The Invention of Paris by Eric Hazan and Parisians
Eric Hazan's The Invention of Paris is a guide,quartier by quartier, to the "psychogeography" of the first great modern city. Hazan is a far-left radical editor now in his 70s, and has lived in Paris all his life. Not only does he know what a certain street smells like, but he can tell us about the geographical, social and political forces that put it there. A widening or a curve might conceal an entire history of oppression – or the moment Baudelaire admired a passinggrisette.
Hazan reckons Baudelaire to be the first truly urban poet, a flâneur at the meeting-point between the nocturnal solitary and the individual lost in the crowd. The book proceeds in his urgent spirit, mingling personal knowledge and reminiscence with a Balzacian grasp of the whole. The ghost of Walter Benjamin, the leftwing thinker of a mystical bent who fled occupied Paris and committed suicide at the closed Spanish border, presides over this magnificent meditation on limits and boundaries.
The Parisian powers, Hazan maintains, have always dealt harshly with undesirables – "people with nothing", the immigrants, the rebellious – either by building vast so-called "hospitals" like Val-de-Grâce or Salpêtrière to "rid the city of scum"; by killing them in large numbers (some 25,000 after the failure of the Commune in 1871); or by pushing them out beyond the city's limits – the current practice in the era of gentrification.
Over the centuries, these limits, like the "growth rings" of a tree, expanded as Paris pressed against them: "From the wall of Philippe Auguste to the modern Périphérique, six different walls followed one another in the course of eight centuries." For Hazan, each boundary-hop signalled "the emergence of a new epoch". As Louis-Sébastien Mercier – Hazan's favourite Paris historian – put it in the 1790s: "Marshes have disappeared and the countryside has retreated daily before the hammer and the set square." This makes Paris's shape very different from London's unwalled amoeba sprawl.
The "hellish" Périphérique – the brainchild of the taste-challenged Georges Pompidou, whose desire to move Paris into the 20th century echoed Napoleon's dream of total demolition – shuts out the population of the dreaded cités, those "architectural steppes" (alas, not covered by Hazan) from where hooded youngsters jump on to the multi-laned road and snatch bags from stalled traffic.
Hazan is equally fascinated by internal limits, abrupt or gradual, betweenquartiers. Does Montmartre begin at the bottom of its steep rise, or in the Place Pigalle? Is the Odéon micro-quarter part of the Latin quarter? It used to be, when there were booksellers and publishers around the theatre, in the days before "conglomerates . . . [in] their air-conditioned towers, sheltered from any contagion with actual books, readers or bookshops". The esprit of a square can die with the disappearance of a café, or a change in its clientele from student to tourist – or be revived, as in the clumsily-renovated Goutte d'Or still clinging on to its Arab market, or the extraordinary, street-festival gaiety of the Rue du Château d'Eau, home of African hairdressing and nail-care – "one of the most charming spectacles to be seen today in Paris".
Markets go with a certain disorderliness, and Hazan is all for that – boxes, vans and trolleys, car horns. He relishes traces of the former villages in forgotten cul-de-sacs or on the borderland of railways, claiming the landscape beyond Rue Riquet (in the most deprived part of the city, La Chapelle) to be "one of the most beautiful in Paris". Of course he mourns the 1970s flattening of Les Halles, Paris's Covent Garden, but finds the old particularism surviving in the multi-ethnic Sentier area immediately to the north, this being the old press quarter where a drunk Verlaine would collect his "little pension". I had always understood that the once down-at-heel Marais quarter had been saved from Pompidou's concrete by André Malraux, but Hazan sees it as a take-over by "a well-off bourgeoisie" who scrubbed the façades and assured security and parking.
The most porous boundary of all lies between life and art – as in Manet's revolutionary snapshot of a painting, La Gare Saint-Lazare, showing nothing but railings and smoke beyond the "unfathomable" gaze of his models; or the Faubourg Saint-Germain, mythologised first by Balzac and then Proust, for whom its Hôtel des Guermantes was so close "I could hear its carpets being beaten".
Hazan, being a true Parisian, is not afraid of pronouncing his likes and dislikes: the book is often obstreperous, sometimes angry. He certainly has it in for the state body in charge of Les Espaces Verts, with its fondness for limply-planted roundabouts.
He loathes façadisation – the gutting of an old building for offices behind the preserved façade, turning the victim into a "stuffed animal". He's also an enemy of banks and insurance companies, citing their catastrophic transformation of the gallery-rich area of Rue Lafitte and the Boulevard des Italiens (haunt of Manet, Gauguin, Courbet, Lautrec, Bonnard) to "grey canyons peopled by security guards and swept by torrents of cars".
Unsurprisingly, then, we have a long section on "Red Paris", which invented a new form of boundary: the barricade. For some 80 years after the revolution, the city was a site of chronic struggle, with a succession of failed uprisings and vicious reprisals – imperial, monarchic or (alas) republican. The improvised barricade was an essential feature, and Hazan tells us where they were – some of them built with the "skill of engineers", others mere heaps of chairs, all potentially a stage-set for the kind of legendary heroics familiar from a certain musical. Hazan concentrates on the 1848 insurrection, mainly because it remains an embarrassment to the "consensual" Republic, being the end of the notion that "the bourgeoisie and the people, hand in hand, would finish what had been started in 1789". More embarrassing for the author is the total destruction of the city's archives when the Town Hall was torched by the Communards in 1871; he prefers to concentrate on, for instance, the first sighting of the red flag – on the Pont d'Austerlitz in 1832.
Sites of revolution had to be dealt with, the most flagrant being the dingy warren of medieval streets, familiar to Villon and Rabelais, on the Île de la Cité. Hazan admits it had to be cleaned up, but demolishing it removed Paris's cradle (London's having already vanished in the great fire). Baron Haussmann, Louis-Napoléon's human bulldozer, not only dealt with that, but ruthlessly carved his sterile boulevards for strategic and personal reasons (quicker access to his mistress). Paris was now controllable: this annoys Hazan almost more than the devastating loss of marvels whose sole visual souvenir is in Charles Marville's extraordinary photographs from the 1860s: "The old corner posts, the paving whose irregularity was fashioned over centuries, the bars, the cant walls with bay windows . . ."
This is a wondrous book, either to be read at home with a decent map, or carried about sur place through areas no tourists bother with. Graham Robb in Parisians mentions, as Hazan does, the "first photographic image of a human being in the open air", taken by Daguerre in 1838 on the Boulevard du Temple. Hazan uses it to explore the relationship between painting and photography, his riff dense with allusions. It appears in Robb's book as part of a chapter on Marville and Haussmann, in which we are privy to the latter's thoughts – an awkward mixture of anecdote, biography and straight history. Parisians explores Paris through a succession of "true stories" told in various forms (including a particularly unfortunate screenplay), concerning subjects as diverse as Vidocq's sinister chicanery, Proust and the Métro, Juliette Gréco's shenanigans, the ghastly deaths of the two banlieue lads that sparked the 2005 riots, and Robb's own attempt to have a Paris col officially identified for bicyclists. None of these quite connects with the others, or not enough to bring enlightenment.
Part of the problem lies in not knowing where Robb himself stands (he does call the Commune, pace Hazan, "two months of psychopathic democracy"). The author of the justly-acclaimed The Discovery of Francehere plays unhappily with the methods of fiction, and most of the stories – especially the accounts of the round-up of French Jews in the Vel d'Hiv' and a rather tongue-in-cheek summary of May 1968 – are too familiar. Robb managed France brilliantly, but Paris seems to have defeated him. No doubt the rest of France would have something to say about that
- The Invention of Paris by Eric Hazan and Parisians (Adam Thorpe, The Guardian, 2010)