An Interview with Luc Sante
Luc Sante's newest book, The Other Paris, is not his first exploring the underbelly of a city from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. The last, Low Life, was published in 1991, and although the only difference in their projects appears to be the span of the Atlantic, The Other Paris is a triumphant comeback, if a sequel at all. It is perhaps no surprise that it is a different animal; the same could be said of New York and Paris.
Sante's Paris isn't "other" merely because it's past; his Paris is comprised of its underbelly, the proletariat or peuple. As in Low Life, Sante privileges the stories of the poor, indigent, queer, and otherwise marginalized. He does this not out of romanticism, or even political motivation. Instead, it comes from a respect for the dead -- both the millions dead from labor, revolution, and hard living that the city was built on, and a dead way of life. Sante wants us to remember and honor the way human life in the city has always been, until very recently: full of "fear, dirt, sloth, ruin, accident."
What happens when we hold these vital aspects of life not as unpleasantries, but occasions for excitement? That's the opportunity that Sante affords us. Instead of letting us glide over the surface of the city, he pulls us through the needle-eye of numerous difficult, filthy lives. Its brilliance is in enacting its own ethos, really engaging with the proletariat, as the flâneurs failed to do, and offering the reader new images with every page, so that reading it becomes a dérive itself.
How do you account for the profound difference between Low Life and The Other Paris, despite the apparent similarity of their projects? Did you learn anything from writing Low Life, or any of your other works for that matter, that you applied to The Other Paris?
The books are very different because (a) yes, I knew much less about writing and researching when I was at work on the former and (b) they are very different cities. Low Life was inspired by, among other things, Herbert Asbury's monumental The Gangs of New York, which I loved and admired, but thought many of the stories in it were flimsy and dubious, and no sources were given for anything. So part of my impulse was to track down the real stories. No such luck, however. They all dead-ended, mostly in the nineteenth-century yellow press. They might indeed have been invented one sunny day by some underpaid hack on Park Row. (And indeed, historians now believe that some cornerstones of the legend, such as the Dead Rabbits gang and the bank robber George Leonidas Leslie, never existed at all.)
Paris was a whole different matter. There were many people writing about everything that occurred in the nineteenth-century city, from contrasting points of view -- excellent writers at that. And there is a wealth of visual documentation, in addition, which I did not hesitate to avail myself of.
Paris has a multiple-millennia-long history, but so much change happened within and surrounding the time period you chose to illustrate. Was there truly a kind of density of time there, or is that just an effect of your authorly attention?
Yes, there really was a density of time, as even a sidelong glance at Walter Benjamin's project reveals. It was the leap into modernity, with changes possibly even more profound than those occurring in our own day.
I know from your lectures that you have an incredible personal photo collection. Would you please tell me a bit about your image-sourcing process for this book? Why did you choose to include so many more images than in Low Life?
As soon as I started the book I knew that I wanted to avoid the process that attended Low Life -- renting images from commercial collections and having to pay per use in every subsequent edition -- so I started collecting right away. I drew from old books, old magazines and newspapers, from flea markets and eBay. I ended up with about 900 images, and even subtracting the ones I couldn't use for reasons of copyright that still left a huge pile. I did worry that my publisher would want to choose about fifty and gather them into some glossy insert, as used to be done, so I was thrilled when FSG decided to put the book into this square format and include 365 of them (at least I think that's the number).
Nostalgia is perhaps our primary mode of interacting with the past, and you disavow it more than once. What are our alternatives? Were you able to access something else when relating to the past of Paris?
Nostalgia is impossible to avoid, really, especially in a time when metastasizing change draws us ever farther day by day from even the fairly recent past. The only thing I've ever found useful is remembering my grandfather's idea that all change is fundamentally neutral -- that all improvement is simultaneously a disimprovement, and vice versa. But it's also important to note that our time's assumptions are temporary, and that as there were other ways to live than the prescribed forms of our culture, so there will be again.
What cities today, if any, do you feel embody the "dirty utopia"?
I don't know that any would truly fit that category, and I'm too poor to have traveled a lot -- my traveling has generally been done on other people's nickels -- but I can nominate Tangier and Lisbon as cities largely unconstrained by the relentless marketing and real-estate frenzy that plague us here. I've heard similar things about Naples and Marseille. I'm eager to investigate further.
So many of the stories and ideas you relate come from literature and movies. What is the significance of your choice of artistic rather than scholarly sources?
Well, I do owe a huge debt to at least one historian, Louis Chevalier, but honestly: scholars bore me. I don't have the spine to withstand colorless writing for very long, and furthermore I suspect that colorless writing is indicative of colorless thought. That doesn't mean that I endorse all my sources, but there is so much to choose from among the French -- even thoroughgoing reactionaries such as the Goncourt brothers and Maxime du Camp are fun to read
Doing so much research, you must have come across some gold mines and holy grails of information. Are there a couple moments of discovery that you don't mind sharing?
I certainly happened upon a great many books that have become star boarders in my library. Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines, which I translated, was an incidental find along the way. Jean-Paul Clébert's Paris Vagabond, which was immensely important, will be published in a wonderful translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith by New York Review Books in the spring, with my introduction (I was too slow with my own translation). And then many other writers who are largely or wholly untranslated: the consummate flâneur Alexandre Privat d'Anglemont, the feminist and Communard André Léo, the maverick anarchist -- a maverick even among the anarchists -- Georges Darien (whose 1894 novel The Thief I've been slowly translating), the Commune memorialist Maxime Vuillaume, the wildly prolific jack-of-all-literary-trades Francis Carco (who has had a few titles translated, notably by Jean Rhys, but so much remains untouched) -- and those are just a few.
While The Other Paris pointedly fixes its gaze on the lower classes, it is something of a downward gaze, as many of the sources are more bourgeois in origin (I'm thinking Balzac, Zola). Was it difficult or impossible to find sources from within the people/proletariat, or did you make a choice to highlight this class dynamic?
It was sadly inevitable, since the working class was largely illiterate until the early twentieth century (and that was true of my own family, whose documents were all signed with Xs). There were some exceptions, notably the muckraking journalists the Bonneff brothers and the somewhat self-mythologizing people's novelist Eugène Dabit (whose L'Hôtel du Nord was made into a famous movie by Carné and Prévert, but who died tragically young).
You point out that it is too late to write a polemic about the disappearance of the kind of "other life" shown by the book, but a reminder will have to do. Why do you think it is important to remember, even if it's too late to preserve?
It's important to remember because, as I mentioned above, you could otherwise fall into thinking that the way of life prescribed by modern marketing culture is the only possible way of life, or that the past was a set of failed experiments leading up to the great triumph that is this moment, or that we cannot learn anything from the past and especially not from its less celebrated inhabitants. We need to remember that we are not Stakhanovite beasts laboring on behalf of the eventuality of some chimera called progress, that the past was only "simpler" in quantitative and not qualitative terms, that above all people want to live, and over the centuries many have tried to do just that and a few have succeeded, if only temporarily. Immersion in the past is no escape from the present, but it supplies a constant corrective to the narrative spit out daily by media, advertising, politics, and all those other forces that attempt to mold our thinking like jelly in a pan.