April 2016

Justyn Dillingham


Paris Vagabond by Jean-Paul Clébert, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

How do most of us greet a new book? Whether we are pulling it from a shelf or peeling away bubble wrap, the universal impulse is to grip our new possession by the spine and flip through it. Why do we do that? As irresistible as the urge to flip may be, it's hard to argue that anybody ever gets much of an impression of a book by reading random sentences here and there. If you try this with Jean-Paul Clébert's Paris Vagabond, however, you are experiencing the book more or less as its author seems to have intended.

On the surface, Paris Vagabond looks like the sort of book that anybody might write, if they had a few months to amble around a city and scribble in a notebook. The book is based on extensive notes kept by Clébert during a long stretch of his life when he was deliberately slumming, living the life of a vagrant with the express intent of writing about it. He wanted to find the city that no travel guide would tell him about, the city that remained unknown to all but the most penniless Parisians. Once he did sit down to write his book, he consulted his notes at random, making the book's narrative shape mimic the unplanned, antic nature of his real-life odyssey.

The book's premise calls to mind George Orwell's 1933 classic Down and Out in Paris and London, but the two books could scarcely be more different in their approach. While Orwell brought a reporter's thirst for facts to his adventure, Clébert seems to have tried to completely immerse himself in the vagabond's mindset. Orwell, you sense, couldn't wait to get back to his typewriter; Clébert probably could have gone on sleeping in a shed and scratching down notes for the rest of his life.

In one spare, coolly lyrical chapter after another, Clébert tells us what it was like to live in postwar Paris for a few years, meeting weird characters, wandering down dark corridors, hunting down the dankest and most mysterious corners of the city. One particularly memorable chapter centers on the Attic of Evil Spells, a pitch-black condemned room in an old house where vagrants take turns sleeping, said to be haunted by the phantom of a blind old man. After reading the chapter, I hastened to Google to see if I could find any other mention of it. Nothing. I wonder if it's still there.

There are warmer moments. At one point, Clébert takes on a job as a "measurer of living spaces," sizing apartments for landlords who have lost their building plans. This entails numerous visits to flats that, to his chagrin, look more or less the same; it also includes a few wonderful eccentrics that are worth the price of the book. One old man he visits has turned his entire apartment into a mushroom farm; another flat is crawling with pet snakes.

Like Orwell, Clébert emphasizes the overwhelming role that hunger plays in an impoverished person's life. "Hunger makes you seasick," he tells us, likening himself to "a child's paper boat on a stream," bobbing along the streets in search of nourishment. It's an image that recalls Rimbaud's "The Drunken Boat," and Clébert probably had the greasy-haired punk poet in mind as he tried to translate the throbbing world around him into verbal music. The menus outside restaurants become, for Clébert, "pure, living, visceral poetry whose words and expressions speak not to the soul but to the stomach."

Scarcely less important is the need to get clean. Clébert describes, in wince-inducing detail, how difficult it is for a vagrant to wash with any degree of privacy. Finding a comfortable place to sleep is a daily ordeal, made easier only by the surprising willingness of strangers to open up their homes to passing vagabonds for a few hours at a time. There is a friendliness and unforced sense of near-universal camaraderie in Clébert's Paris that alleviates much of the misery he writes about.

After finding a publisher for his book, Clébert revisited his old stomping grounds with a photographer in tow, resulting in the casual and unpretentious black-and-white pictures that punctuate the text. Patrice Molinard's shots give us rubble-strewn buildings, foggy streets, and an endless stream of Parisians who seldom notice his camera. A surprising number of the people in these photos are standing with their backs to the viewer, as if they did not know they were being photographed.

After finishing the book, you may find yourself flipping back to the pictures, your eyes flickering over the bistros and hotels, most of them surely long gone. They are a direct window into a lost world, one that was already vanishing as Clébert wrote. The Paris he explored was gradually reawakening after the ordeal of the war and Nazi occupation, and the "dead calm of abandoned streets" he celebrated would soon be shattered. Some readers may find themselves mourning for the lost Paris; others may find themselves wondering what hidden treasures lie concealed in their own cities, their own neighborhoods.

Paris Vagabond by Jean-Paul Clébert, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590179574
336 pages