Breathing Parisian Air
By Karl Whitney.
Eric Hazan, The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps, Verso, 2010.
Eric Hazan’s book is a rich historical guidebook to Paris familiar and unfamiliar, but it is also much more than that. It’s a highly personal exploration of the Parisian streetscape that simultaneously seeks to unearth the radical locales of the city’s tumultuous past, in the process revealing the history of a class hatred that Hazan still discerns in contemporary Paris.
The book is divided up into three parts, the most compelling of which are the first two: ‘Walkways’, where the author traces the radical histories of certain Parisian neighbourhoods and streets; and ‘Red Paris’, where the streets come alive, and an exciting, page-turning historical narrative takes hold.
Along the way, Hazan makes some intriguing assertions, taking issue with received wisdom about the capital: ‘Contrary to a widespread idea, the final eradication of the Middle Ages in Paris was not the work of [Prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène] Haussmann and Napoleon III, but rather of [André] Malraux and [Georges] Pompidou, and the emblematic literary signal of this disappearance was not Baudelaire’s ‘The Swan’ but rather Perec’s Les Choses.’
Hazan also traces the disappearance of the Carrousel quarter – a jumbled collision of market stalls and shacks, along whose narrow streets rabbits and parrots scrambled, and where poet Gérard de Nerval lived in the early 1830s. The area where the quarter stood is now, in Hazan’s words, ‘a dusty steppe between the Louvre pyramid and the Tuileries gardens, crossed by a stream of cars [...] and by an underground tunnel whose concrete entrances give a final touch to the whole ensemble.’ Go there now, and experience the difficulty of imagining a labyrinthine atmosphere in such windswept surroundings.
Yet this is what Hazan manages to do, and his book is a testament to the power of the historical imagination when fused with the urban environment. Drawing on the Situationists’ notion of psychogeography, Hazan finds in the quietest corners of the city connections with the past, and vistas that you don’t see on picture postcards, and are all the better for it. Of the place between the area known as the Goutte d’Or and the Buttes-Chaumont, Hazan writes: ‘From below, you do not get the feeling of being in a hollow between two hills, but from a promontory of Buttes-Chaumont that you reach via the hairpin bends of Rue Georges-Lardennois, the contours are as visible as on a map: in the foreground a hillside of gardens and vineyards, then the valley, and behind this Montmartre, seen in profile as it cannot be from anywhere else.’
The specificity of the geographical description makes this a book that you probably need to read with a good map of Paris resting on one knee. When I read the account given above, then located it on the map, I realised I’d been there a year before. That day, I’d been following the footsteps of the Situationists, who had passed by on a dérive in 1956.
However, this is not to say that Hazan sees Paris as merely a playground of historical reference. He sees the city as a location that bears the scars of class conflict, and he points to the events of June 1848, when working class quarters of Paris were violently repressed by the bourgeois, as the major point of schism between middle-class and working-class Paris. This formed part of a process of expulsion of the working-class to the fringes of the city, a process that Hazan continues to see in the division between the largely well-off historical centre of Paris and the poorer suburbs beyond the boulevard périphérique. This radial motorway surrounding the city is, to Hazan, the latest in a number of walls to surround the city.
Nevertheless, Hazan refuses to despair: he still finds in Paris a vitality comparable to the pulsating history he has ably captured between the covers of this book. The racially mixed north-eastern neighbourhoods of Belleville and Ménilmontant, and the rebellious Faubourg Saint-Antoine, are singled out for particular praise. ‘If, taking up Marcel Duchamp’s idea,’ Hazan writes, ‘we should manufacture cans of Air de Paris, it is certainly that of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine with which I would fill mine.’
Similarly, with The Invention of Paris, Hazan captures the essence of Paris radicalism, street by street, quartier by quartier. As an introduction to the city’s revolutionary past, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He writes for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 28th, 2010.