Friday, July 21, 2017

criminals, prostitutes, weirdos - Luc Sante's The Other Paris

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.


  1. Yes this book exists, it's called Black Bazar by Alain Mabanckou. (billet on my blog)

  2. Mmm, that I close. I need Mabanckou to write a non-fiction Paris book. He would have the same kind of knowledge with distance (Congolese, lives in Los Angeles) that Sante has (Belgian, lives in New York).

  3. I'm not sure it's what you are looking for, but you might consider Edmund White's The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris. He provides a writer's perspective on the city based on his own experience.

  4. I wonder if this book would help a bit. I have not read it. The New Paris by Tramuta

    As you point out, there are two versions of Paris. The Dream and the Reality. Few books are written about the dynamic, changing,vibrant Paris of today. Most people who write about Paris are visitors who sell their books to other visitors who want to read about Dream Paris as seen by Woody Allen or similar.

  5. While in Paris, (I live there half the year,) I watched enraptured, a six part TV series called Paris by Virginie Brac. This is available on DVD. My post above was an attempt to link to the NY Times review which didn't work.

  6. I enjoyed The Flaneur quite a lot in spite of, or probably because of White's hilarious snobbery. He does cover some of the same ground as Sante, especially on the subject of gay Paris. But White has nothing close to the mass of information in Sante. I mean, that passage about occupations actually goes on for pages.

    Here is the - or at least a - Times piece about the Paris mini-series. Thanks for mentioning it. I barely know what goes on in film anymore. I hardly watch anything any more. So sad.

    The Tramuta book certainly sounds like its about the other Paris - hipster Paris! "passion projects," "ensuring global relevance" - holey moley. It was very much worth looking at the table of contents on Amazon.

  7. Well, that was convincing; I've added The Other Paris to my wishlist. I am an avid consumer of books about Paris, especially history-oriented ones. (Speaking of which, my absolute favorite Paris book is Jacques Hillairet's two-volume Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris, which tells you everything that ever happened on each street and everybody who was anybody who lived there, and has lots of old photos and invaluable maps. I got it used in Paris and consult it often.)

    As for your question, you might give a thought to François Maspero's Les passagers du Roissy-Express; it's (gulp) a quarter of a century old now, but it's definitely about the real (late-20th-century) city and not tourist fantasies or vanished history.

  8. Oh, and of course there's Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, now (gulp) over 15 years old but full of good stuff. (If, of course, you like Gopnik's style; I love it, but apparently there are people who don't.)

  9. The second chapter of Sante's book begins with a summary / looting of Hillairet, including four pages on street names which you would enjoy, if you have not already seen it in Hillairet.

    Does anyone have Gopnik's / Janet Flanner's job now? I guess not.

    I will have to look for some of these books at Sante's favorite surviving Paris bookstore, La Librairie du Patrimoine. Maybe there is a portable edition of Hillairet.

  10. Thanks very much for this post. I have had this book on my maybe list for sometime and will move it up now. Judith Thurman's Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette goes into a lot of detail on matters related to the theater, The demimonde World.

  11. Sure, a Colette bio, good idea, although even better would be the book which Thurman is looting. Or books. But often it turns out to be just one, really.