other causes to tremble; for it received the counter-shock of commercial crises, of failures, strikes, slack seasons, all inherent to great political disturbances. In times of revolution misery is both cause and effect. The blow which it deals rebounds upon it. This population full of proud virtue, capable to the highest degree of latent heat, always ready to fly to arms, prompt to explode, irritated, deep, undermined, seemed to be only awaiting the fall of a spark. Whenever certain sparks float on the horizon chased by the wind of events, it is impossible not to think of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine and of the formidable chance which has placed at the very gates of Paris that powder-house of suffering and ideas.

And in ever more precise geographies:

“I am capable of descending the Rue de Grès, of crossing the Place Saint-Michel, of sloping through the Rue Monsieur-le-Prince, of taking the Rue de Vaugirard, of passing the Carmelites, of turning into the Rue d’Assas, of reaching the Rue du Cherche-Midi, of leaving behind me the Conseil de Guerre, of pacing the Rue des Vielles Tuileries, of striding across the boulevard, of following the Chaussée du Maine, of passing the barrier, and entering Richefeu’s. I am capable of that. My shoes are capable of that.”

Prisons play such a key role in US economies, cities, communities — I am always rather fascinated to see where they have come from:

The New Building, which was the most cracked and decrepit thing to be seen anywhere in the world, was the weak point in the prison. The walls were eaten by saltpetre to such an extent that the authorities had been obliged to line the vaults of the dormitories with a sheathing of wood, because stones were in the habit of becoming detached and falling on the prisoners in their beds. In spite of this antiquity, the authorities committed the error of confining in the New Building the most troublesome prisoners, of placing there “the hard cases,” as they say in prison parlance.

The New Building contained four dormitories, one above the other, and a top story which was called the Bel-Air (Fine-Air). A large chimney-flue, probably from some ancient kitchen of the Dukes de la Force, started from the groundfloor, traversed all four stories, cut the dormitories, where it figured as a flattened pillar, into two portions, and finally pierced the roof.

And of course Hugo does not forget Les Halles, that working-class district later studied by Abdelhafid Khatib of the situationists, celeberated by Baldwin and more. But it doesn’t look like this any longer — I am glad Hugo had this project of inscribing streets in literature so that they would never be forgotten:

Otherwise the riot was conducted after the most scientific military tactics. The narrow, uneven, sinuous streets, full of angles and turns, were admirably chosen; the neighborhood of the Halles, in particular, a network of streets more intricate than a forest.

and during the uprising

All that old quarter of the Halles, which is like a city within a city, through which run the Rues Saint-Denis and Saint-Martin, where a thousand lanes cross, and of which the insurgents had made their redoubt and their stronghold, would have appeared to him like a dark and enormous cavity hollowed out in the centre of Paris. There the glance fell into an abyss. Thanks to the broken lanterns, thanks to the closed windows, there all radiance, all life, all sound, all movement ceased. The invisible police of the insurrection were on the watch everywhere, and maintained order, that is to say, night.

Les Halles old view, Paris. Created by Girardet, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 184
Les Halles old view, Paris. Created by Girardet, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 184

I’ll write more about the barricades I think, I did love them. But here they are placed at their precise locations:

The Parisians who nowadays on entering on the Rue Rambuteau at the end near the Halles, notice on their right, opposite the Rue Mondétour, a basket-maker’s shop having for its sign a basket in the form of Napoleon the Great with this inscription:—

                    NAPOLEON IS MADE
                    WHOLLY OF WILLOW,

have no suspicion of the terrible scenes which this very spot witnessed hardly thirty years ago.

It was there that lay the Rue de la Chanvrerie, which ancient deeds spell Chanverrerie, and the celebrated public-house called Corinthe.

corinth-189x300It is quite a Public House. And it is no more, this is all we have of it.

The Mondétour labyrinth was disembowelled and widely opened in 1847, and probably no longer exists at the present moment. The Rue de la Chanvrerie and Corinthe have disappeared beneath the pavement of the Rue Rambuteau.

As we have already said, Corinthe was the meeting-place if not the rallying-point, of Courfeyrac and his friends.

Then back for a brief moment to more bourgeois streets — on the Marais

Everyone in the house was asleep. People go to bed betimes in the Marais, especially on days when there is a revolt. This good, old quarter, terrified at the Revolution, takes refuge in slumber, as children, when they hear the Bugaboo coming, hide their heads hastily under their coverlet.

But I will end with a paragraph I loved best:

There are soothing spots which act in some sort mechanically on the mind. An obscure street, peaceable inhabitants. Jean Valjean experienced an indescribable contagion of tranquillity in that alley of ancient Paris, which is so narrow that it is barred against carriages by a transverse beam placed on two posts, which is deaf and dumb in the midst of the clamorous city, dimly lighted at mid-day, and is, so to speak, incapable of emotions between two rows of lofty houses centuries old, which hold their peace like ancients as they are. There was a touch of stagnant oblivion in that street. Jean Valjean drew his breath once more there. How could he be found there?

 

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The windbaggery of Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo…I wanted to love this book. It starts out with this:

Victor Hugo Les MiserablesPREFACE

So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century–the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light–are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;–in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.

HAUTEVILLE HOUSE, 1862.

Despite such grand sentiments to stand against injustice that I respect, I would probably punch him in the stomach if ever chance arose that somehow Victor Hugo stood in front of me. Or prick him with a pin to watch him whiz away like a balloon.

Not that there weren’t good bits to be found in Les Miserables. I will list them here:

  1. The above expressed desire to improve the lot of mankind, and some of his descriptions of barricades and corresponding character descriptions, minus the idea that many of the book’s pages help improve anything (See all the things I hated most).
  2. The actual story, when stripped of 95% of its sentimentality and all of its asides.
  3. Paris as he remembers it — memorialized as a living, concrete and perfectly mapped thing (with some inventions).
  4. The section on sewers, if it hadn’t interrupted the story.
  5. The existence of a section on slang, if it hadn’t interrupted the story, and once stripped of the patronising judgmental nature of all of its content.

Given the epic size of this, I thought I might blog some of these separately. I also cannot deny the sense of achievement felt at finishing the damn thing, which was probably the best thing about it.

Will the things I most hated fit in one post? It seems to me he never edited a thing he wrote, just sent it off in one box after another to the publisher. Anyway, back to my list of things I hated:

  1. Everything he says about women.
  2. The section on Napoleon he starts by saying he’s not going to talk about Napoleon
  3. The spate of sappy generalisations on the gamin
  4. Grandiose asides about France. Sometimes Paris. How both of these make child poverty, galley slavery for convicts and other things not really so bad (while I admit this point can be argued, I think in general this is true)….
  5. The content of the section on slang

On Women

He starts with the little section on grisettes — fucking grisettes. The whole institution is rather infuriating. A grouping of beautiful young mistresses from impoverished backgrounds minister to the needs of young students until they are cast off as Fantine is cast off, to have her baby in shame and live in poverty and lose all of her teeth and die very young indeed.

Unless they have an abortion and survive a little longer in the game. But how much longer?

But that’s not Victor Hugo’s fault, it’s his sentimentalisation of it, and all the rest of his ideas about women to be furious about, like:

The doll is one of the most imperious needs and, at the same time, one of the most charming instincts of feminine childhood. To care for, to clothe, to deck, to dress, to undress, to redress, to teach, scold a little, to rock, to dandle, to lull to sleep, to imagine that something is some one,—therein lies the whole woman’s future. While dreaming and chattering, making tiny outfits, and baby clothes, while sewing little gowns, and corsages and bodices, the child grows into a young girl, the young girl into a big girl, the big girl into a woman. The first child is the continuation of the last doll.

A little girl without a doll is almost as unhappy, and quite as impossible, as a woman without children.

or this on young women – oh dear

That first gaze of a soul which does not, as yet, know itself, is like the dawn in the sky. It is the awakening of something radiant and strange. Nothing can give any idea of the dangerous charm of that unexpected gleam, which flashes suddenly and vaguely forth from adorable shadows, and which is composed of all the innocence of the present, and of all the passion of the future. It is a sort of undecided tenderness which reveals itself by chance, and which waits. It is a snare which the innocent maiden sets unknown to herself, and in which she captures hearts without either wishing or knowing it. It is a virgin looking like a woman.

Ah, we move to love…

One of woman’s magnanimities is to yield. Love, at the height where it is absolute, is complicated with some indescribably celestial blindness of modesty. But what dangers you run, O noble souls! Often you give the heart, and we take the body. Your heart remains with you, you gaze upon it in the gloom with a shudder. Love has no middle course; it either ruins or it saves. All human destiny lies in this dilemma. This dilemma, ruin, or safety, is set forth no more inexorably by any fatality than by love. Love is life, if it is not death. Cradle; also coffin. The same sentiment says “yes” and “no” in the human heart. Of all the things that God has made, the human heart is the one which sheds the most light, alas! and the most darkness.

Jesus, let the purple prose end! But it never does.

For him, Cosette was a perfume and not a woman. He inhaled her. She refused nothing, and he asked nothing. Cosette was happy, and Marius was satisfied. They lived in this ecstatic state which can be described as the dazzling of one soul by another soul. It was the ineffable first embrace of two maiden souls in the ideal. Two swans meeting on the Jungfrau.

Cosette is all right, but women you know, you can’t trust them.

CHAPTER V—IN THE CASE OF SAND AS IN THAT OF WOMAN, THERE IS A FINENESS WHICH IS TREACHEROUS

On Napoleon

I won’t deny Victor Hugo wasn’t eminently quotable — but he was so often silly. I skimmed through this extensive section that began by saying he would not speak much on the subject. Some selected quotes:

Was it possible that Napoleon should have won that battle? We answer No.
Why? Because of Wellington? Because of Blucher? No. Because of God.

Napoleon had been denounced in the infinite and his fall had been decided on.

He embarrassed God.

Waterloo is not a battle; it is a change of front on the part of the Universe.

That day the perspective of the human race underwent a change. Waterloo is the hinge of the nineteenth century. The disappearance of the great man was necessary to the advent of the great century. Some one, a person to whom one replies not, took the responsibility on himself. The panic of heroes can be explained. In the battle of Waterloo there is something more than a cloud, there is something of the meteor. God has passed by.

On the Gamin and Paris

That homeless street children should be brave and daring and smart and play a pivotal role in this novel I quite loved. That this little glimpse is offered into so much of their lives I did love too.

The gamin—the street Arab—of Paris is the dwarf of the giant.

Let us not exaggerate, this cherub of the gutter sometimes has a shirt, but, in that case, he owns but one; he sometimes has shoes, but then they have no soles; he sometimes has a lodging, and he loves it, for he finds his mother there; but he prefers the street, because there he finds liberty. He has his own games, his own bits of mischief, whose foundation consists of hatred for the bourgeois; his peculiar metaphors: to be dead is to eat dandelions by the root; his own occupations, calling hackney-coaches, letting down carriage-steps, establishing means of transit between the two sides of a street in heavy rains, which he calls making the bridge of arts, crying discourses pronounced by the authorities in favor of the French people, cleaning out the cracks in the pavement; he has his own coinage, which is composed of all the little morsels of worked copper which are found on the public streets. This curious money, which receives the name of loques—rags—has an invariable and well-regulated currency in this little Bohemia of children.

I love this hunt for insects, for nature, I love knowing there are millipedes in the Pantheon.

Lastly, he has his own fauna, which he observes attentively in the corners; the lady-bird, the death’s-head plant-louse, the daddy-long-legs, “the devil,” a black insect, which menaces by twisting about its tail armed with two horns. He has his fabulous monster, which has scales under its belly, but is not a lizard, which has pustules on its back, but is not a toad, which inhabits the nooks of old lime-kilns and wells that have run dry, which is black, hairy, sticky, which crawls sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, which has no cry, but which has a look, and is so terrible that no one has ever beheld it; he calls this monster “the deaf thing.” The search for these “deaf things” among the stones is a joy of formidable nature. Another pleasure consists in suddenly prying up a paving-stone, and taking a look at the wood-lice. Each region of Paris is celebrated for the interesting treasures which are to be found there. There are ear-wigs in the timber-yards of the Ursulines, there are millepeds in the Pantheon, there are tadpoles in the ditches of the Champs-de-Mars.

He waxes large on this subject, as he does on all others. Calls out the crime of children who are homeless… but then he veers off into his semi-mystical ramblings on Paris and you have to question all that came before.

CHAPTER VI—A BIT OF HISTORY

At the epoch, nearly contemporary by the way, when the action of this book takes place, there was not, as there is to-day, a policeman at the corner of every street (a benefit which there is no time to discuss here); stray children abounded in Paris. The statistics give an average of two hundred and sixty homeless children picked up annually at that period, by the police patrols, in unenclosed lands, in houses in process of construction, and under the arches of the bridges. One of these nests, which has become famous, produced “the swallows of the bridge of Arcola.” This is, moreover, the most disastrous of social symptoms. All crimes of the man begin in the vagabondage of the child.

Let us make an exception in favor of Paris, nevertheless. In a relative measure, and in spite of the souvenir which we have just recalled, the exception is just. While in any other great city the vagabond child is a lost man, while nearly everywhere the child left to itself is, in some sort, sacrificed and abandoned to a kind of fatal immersion in the public vices which devour in him honesty and conscience, the street boy of Paris, we insist on this point, however defaced and injured on the surface, is almost intact on the interior. It is a magnificent thing to put on record, and one which shines forth in the splendid probity of our popular revolutions, that a certain incorruptibility results from the idea which exists in the air of Paris, as salt exists in the water of the ocean. To breathe Paris preserves the soul.

Ah. I can just see that last sentence reproduced on postcards and pictures of the eiffel tower. It must have appeared as one of those quotes people mindlessly share on facebook. Realities were rather grim though.

Besides this, the monarchy sometimes was in need of children, and in that case it skimmed the streets.

Under Louis XIV., not to go any further back, the king rightly desired to create a fleet. … galleys were necessary; but the galley is moved only by the galley-slave; hence, galley-slaves were required.

Under Louis XV. children disappeared in Paris; the police carried them off, for what mysterious purpose no one knew.

Of course, some street children aren’t quite gamin material. They’re probably the ones who die right away. The others laugh in the face of death.

A certain audacity on matters of religion sets off the gamin. To be strong-minded is an important item.

To be present at executions constitutes a duty. He shows himself at the guillotine, and he laughs. He calls it by all sorts of pet names: The End of the Soup, The Growler, The Mother in the Blue (the sky), The Last Mouthful, etc., etc. In order not to lose anything of the affair, he scales the walls, he hoists himself to balconies, he ascends trees, he suspends himself to gratings, he clings fast to chimneys.

Why so much description? There is actually a point to this very protracted aside:

The gamin expresses Paris, and Paris expresses the world.

For Paris is a total. Paris is the ceiling of the human race. The whole of this prodigious city is a foreshortening of dead manners and living manners. He who sees Paris thinks he sees the bottom of all history with heaven and constellations in the intervals. Paris has a capital, the Town-Hall, a Parthenon, Notre-Dame, a Mount Aventine, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, an Asinarium, the Sorbonne, a Pantheon, the Pantheon, a Via Sacra, the Boulevard des Italiens, a temple of the winds, opinion; and it replaces the Gemoniæ by ridicule. Its majo is called “faraud,” its Transteverin is the man of the faubourgs, its hammal is the market-porter, its lazzarone is the pègre, its cockney is the native of Ghent. Everything that exists elsewhere exists at Paris.

Ah.

On Slang:

But then a fabulous aside on slang, I forgive him his aside:

What is slang? It is at one and the same time, a nation and a dialect; it is theft in its two kinds; people and language.

Or do I?

Certainly, too, it is neither an attractive nor an easy task to undertake an investigation into the lowest depths of the social order, where terra firma comes to an end and where mud begins, to rummage in those vague, murky waves, to follow up, to seize and to fling, still quivering, upon the pavement that abject dialect which is dripping with filth when thus brought to the light, that pustulous vocabulary each word of which seems an unclean ring from a monster of the mire and the shadows. Nothing is more lugubrious than the contemplation thus in its nudity, in the broad light of thought, of the horrible swarming of slang. It seems, in fact, to be a sort of horrible beast made for the night which has just been torn from its cesspool. One thinks one beholds a frightful, living, and bristling thicket which quivers, rustles, wavers, returns to shadow, threatens and glares. One word resembles a claw, another an extinguished and bleeding eye, such and such a phrase seems to move like the claw of a crab. All this is alive with the hideous vitality of things which have been organized out of disorganization.

Now, when has horror ever excluded study?

I rather like the use of the word pustulous, the swarming horde of words that turns slang into a devilish, monstruous thing. Perhaps its power is simply in being able to fill people like Hugo with horror.

The veritable slang and the slang that is pre-eminently slang, if the two words can be coupled thus, the slang immemorial which was a kingdom, is nothing else, we repeat, than the homely, uneasy, crafty, treacherous, venomous, cruel, equivocal, vile, profound, fatal tongue of wretchedness. There exists, at the extremity of all abasement and all misfortunes, a last misery which revolts and makes up its mind to enter into conflict with the whole mass of fortunate facts and reigning rights; a fearful conflict, where, now cunning, now violent, unhealthy and ferocious at one and the same time, it attacks the social order with pin-pricks through vice, and with club-blows through crime. To meet the needs of this conflict, wretchedness has invented a language of combat, which is slang.

I don’t think Hugo has enough adjectives in there.

So can it get worse? This is Hugo we’re talking about of course….

One perceives, without understanding it, a hideous murmur, sounding almost like human accents, but more nearly resembling a howl than an articulate word. It is slang. The words are misshapen and stamped with an indescribable and fantastic bestiality. One thinks one hears hydras talking.

I kind of think someone needed to have told Hugo to fuck right off. And occasionally, as throughout, there are some interesting ideas…

Ideas almost refuse to be expressed in these substantives which are fugitives from justice. Metaphor is sometimes so shameless, that one feels that it has worn the iron neck-fetter.

Shameless metaphors! Let us have more of them. And this, which I quite love rather than abhor.

From a purely literary point of view, few studies would prove more curious and fruitful than the study of slang. It is a whole language within a language, a sort of sickly excrescence, an unhealthy graft which has produced a vegetation, a parasite which has its roots in the old Gallic trunk, and whose sinister foliage crawls all over one side of the language.

Though I think slang may become as much a trunk as other strains of language. Interesting that in France as elsewhere, much of it arises in prisons:

They have taken up the practice of considering society in the light of an atmosphere which kills them, of a fatal force, and they speak of their liberty as one would speak of his health. A man under arrest is a sick man; one who is condemned is a dead man.

but slowly the feeling of it all changes

In the eighteenth century, the ancient melancholy of the dejected classes vanishes. They began to laugh. They rally the grand meg and the grand dab.

If slang is laughter at the upper classes, let us all take it to heart.

On France

Honestly this is a tiny fraction of the pomposities spewing out about France across many a page. All of them sweeping statements of grandeur:

The grandeur and beauty of France lies in this, that she takes less from the stomach than other nations: she more easily knots the rope about her loins. She is the first awake, the last asleep. She marches forwards. She is a seeker.

This arises from the fact that she is an artist.

The ideal is nothing but the culminating point of logic, the same as the beautiful is nothing but the summit of the true. Artistic peoples are also consistent peoples. To love beauty is to see the light. That is why the torch of Europe, that is to say of civilization, was first borne by Greece, who passed it on to Italy, who handed it on to France. Divine, illuminating nations of scouts! Vitaelampada tradunt.

And ah, a dig at America

France has her relapses into materialism, and, at certain instants, the ideas which obstruct that sublime brain have no longer anything which recalls French greatness and are of the dimensions of a Missouri or a South Carolina. What is to be done in such a case? The giantess plays at being a dwarf; immense France has her freaks of pettiness. That is all.

But wait, I am getting into things I like. So I shall stop here.

Dora Bruder

Dora Bruder -- Patrick ModianoPatrick Modiano has been on my list to read for a while, and this book in particular, partly as I share with so many others that vague fascination for the period of WWII, the fight against fascism, the holocaust. But Dora Bruder is also an exploration of Paris as palimpsest that I loved, almost a documentary account of Modiano’s investigating and unraveling of the story of a young woman who had run away from her home in the same tangles of streets he had been familiar with for much of his life…

From day to day, with the passage of time, I find, perspectives become blurred, one winter merging with into another. That of 1965 and that of 1942.

In 1965, I knew nothing of Dora Bruder. But now, thirty years on, it seems to me that those long waits in the cafes at the Ornano crossroads, those unvarying itineraries–the Rue du Mont-Cernis to me back to some hotel on the Butte Montmartre: the Roma or the Alsina or the Terrass, Rue Caulaincourt–and the fleeting impressions I have retained: snatches of conversation heard on a spring evening, beneath the trees in the Square Cilgnancourt, and again, in winter, on the way down to Simplon and the Boulevard Ornano, all that was not simply due to chance. Perhaps, though not yet fully aware of it, I was following the traces of Dora Bruder and her parents. Already, below the surface, they were there. (6)

For Modiano there are memories of an old photographer, a street market, a girlfriend’s house and waits in cafes, the street deserted and riot police at each crossroads in May 1958 because ‘the situation in Algeria’ (4). I am caught up by such casual references, still struggling to understand just what the legacy of France’s crimes in Algeria has been, and how it has been experienced.

Modiano mentions Les Miserables, the flight of Jean Valjean and cosette across Paris, past the Jardins de Plantes, crossing the bridge and Pont d’Austerlitz:

And suddenly, you have a sensation of vertigo, as if Cosette and Jean Valjean, to escape Javert and the police, have taken a leap into space: thus far, they have been following real Paris streets,, and now, abruptly, Victor Huge thrusts them into the imaginary district of Paris that he calls the Petit Picpus. It is the same sense of strangeness that overcomes you when you find yourself walking through an unfamiliar district in a dream. On waking, you realise, little by little, that the pattern of its streets had overlaid the one with which, in daytime, you are familiar. (41)

But the convent these two literary figures find refuge in is very similar, almost exactly despite its imaginary geography, to the Saint-Coeur-de-Marie school where Dora was a boarder.

She is put there for safety and never registered as a Jew, but runs away, keeps running away. Comes home and the off she runs again. Why does she run? I like that this book never pretends to know, and we are left with the traces of her life that he could find to invent our own histories and ask our own questions. I like how it names streets, painstakingly collects the track record of documents, transfer orders. Addresses carefully noted. The banal bureaucracies of institutional evil all carefully documented. Dora Bruder runs, but not far enough, not fast enough to escape the Nazis and death in Auschwitz.

And then there is the post war reconstruction, whole areas pulled down, whole blocks left rubble alongside houses and churches still standing. So this joins my collection of rubble books, like Vauxhall, like The Chicago Coast. I confess I am looking for them now. Here it is as much to erase the city’s own crime as recognised by the world, as to erase the unrecognised crimes of poverty and injustice.

They have obliterated everything in order to build a sort of Swiss village in order that nobody, ever again, would question its neutrality.

The patches of wallpaper that I had seen thirty years ago in the Rue des Jardins-Saint-Paul were remnants of former rooms–rooms that had been home to young people of Dora’s age until the day when the police had come for them in July 1942. The list of their names is always associated with the same streets. And the street names and house numbers no longer correspond to anything at all. (113)

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Père Lachaise Cemetery — Aux Morts de la Commune

Père Lachaise has a completely different feel to other cemeteries I have known, whether in the UK and US, or in Latin America. Cemeteries play so many different roles in cities — too often forgotten is just the sanitary infrastructure, they bury the dead and all of their contagion safely. Paris must have suffered some of the same overflow of bodies, fumes disease as London as its population grew beyond the capacity of local graveyards. They also honour the dead in the name of God, family and country: families remembering those they have lost, cities and nations remembering those who played more public roles. This perhaps is what is most visible here from family to family:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

But people like us come to Père Lachaise Cemetery because of all who are buried here. Above all for the two of us, for the role this cemetery played as public space, defensible space– the site of the last stand of the Paris Commune. Upon their defeat, 147 people were lined up against this wall and shot, then buried in a trench here:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Daudenarde -- Commune of Paris 27th May, 1871
Daudenarde — Commune of Paris 27th May, 1871

Like Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, London, there is now a cluster here of those who have fought this same struggle. Including Marx’s daughter Laura and her husband Paul Lafargue, and some of the children of his daughter Jenny Longuet.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

On the opposite side, however, there are the much larger monuments to the soldiers who killed them. You learn much about a country from its monuments.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

This is why we came, this wall of the martyrs. No one else came near, they clustered instead around the graves now more famous. This gave space to mourn, but I had to mourn too that their struggle and their deaths are passing from common knowledge and wider honour.

We saw the graves of other famous names too, we bought a map at the entrance and stared in amazement at the names upon names of those we knew. Circled them, tried to find them all.

Many of the wonderful momento Mori we stumbled over by chance — like Etienne Gaspard Robertson, ‘a prominent Belgian physicist, stage magician and influential developer of phantasmagoria’:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

This sufraggette among them, Hubertine Auclert:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Some we knew to seek out, like early film-maker and purveyor of wonder, Georges Melies:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

In the vaults — I confess Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno was a surprise:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Another among them Richard Wright, who lived and died here in Paris.

The biggest surprise – Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales (1899 – 1974), Guatemalan author who I have long admired, and never ever expected to find here until I stopped bewildered in front of this Mayan stele.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

We sought out Daumier, though, and found him after much effort.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Gustave Dore we never did find. But here are many others that we did: Pierre Bourdieu, Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Proust, Nadar, Eluard, Gertrude Stein, Max Ernst, Georges Perec, Apollinaire, Michelet, Saint-Simon, Haussman, Abelard and Heloise and so many others that fully deserve to be in this list, but I could not manage to name them all…

Père Lachaise Cemetery

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Paris Detournements

For all the efforts of Haussman to strip much of the mystery away from Paris, getting rid of narrow crooked streets and old buildings, protest through art could be found everywhere. Especially once we learned better where to look (mostly up — if I had another day in Paris, I would follow the little octopi things wherever they led).

Perhaps so many exist because of Haussman, because of beautiful uniformity.

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Aragon on Gardening and the Phallophoria of Trafalgar Square

93111Marcel Noll suggested going to Montparnasse, and I was unable to think of anything more original than drinking. This kind of twilight of decision-making drifted along with us as far as the Châteaudun crossroads, the favourite meeting place for Parisian accidents. (133)

Thus Louis Aragon and co. venture out from the arcades and the cafes, not to Montparnasse in the end, but to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, where they spent an evening of adolescent adventure as winsome as schoolboys.

"Paris et ses environs 1890-1900 square des buttes chaumont" by http://gallica.bnf.fr - Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, PETFOL-VE-1356. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“Paris et ses environs 1890-1900 square des buttes chaumont” by http://gallica.bnf.fr – Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, PETFOL-VE-1356. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I have heard similar stories of alcohol-fueled adventure from my brother Dan and his co, which almost admits Aragon into the family as it were, but this installment of Paris Peasant offers not simply rather sweet hijinks to end his evocations of Paris life, but gardens as well [more on the rest here].

It is most unexpected.

Everything that is most eccentric in man, the gipsy in him, can surely be summed up in these two syllables: garden. Not even when he started adorning himself with diamonds or blowing into brass instruments did any stranger or more baffling idea occur to him than when he invented gardens. (118)

From such a sentence you might imagine Aragon some stranger to gardening, some bewildered observer of this phenomenon…and yet his descriptions betray a rather surprising knowledge of plants. Even so, they are most wonderful when most abstracted from unexpected details:

This evening the gardens are marshaling their ranks of great dusky plants that look like nomadic encampments in the heart of cities. Some are whispering, others are smoking their pipes in silence, the hearts of others are overflowing with love. There are some which caress white walls, while others touch elbows with the foolishness of turnpikes and moths flutter in the hoods of their nasturtiums. There is a garden which is a fortune-teller, another which is a carpet-vendor. I know all their professions: street-singer, gold-weigher, meadow-footpad, lard-pilferer, Sargasso Sea pilot…

Nor, of course, does he ignore gardens as places of tryst and forbidden encounter:

Thus, in public gardens the densest part of the darkness is no longer distinguishable from a kind of desperate kiss exchanged between love and rebellion. (141)

And thus his clear advice on the creation of green public spaces in the hearts of our cities, which should never take their cues from the suburbs:

Do not allow avenues to proliferate, is the advice of the technical manuals. And I say to you, gardeners, that your laws, your wisdom are of no consequence. You fear that if a garden us divided up too much it may look small. Ah! You have been spoiled by your suburban customers, that’s quite clear. You have lost the taste for greatness. May the sinuous concept of the avenue capture your minds again and lead you to real labyrinthine follies, may we read on the ground over which we wander the comical, despairing expression of your disquiet.  (146)

The history of the park reveals it is a yet another creation of Haussman…a curious success it would seem, and the politics of that not lingered over here.

Instead Aragon utters admonishments on  the subject of statues, asking questions that remain unanswered:

And what will become of humanity on that fast-approaching day when the population of statues will have grown to such huge proportions in town and country alike that it will scarcely be possible to make one’s way along the streets choked with statues, across the fields of poses? (152)

This must be one of the best words in the book:

Then we have the phallophoria of Trafalgar Square… (153)

I’m not sure about the one-armed Nelson’s presiding over a nation’s hysteria, perhaps it was simply in the column’s erection in the first place…

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Aragon: Paris Peasant

93111Few books I have read so far evoke the experience of wandering Paris quite as much as this one — but is a Paris now gone, rebuilt beyond recognition. Part of the reason he wrote it — to document and fix in place the experience of a geography soon to be destroyed. But first, spring in Paris:

I had just reached this point in my thoughts when, without any warning, spring suddenly entered into the world.

It happened in a flash, one Saturday evening around five: everything is bathed in a different light and yet there is still a chill in the air, impossible to say what has just taken place. (7)

I felt just this way about summer this year, except I missed the moment of its coming, was away for the weekend and returning to London found it installed.

This description of watching women, however, is an unfamiliar experience, and I confess evokes scorn:

Instead of concerning yourself with the conduct of men, start watching women walk by. They are great patches of radiance, flashes of light not yet stripped of their furs, of brilliant, restless mysteries. No, I don’t want to die without having first gone up to each one, touched her at least with my hand, felt her weaken, willed that this pressure shall be enough to conquer her resistance, and then hey presto! (8)

But the obsession with planning and planners something else we share, and a path to be retrodden by the Sitautionists with little reference to this great early psychogeographer as far as I can find (they do write of him ‘We cannot be accepted with the spinelessness of a false eclectic interest, as if we were Sartres, Althussers, Aragons or Godards’*). This, in its first section, is a documentation of the destruction of the arcades:

The great American passion for city planning, imported into Paris by a prefect of police during the Second Empire and now being applied to the task of redrawing the map of our capital in straight lines, will soon spell the doom of these human aquariums. Although the life that originally quickened them has drained away, they deserve, nevertheless, to be regarded as the secret repositories of several modern myths: it is only today, when the pickaxe menaces them, that they have at last become the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and profession. Places that were incomprehensible yesterday, and that tomorrow will never know.

“Today the Boulevard Haussman has reached the Rue Lafitte,” remarked L’Intransigeant the other day. A few more paces forward by this giant rodent and, after it has devoured the block of houses separating it from the Rue Le Peletier, it will inexorably gash open the thicket whose twin arcades run through the Passage de l’Opéra before finally emerging diagonally on to the Boulevard des Italiens. …It seems possible, though, that a good part of the human river which carries incredible floods of dreamers and dawdlers from the Bastille to the Madeleine may divert itself through this new channel, and thus modify the ways of thought of a whole district, perhaps of a whole world. We are doubtless about to witness a complete upheaval of the established fashions in casual strolling and prostitution… (14)

What could give you a better sense of being in this this passage than

…the noise, whose low throbbing echoed back from the arched roof. I recognized the sound: it was the same voice of the seashells that has never ceased to amaze poets and film-stars. The whole ocean in the Passage de l’Opéra. (22)

Or the flows and experiences of it than:

At the level of the printer who prints cards while you wait, just beyond that little flight of steps leading down into the Rue Chaptal, at that point in the far north of the mystery where the grotto gapes deep back in a bay troubled by the comings and goings of removal men and errand boys, in the farthest reaches of the two kinds of daylight which pit the reality of the outside world against the subjectivism of the passage, let us pause a moment, like a man holding back from the edge of the places depths, attracted equally by the current of objects and the whirlpools of his own being, let us pause in this strange zone where all is distraction, distraction of attention as well as of inattention, so as to experience this vertigo. The double illusion which holds us here is confronted with our desire for absolute knowledge. (47)

He describes a visit to a tawdry brothel of two rooms, sad and almost sweet — it can’t quite reach sweet as this is a man who sees all women in each individual woman and therefore can see no woman truly. It brought to mind a visit to Tombstone’s Birdcage with its own tiny two rooms side by side and its own sad reality of dingy walls and uncomfortable beds as compared to literary and cinematic representations of such houses of ‘pleasure’ in the wild West — raising the similarities between this representation and that of Paris and of the Moulin Rouge. A false romanticism that this thankfully pushes to one side.

He shares the notices put up to organise protest — text and notices are sprinkled throughout, an early collage:

IMG_2478

He describes what this place has meant to a group of people, to a movement

…believe it or not it’s the Restaurant Saulnier. Its two floors, ground and mezzanine, fill the space between the Baths and the transversal corridor that emerges right opposite the entrance of the lodging house. A gift of the gods, this restaurant: I have absolutely nothing to say about it, having eaten there a hundred times. The great quarrels of the Dada movement (you may have heard of the Dada movement?) used to adjourn to this place under something resembling a flag of truce, so that the combatants, who had just spent two hours at the Certa defending their reputations, could discover in a plate of cold meat evidence of the height of morality, the height of fashion… (70)

A quick digression into American cinema and stories of sartorial fashion and race:

Don Juan acquired the taste for this caramel-and-whipped-cream footwear after seeing his first Hollywood film. He scoured Paris to find something similar, and it was at a shop in the Quartier Saint-Georges specializing in tailors’ misfits and undelivered orders that he finally ran to earth this pair of shoes that a Negro, in a moment of glorious extravagance, had had specially made for him, but which a combination of bailiff, cocaine and sheer nonchalance had obliged him to dispense with. (71)

And a return to the Certa:

IMG_2479It was while I was sitting here one afternoon, towards the end of 1919, that Andre Breton and I decided that this should henceforward become the meeting place for ourselves and our friends, a choice motivated partly by our loathing for Montparnasse and Montmartre, but partly also by the pleasure we derived from the equivocal atmosphere of the passages. (74)

All gone.

This is not without an immensity ego of course — this great rambling documentation and discourse published in installments, he had time to receive complaints about the contents as he finished the next installment and writes a description of their contents:

You do them an injustice: what will happen to their rights in the great struggle against the Boulevard Haussman Building Society? What on earth would the lawyers think if by some misfortune they should read your mishmash of inventions and real facts? ‘There’s a bunch of people we can forget about,’ is what they would think. And each of your epithets could bring down the total of the compensation figures a further notch. (85)

We bump thus against the common misconception amongst intellectuals that writing and description are in themselves somehow struggle. You could at least demand that they do no harm, but Aragon is careless of that, his words in print come before the needs of the current residents of the passages. I think of the two women he describes in their two tawdry rooms, receiving his attention for money and finding some sort of connection if he is to be believed — were they just cast into the streets? We’ll never know, his compassion does not extend that far, if it were ever genuine to begin with.

And then that section is done and dusted, we hear no more of it as we move on to philosophies and a drunken night-time adventure in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Which contains much of interest I shall return to in a future post.I can’t really bear to do it here.
In many ways it makes a mockery of this earnest description of all that is about to be destroyed in the name of progress under some vague impression of solidarity. Perhaps that impression is my own and gives him too much credit — or destroys what little he has. Perhaps the term human aquariums in itself sets him to be always observer, though to be sure he does get himself wet. It is not a position I admire very much, but one which is all too familiar.
*’Our goals and methods in the Strasbourg Scandal’ Internationale Situationniste #11 (Paris, October 1967). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.

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Boules, Moveable Chairs and Public Life

For any complaints about the lack of mystery, Paris does have wonderfully vibrant public spaces. On the hot summer days we were there, they were full of life and people — and it’s good to think that for all they have erased memories of a revolutionary past, these private, often royal gardens are now open to all. Like this enclosed garden of Le Palais Royal, where multiple families and friends were playing boules.

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The Jardins des Tuileries revealed a key feature of this success — not worrying about grass in most places that people have to keep off, and benches but also light and moveable chairs.

They’re not even rented. You can sit in them as long as you want. You can move them in groups to accommodate your friends or family, and you keep following the sun or the shade. People were picnicking, chatting, reading, observing, drinking wine, laughing, cuddling, enjoying themselves. This is the place to be, no? An escape from small rooms and jobs and nuclear families too confined between four walls.

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Gardens are everywhere. Here we looked down the long arm of Jardins de Luxemberg, with people clustered on chairs in the shade

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And entering from the other end, more formal plantings

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saucy statues

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cool water features

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and a view of the single solitary skyscraper we saw in this city, as well as back towards to main body of the park, full of people enjoying themselves.

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But it is not just in parks, the centre city is scattered with squares, like this one in Les Halles — not enough seating by any means, but vibrant all the same:

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All along the Seine we saw people out for a stroll or sitting on the embankment (except those places to rich with the smell of urine)

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Everywhere are scattered little plazas surrounded by cafes. The cafes are not, of course, public space exactly. But they spill out onto wide pavements — god I love wide pavements, facilitating not just the spill of cafes but of shops and pedestrians and proclaiming them more vital than cars to the life of the city. This square was pedestrianised entirely on a Sunday. Streets and squares facilitate people meeting, bumping into neighbours and friends, talking, moving through space. The way they used to before cars. I love these cafes also, and the interaction between inside and outside, public and private, diners and coffee drinkers and passers-by that they provoke.

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This is carried into what is most private as well, brought out into public space — many of the balconies were well used here, tiny as they are.

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It’s a different way of life than I at least am used to, lived much more in the visible, the public realm. Public life — I like it. We tried it ourselves on the last evening in our splash-out hotel:

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I confess I could get used to it — even though it’s worth remembering that these central spaces are where the money is.

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Paris: An African-American refuge

Not long ago I read Conversations with Chester Himes, and confess I noted down a few places to visit in Paris, notably the Café Tournon, where he would often meet up with Richard Wright and/or James Baldwin and Ollie Harrington among others.

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Little did I know (and writing this brief blog has become a lengthier experience than expected):

the Tournon is largely considered the place where the St.-Germain neighborhood jazz scene got its start, providing the stage where Duke Ellington made his Parisian debut.
James Baldwin’s Paris, The New York Times

How cool is that? Yet there is no mention of any of that when you get there, only a note in the menu that in this building resided Joseph Roth — a good guy, a good writer, but c’mon, Himes, Baldwin, Wright AND Duke Ellington?

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They might well have pulled up to a spread like this one (gorgeous, if a little big for one — that was a serious mistake. And I confess my aversion to pâté, which seems to me to need some serious spicing up):

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I imagined them enjoying the summer sun from safely in the shade.

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Of course, there were other key places of African-American refuge here like the more famous café Les Deau Magots, whose upstairs room saw James Baldwin writing much of Go Tell it on the Mountain. We didn’t manage to get there in the end, or the equally famous Café de Flore opposite, as I had them marked down as second tier, the more tourist-trap kinds of places — favourites of Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir and the ubiquitous Hemingway. Thus full of a different kind of literary tourist.

Baldwin’s article, ‘The Lost Generation’, published in Esquire in 1961, has some pretty brilliant descriptions of Paris — and why so many Black writers went there after the Second World War as a matter of life and writing and death:

it is from the time of my friend’s death that I resolved to leave America. There were two reasons for this. One was that I was absolutely certain, from the moment I learned of his death, that I, too, if I stayed here, would come to a similar end…From the time of this death, I began to be afraid of enduring any more. I was afraid that hatred, and the desire for revenge would reach unmanageable proportions in me, and that my end, even if I should not physically die, would be infinitely more horrible than my friend’s suicide.

This is hard to believe now, a good reminder of those luxuries we so take for granted now:

Paris, from across the ocean, looked like a refuge from the American madness; now it was a city four thousand miles from home. It contained-in those days-no doughnuts, no milk shakes, no Coca-Cola, no dry Martinis; nothing resembling, for people on our economic level, an American toilet; as for toilet paper, it was yesterday’s newspaper. The concierge of the hotel did not appear to find your presence in France a reason for.rejoicing; rather, she found your presence, and in particular your ability to pay the rent, a matter for the profoundest suspicion. The policemen, with their revolvers, clubs, and ( as it turned out) weighted capes, appeared to be convinced of your legality only after the most vindictive scrutiny of your passport; and it became· clear very soon that they were not kidding about the three-month period during which every foreigner had to buy a new visa or leave the country. Not a few astounded Americans, unable to call their embassy, spent the night in jail, and steady offenders were escorted to the border. After the first street riot, or its aftermath, one witnessed in Paris, one took a new attitude toward the Paris paving stones, and toward the cafe tables and chairs, and toward the Parisians, indeed, who showed no signs, at such moments, of being among the earth’s most cerebral or civilized people. Paris hotels had never heard of central heating or hot baths or showers or clean towels and sheets or ham and eggs; their attitude toward electricity was demonic-once one had seen what they thought of as wiring one wondered why the city had not, long ago, vanished in flame; and it soon became clear that Paris hospitals had never heard of Pasteur. Once, in short, one found oneself divested of all the things that one had fled from, one wondered how people, meaning, above all, oneself, could possibly do without them.

This is still true, of London at least:

One soon ceased expecting to be warm in one’s hotel room, and read and worked in the cafes.

Yet the distinction from America is stark:

In my own case, I think my exile saved my life, for it inexorably confirmed something which Americans appear to have great difficulty accepting. Which is, simply, this: a man is not a man until he’s able and willing to accept his own vision of the world, no matter how radically this vision departs from that of others.

What Europe still gives an American–or gave us–is the sanction, if one can accept it, to become oneself. No artist can survive without this acceptance. But rare indeed is the American artist who achieved this without first becoming a wanderer, and then, upon his return to his own country, the loneliest and most blackly distrusted of men.

Himes had written:

Here a Negro becomes a human being. There’s nothing grotesque about a black man meeting a white woman here. There’s nothing unnatural. (127)

and

France was an escape from racial prejudice in the publishing industry. I believe that America allows only one black man at a time to become successful from writing, and I don’t think this has changed. France seems to be a place where my talent would make me as successful as Alexandre Dumas. (121)

We passed by the street where he once lived:

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Imagine this:

Himes lives at Saint-Germain-des-Pres, in a top-floor studio on rue Bourbon-le-Chateau. you have to stoop in order to get inside. Nearly everything there is red: the carpeting, a vase of roses, and even an angrily-daubed abstract canvas. (Francois Bott, 1964)

Pretty sweet, especially when it also contained Melvin van Peebles. Himes would move on to Valencia, in Spain, but Richard Wright stayed and died here in Paris.

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I haven’t yet hunted down any words of what this city meant to him. For the next trip perhaps.

It is curious to put this freedom found by American Blacks alongside the lack of freedom experienced by members of French Colonies — particularly Arabs, particularly Algerians during this period. But I will save that discussion for elsewhere. In its place just a reminder of France’s own history of race, slavery and colonialism:

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