‘The Other Paris,’ by Luc Sante
[Book Review] By MOLLY HASKELL OCT. 30, 2015, nytimes.com
Image from article, with caption, Before World War I an opium pipe cost less than a drink
Luc Sante is no doubt a well-behaved person whose lodgings are neat as a pin,
but his mind teems with filth and disorder, his nostrils alert to the dankness of
slums. To this explorer of the urban underbelly, the squalid and the tawdry are
manna from heaven.
Lost neighborhoods, the way the other half lived and died, buried treasure
in the form of old photographs and documents, what he has called the “husks”
cast off by the past, are the main attraction for this literary scavenger. The
Belgian-born and vastly erudite Sante has followed his appetite for the detritus
of the past in essays and translations and in books like “Low Life” (1991) and
now “The Other Paris.” “I’ve always been a sucker for tales of lost civilizations,
pockets in time, suppressed documents,” he once wrote.
In “Low Life” his quarry was the underworld of 19th and early-20th-century
New York, the freak shows and shooting galleries and Bowery
museums, and those first flickers of cinema, the nickelodeons. Not finished
with the “husks” contained in his chapters on “Gangland” and “Coppers,” this
exuberant necrophiliac went on to publish “Evidence,” a macabre album
containing crime scene photographs from the police archives. Like the dead in
“Poltergeist” whose spirits rise to strangle the suburban community built on
their graves, his anonymous corpses emerge from their police-blotter
ignominy and extract a moment of recognition, a twinge of fellow feeling.
The elevation of the obscure and the overlooked, the discarded or hidden
or marginal, to artistic status or cultural prominence has become a cottage
industry for artists and writers of late, but as an anti-ghostbuster, Sante is in a
class by himself.
The underlying and implicit thesis of his work, that the best of life has
been paved over by money and modernity, and that the marginal and
unofficial are inherently superior to bourgeois culture, may be arguable, but
the pleasures to be had from the fruits of his research are considerable.
Paris, home to the flâneur, would seem to be natural territory for Sante,
and in a way it is, though its past is hardly virgin territory. Unlike New York,
oriented to the future-present with its grid topography more geared to
purposeful walking than to the unpremeditated stroll, Paris is not only a
pedestrian’s paradise but a living museum, its past an everyday obsession. Its lovers, moreover, are among the more ardent and prolific in history, and Sante
has read them all (seen their art and movies, listened to their songs), lamented
with Victor Hugo, gotten down in the gutter with Zola. He acknowledges as
inspiration the flâneurs par excellence Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin,
pointing out that the flâneur didn’t emerge until the 18th century, when for
the first time men had sufficient leisure time from work to dawdle.
A special influence is Guy Debord, one of those uniquely French figures —
’50s intellectual, “barfly” moviemaker of sorts, member of the socialistanarchist
group Lettrist International, which divided Paris into what it called
“ambience units,” organic neighborhoods with distinct personalities. These
would be doomed by urban renewal, one of the two great scourges of Paris, a
century apart. There were always reform-minded busy-bodies, gnawing away at
diseaseridden neighborhoods and dens of iniquity, but the first major
uprooting came in the mid-19th century when Napoleon III’s prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann redrew the map of Paris, creating his famous boulevards
and parks, annexing outlying arrondissements and separating tightly
interwoven neighborhoods. Then in the 1970s it was urban renewal, which
among many depredations destroyed Les Halles and gave us the Pompidou
Center, reinventing the Marais as a tourist district.
Staunchly resisting the editing bulldozer, “The Other Paris” is sprawling
and jampacked with information, and Sante’s instinctual orderliness — a
graceful epigrammatic style — can’t quite tame (nor does it want to) the chaos
of the subject to which he owes his allegiance. More even than the text, the
glorious images of the demimonde that line the margins, exuding whiffs of
opium and absinthe, give Sante’s book the intimate feeling of a personal
Familiar figures appear, but with back story: The characters in “The
Children of Paradise” are grounded in place and biography. There’s a colorful
taxonomy of prostitutes of every variety: the insoumises, the grandes cocottes,
the horizontales, the amazones, the maneaters, to name a few, registered and
unregistered, high class and low, their numbers expanding and shrinking
according to the fluctuating dictates of repression and tolerance.
The revolution that began in 1789 and “never really ended” continues to
inspire activist efforts and government retaliation. There are sections on
celebrity gangsters, cafe concerts and neighborhoods themselves, each with an
avalanche of well-chosen quotations, citations and illustrations.
One particularly absorbing chapter traces the history of the Zone, an
endlessly metamorphosing, walledin area that began as “tundra, empty
grassland,” and became, in succession, or simultaneously, a site for public
executions, a rough makedo home for peasants and squatters, a ragpickers’
colony and hangout for prostitutes. Finally, as the city moved upward and
outward and needed housing for the poor, the Zone became host to low-cost
apartments — les HBM — that in 1949 became les HLM, “reducedrent
housing,” a label Sante describes as “a telling move from plain speech and
toward bureaucratic equivocation.”
Illustrations and citations document the area’s transitions and
improvisations: a van Gogh sketch, an Aristide Bruant song, a Zola heroine
and eventually the director Maurice Pialat, who grew up in Courbevoie and
made a movie about his old banlieue.
At one point Sante quotes Debord in words that might be the anthem of
the book: “Paris was a city so beautiful that many people preferred to be poor
there than rich somewhere else.” It’s a lovely thought, but is it true? And
whose idea of beauty?
Reverse snobbism, nostalgie de la boue, the aesthetic of upside down, is
itself a product of a certain refinement of thinking, of, yes, bourgeois
education. There’s sometimes a vested interest in maintaining a divide,
cherishing the lower depths as an escape hatch for the over-civilized, whereas
the lower classes and immigrants who actually dwell there would happily settle
for the commodities and hypocrisies of petit-bourgeois capitalism. Nor is the
divide as impermeable as it sometimes seems.
Sante begins his book with a lovely exchange of dialogue from Julien
Duvivier’s 1937 film “Pépé le Moko.” Jean Gabin’s jewel thief, hiding out in the
Casbah, has just met the diamondencrusted beauty played by Mireille Balin.
They are reminiscing about Paris, searching for common ground, but Balin’s
roll call of streets (the ChampsÉlysées, Rue Fontaine) is strictly posh, while
Gabin (Rue St.Martin, Gare du Nord) aromatically recalls the less known
byways of “The Other Paris.”
In fact, in watching the film, we soon discover that the class divide is not
as great as it seems. Gabin has been misled by Balin’s elegance: Her jewels are
no heirloom, no signifier of a patrician background, but the fruits of her life as
a kept woman. Moments later, as they’re falling in love, they discover they
actually lived and went to school in adjacent quartiers.
If Sante’s book sometimes overwhelms with encyclopedic density, its great
virtue is to send the reader down investigative paths of his own. In watching
“Pépé le Moko” again, I began wondering about Fréhel, the torch singer who
commiserates with Gabin, mourning her music hall career by playing her own
records. Her name comes up later in the book, with Sante providing a vivid
sketch of a life and face as full of reversals and sorrow and resilience as any
fabled chanteuse could want. Following the scent, I tracked her to Wikipedia,
then YouTube, where lo and behold, one of her most famous songs, “La Zone”
(1933), has been paired in a mini-documentary with a trove of grainy but
incandescent photographs pre-HLM! There it all was: one of Sante’s lost
neighborhoods, not lost at all. Not even past.
THE OTHER PARIS
By Luc Sante
Illustrated. 306 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.
Molly Haskell is the author of “From Reverence to Rape: The
Treatment of Women in the Movies.” Her most recent book is
“My Brother My Sister: Story of a Transformation.”