June 2011

Angela Meyer


The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps by Eric Hazan, translated by David Fernbach

I'm sitting in an apartment in the twelfth arrondissement of Paris, and because I've finished Eric Hazan's detailed, passionate The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps, I can place myself not just topographically, but temporally, in this city. I know that the lines of some of the nearby streets have not changed since the Middle Ages, that in this area were, in Hazan's words, "cabinetmakers, carvers, gilders, polishers and turners." There was also a royal manufactory of wallpaper, and when wages were reduced in April 1789 there was an uprising. Troops intervened, several people died, and the incident is seen as a "prelude to the revolution."

Any visit to this city would be made richer by taking the time to read Hazan's book. He looks at Paris through a few specific lenses: section by section through the quarters of old Paris, the faubourgs, and then the villages of new Paris; and then (still both topographically and temporally) through "Red Paris," through the eyes of flâneurs, and through the visual image.

Despite the book's bulk, you finish it feeling hungry for more knowledge about Paris -- more about the names and streets, and the history, politics, and players. Hazan continually whets your appetite. The Grands Boulevards, for example, are covered in just seventeen pages: "In a movement of taste that accompanied dandies, whores, journalists, and gourmets in their migration to the Boulevards, a new romanticism made its appearance..." The modern city began to appear: the first Paris public transport line, newspaper kiosks, cab ranks, and gaslight. Hazan cites Baudelaire's Paris Spleen on the gaslight: "The cafe was sparkling. The gaslight itself sent forth all the ardour of a debut and lit with all its force walls blinding in their whiteness..." Because of the gaslight, there was a new nocturnal life. Professional "noctambulists" were nighttime guides. In the 1850s cafes began to set tables on terraces in the Boulevards.

On Boulevard Montmartre roamed literary folk and dandies; there were literary salons and a bookshop, a theatre and cafes (popular at the absinthe hour). On the Boulevards, too, were the great romantic theatres, there were "jugglers, conjurors, dwarves, giants, skeleton-men, ugly customers, boiling oil" (according to Félix and Louis Lazare).

The Boulevards are an example of the fact that there could be whole books devoted to each of the areas Hazan covers. Reading The Invention of Paris, you're left with a broad, rich impression of the city's entire history -- and a history drawn not just from historical study, but that of art, poetry, fiction, and photography.

I've only been to Paris once before, for a few days in 2008. I didn't know much about the French Revolution and the ongoing struggles. The section on Red Paris is spirited and moving. So many names, so much blood and such continual resistance: "In the course of the half-century between the anonymous night-time barricades of November 1827 and the seventy sunny days of the Commune, the list of Paris demonstrations, riots, coups, uprisings and insurrections is so long that no other capital can claim anything similar."

I also didn't know about the Haussmann era, in the nineteenth century -- the great changes from the medieval to the modern city. Some of the photographers and artists Hazan details in the last section just managed to document buildings, streets, and gardens that have been permanently destroyed. In 2008 I didn't know I was walking through a city that, in many parts, was as new as many of the buildings at home (in Australia). And yet, there are plenty of remnants, in Paris, and there is a layering -- the quarries underground, the bodies in the catacombs, paving stones, chestnut trees, walls, some still-tiny streets, spiral staircases, cathedrals.

Balzac said: "Flânerie is a science; it is the gastronomy of the eye, to take a walk is to vegetate; flânerie is life," and in one of the liveliest sections of the book, Hazan describes flânerie -- what it was then and what the term has evolved to mean -- and projects Paris through the eyes of flâneurs like Baudelaire. Baudelaire, according to Hazan, feared his own tendencies toward idleness, and did not see flânerie as unproductive -- he was a "passionate spectator" and thus flânerie was not passive (as the term may indicate today).

Hazan is known as a left-wing historian and one of the intentions of this book is certainly to highlight paradoxes relating to figures who have become revered, and to give accounts of the strength and struggles of the people. I suppose his politics would have come across stronger if I'd been schooled in French history, or had lived in France for an extended period. For a newcomer, a tourist of the book and the city, I found his telling of Red Paris to be fairly objective. He gives scenes and images, and provides plenty of quotes and text from the point of view of different sides. The "radicalism" could be present more in the way he defends certain figures (writers, artists) who have been perceived as right-wing -- Hazan provides evidence of their confusion or reversal in later years, such as Victor Hugo's. And he doesn't shy away from lamenting the decisions of governments and urban planners for making parts of the city blander, homogenized and commercialized in recent decades.

But the book is also a guide. So that you may visit, or live in Paris, and be aware of the layers of history under, above and around you. The crowds, dirt, ceremonies, entertainments, visions, the struggles and losses. And Hazan doesn't lament us tourists, luckily. In fact he says locals are missing out when they avoid some areas because they're popular with tourists, such as the "joy of the hilltop" in Montmartre. "Why ignore its pleasure, why not admit that the whole of literature, cinema and photography will never restore the happiness of a walk starting at the foot of Rue du Chevalier-de-la-Barre and ending at Stendhal's tomb in the Montmartre cemetery?" Yesterday, the second-last day of my trip, I found that pleasure. I stood and looked out over the city, broad and densely packed with the events, people, and impressions Hazan locates for us.

The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps by Eric Hazan, translated by David Fernbach
ISBN 978-1844674114
400 pages