The other Paris in Luc Sante’s The Other Paris (2015) is that of the criminals, flaneurs, ragpickers, prostitutes, anarchists, saloon singers, and weirdos. But it is something much more specific, a history that re-creates the Paris in Sante’s head, which comes into existence sometime after Napoleon, is under constant threat by Haussmann and other urban renewers, and is finally destroyed in the 1960s by Andre Malraux. The book, to my surprise and delight, spends half its time in the 19th century.
Sante’s book is a history, and his Paris is real but it is constructed out of books, out of literature, out of Baudelaire and Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842-43) and super-criminal Eugène François Vidocq’s Memoirs (1828). Les Halles, the giant food market, last seen at Wuthering Expectations in Zola's The Belly of Paris, is Sante’s great symbol of this other Paris, or at least it’s destruction, “replaced by a hellish subterranean shopping mall that is nowadays topped by that urbanist cure-all, an espace vert,” symbolizes the end of the subject of his book (10). Sante builds his Paris out of images, too, with one or two on every page, magazine illustrations, sheet music, and numerous postcards, street scenes from circa 1910.
The craze for suburban tree house bistros, based on Swiss Family Robinson. Gangs – les apaches – whose members tattooed lines on their throats to guide the guillotine. The saga of the anarchist Bonnot Gang (“It was the world’s first getaway car”). Look at this list of occupations, documented by the flaneur Privat d’Anglemont, who may not be completely accurate, but still:
Madame Thibaudeau swept jewelers’ shops for no pay so that she could recuperate gold dust. Madame Vanard, widow of a perfumer, was a zesteuse: she picked up lemon rinds from the stalls of lemonadiers and sold the zest to the makers of Curacao, syrups, and essences. Old Monsieur Beaufils bought nightingales, canaries, and finches and, after educating them in song for six to eight weeks, resold them for four times what he paid. (99)
Then come stories about a man who kept a fifty-two goat dairy on the sixth floor of his apartment building, and the woman who farmed ants, selling the eggs to pharmacies and the zoo (“for pheasant chow”).
And those are just the ordinary occupations. Prostitution gets its own chapter (“The Business”), as do professional criminals and singers. Edith Piaf, as far as this book is concerned, is the professionalized end of a long, sordid, wild tradition. “It was certainly not her fault that when she died, Paris was on the verge of becoming the trade name ‘Paris’” (190).
What a thrill to get to know a city this way; Sante has done it with New York City and Paris. A disadvantage, in a sense, of The Other Paris, is that it is so hard to map the book onto the existing Paris. He is writing about exactly the buildings, streets, and people that are least likely to have been saved.
I would like to read a book about another other Paris, the one that does exist today. Is there such a book in English? It would almost have to be by a writer of a younger generation, and a different ethnicity.