I’ll assume that most of you aren’t Chicago Tribune subscribers, much less the select few who receive its Printers Row book supplement, so here is my review of Luc Sante’s great new book about Paris which comes out tomorrow. You should each buy a dozen copies.
A city has many faces but the one it presents to a visitor most often is the one the boosters, chamber of commerce types, and captains of industry would like us to see. A city as seemingly well-known as Paris — the city of lights, of romance — doesn’t need PR men to sell itself. But there is more to the place than the postcard would like us to believe. Away from the boulevards is another city, one we might never discover because those who live there don’t have the means, interest or forethought to save it for posterity.
Unlike the famous places we celebrate “because the rich have the power to save the things they love,” as Luc Sante writes early in his new book, “The Other Paris,” there are many corners which would be lost to the dustbin of history were it not for the curious passersby, the types who are interested in what’s beyond the glitz and glamour. The documenters of the side street and the hidden cellar are the heroes of Sante’s book and our tour guides to a very different Paris than we’ve been shown before.
The flaneur, broadly defined, is a stroller, a person who shambles about the town and notices obscure details. Sante gathers a murderers’ row of them to shine his light down every darkened alley of the French capital. The heart of the book is concerned with the enormous transformations which took place in the 19th century. Baron Haussmann’s grand renovations obliterated whole neighborhoods to widen boulevards and razed centuries-old structures to plan parks for the well-heeled. Fortunately, through early photography and illustration which accompanies the “verbal photography” of many of his sources, Sante shows us the long-gone places sacrificed to progress:
Everything is always going away, every way of life is continually subject to disappearance, all who reach their middle years have lost the landscape of their childhood, everyone given to introspection feels threatened.
Sante grudgingly allows that innovations such as central plumbing are a public good while decrying many of the other “improvements” of urban renewal. He casts his lot with the ragpickers and streetwalkers, and his readers are better off for it. His team of streetside noticers introduce us to men who make a living selling cigarettes reassembled from spent butts, women whose sole job is to waken others for work, and dozens of other obsolete employments. As the city was cleaned up and modernized, many marginal types were literally forced to the periphery, forced to scrounge on the outskirts of the expanding metropolis. There, around the former medieval walls, a zone of lawlessness allowed for vice and improvised entrepreneurship to flourish. The city fathers did their best to scrub the grime away, but:
The city’s principal constituent matter is accrued time. The place is lousy with it. Not everyone is happy about this, since the past is burdensome and ungovernable and never accords with totalizing ideologies or unified design theories or schemes for maximizing profit.
Over the 200 or so years covered in these pages we meet cabaret warblers, pimps, poets, petty thieves, anarchists, but hardly any representatives of the upper crust. The Louvre and the Bois de Boulogne have no need of champions, but old dancehalls and their denizens deserve to be remembered; Sante marshals the memories of both famed writers like Victor Hugo as well as those of long-forgotten criminals to ensure that we don’t forget.
Sante’s great fear is that the forces of urban improvement will sanitize the character of the city in favor of security and cookie-cutter sameness. That there will be no ragged wonder left to discover. No chance to drift through streets and find the oddities which make one place distinct from any other. As he writes at the end:
The history of Paris teaches us that beauty is a by-product of danger, that liberty is at best a consequence of neglect, that wisdom is entwined with decay.
We would do well to heed his words and not eliminate the mess which makes the city so different than the suburban shopping mall.