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Paris Destroyed, Paris Surviving

Seamus Deane

A Walk Through Paris: A Radical Exploration, by Eric Hazan, transl David Fernbach, Verso, 208 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1786632586

Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-50, Agnès Poirier, Bloomsbury, 400 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 9781408857472

The Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II song “The Last Time I saw Paris” was written in 1941 after the fall of France the previous year. We would not hear it now as an exercise in light melancholy had Dieter von Choltitz, the German military commandant for the city not chosen ‑ according to his 1951 memoir Is Paris Burning? ‑ to ignore Hitler’s command to destroy the city in 1944. That in turn led to René Clément’s 1966 movie of the same name, in which the Resistance and the Gaullists fought to claim to be the saviours of the city. In Volker Schlöndorff’s film Diplomacy (2015), the Swedish consul general in Paris, Raul Nordling, persuades von Choltitz, over a long night of argument, (this is a narrative device, not a fact), to save the capital. Neither German nor Japanese cities had any such advocate, nor the British and Americans any such qualms, in 1945; famous cities, with their inhabitants, have been reduced to rubble as a matter of course in the prosecution of war ever since. Still, Paris was Paris; the song dominated the score of the dreadful technicolour 1954 movie The Last Time I saw Paris, one of the many warped echoes of Casablanca (1942). As far as movies go, Paris actually did burn, in 1991 in Jennie Livingstone’s Paris is Burning, but that of course is from another universe. Yet even the name of Paris in a movie title (as in Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984), which Le Monde reviewed on its front page) still works as part of any thematic invocation of glamour and its opposites.

Paris has always been a moveable feast. There are many people, Parisians and others, who think it was destroyed long before 1940 and others who think it has been effectively destroyed (again and again) since, in the name of renovation, development, restoration. Under Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire, the Paris of the grands boulevards was created by the architectural genius of the Baron Haussmann whose operations, lasting more than twenty years, was in his own view a cleansing exercise, sweeping away the refuse and the cobbled darkness of centuries, the rabble of immigrants and of the poor, the efficacy of street barricades, the stench of passageways, the miasma of disease. This was the city’s first organised programme of capitalist development, giving to it a new texture of  sheet glass and iron and asphalt, blending the city’s traditional stone, its stained glass and restored Gothic churches with the new department stores and panoramas, railway stations and the famous enclosed arcades. The city was becoming a species of shop. In 1870, the first of the German invasions showed, briefly, what modern artillery could do to a cityscape; Proust described the sky above Paris in 1918, lit by searchlights and aeroplanes “that still climbed like rockets to join the stars”; in 1940, on his only visit to Paris, Hitler and his entourage strode under the Eiffel Tower, and four years later De Gaulle mirrored that infamous walk in his triumphant return on the day of Liberation. Eric Hazan, author of the celebrated The Invention of Paris, (2011), here takes us on a different walk, along the north-south meridian of Paris through streets and centuries, from the Paris of Louis XIV to that of the present day, past the monuments left by Haussmann, Pompidou and, among others, Nouvel, architect of  the extraordinarily ugly concert hall the Philharmonie de Paris (2015) in the Parc de la Villette. Nouvel did, in the end, disavow it. In that respect, he is, but should not be, an isolated figure.

Hazan begins his walk on the Rue Quincampoix where John Law, the Scottish economist, established his famous Mississippi Company in 1719. The street was then and continued thereafter to be associated with banking, fraud and speculation, an appropriate sequence. We read in the seventeenth century Mémoires of Saint-Simon, how horses and coaches were banned from the always crowded, feverish street and how guards, posted at either end, beat their drums to mark the early opening and late closing of the offices selling stock. Perhaps a dozen people were killed in a crush in July of 1720; the bodies of three were borne aloft in protest to the Palais Royal; Law moved his offices to the Place Vendôme, then the court moved them to the vast garden spaces of the Hotel de Soissons. But the crowds and the financial panic grew together. A suspect stockbroker was murdered in March 1720 by the Comte de Horn and a friend, the Comte de Mille, or Milly. On Good Friday, March 20th, they were both tortured, broken on the wheel and then decapitated, despite the pleas of their families to have them decapitated only, since being broken on the wheel was a greater family infamy, bearing with it the exclusion of their families for the next three generations from noble or ecclesiastical preferment. Despite this exemplary punishment, panic, rage, and ruin remorselessly followed. Law fled Paris in January 1721. The drums fell silent. The financial ripples extended from Quincampoix in 1719 to the Tuileries in 1791, a catastrophe that began the fatal pull of the bankrupt French monarchy from Versailles to central Paris and to a deserved oblivion. It is not surprising that Saint-Simon’s Mémoires were (along with The Arabian Nights) among Proust’s favourite works. He thought of them, along with his own novel, as the three great masterpieces written by night. In the Memoirs, the Mississippi scandal, like the Dreyfus case in À la recherche, appears as an omen, the onset of the last illness of a civilisation that recognised only the fatality, not the aetiology, of the affliction. Saint-Simon repeatedly wrote that he could not understand Law’s scheme; he had no head for finance.

When Law moved from the rue Quincampoix to the Place Vendôme, the Place was already designed but not actually built, for King Louis XIV had run out of money. With no sense of irony, Law built a house behind a facade, bought several other sites and buildings but, with the crash of 1720, had to sell everything and decamp to Switzerland. The Bourbon-Condé family made a killing on the sale and the remaining elements of it still own property or residential rights there, at the Ritz hotel for example, now owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed whose son, the companion of Princess Diana, died with her in a car accident in May 1998 after they had dined there. So the facades are Louis XIV, the Metro station (believed by Hazan and others to have defaced the great octagonal Place), the hotels, bars and shops are a mix of nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century financial ventures, high-end tourism in one of its most concentrated displays. From 1810-15 Napoleon surveyed the Place from the central column that celebrated the battle of Austerlitz; he was restored in 1831 and brought down in 1870 during the Commune, because a war memorial was felt to be incongruous, said the painter Courbet, there where the rue de la Paix began; both column and emperor were re-established in 1873. Napoleon watched Coco Chanel stay at the Ritz for thirty-five years, and Goering rather more briefly while his Luftwaffe headquarters was based there. The odours of royalty, empire, celebrity. war, money and disaster have hung in the air of the Place for four hundred years. They are heavy at times; in other streets and squares, the air is scarcely tinted with the perfumes of luxury and blood that make the Place Vendôme’s atmosphere so Parisian.

“It was on a deserted path in the Luxembourg garden,” writes Hazan, “that Marius met Cosette and Jean Valjean for the first time.” This reference to Hugo’s Les Misérables is of the kind one would expect of a Joycean in Dublin. Some novels (in Paris those of Balzac, Hugo and Zola) are reliable guides to what was once there. From the Luxembourg it is not far to the enchanting Rue de Tournon where Joseph Roth, the great Austrian novelist, “drowned the chagrin of exile in alcohol”. Further down is the annex of one of the hôtels where Leibniz stayed in the 1670s and invented the infinitesimal calculus; the hôtel itself had been converted into a barracks and a place of execution for prisoners in the June days of 1848. Hazan’s walk brings us by the sites of some of the bloody revolutions of the nineteenth century ‑ 1830-32, 1848, 1870. But he notes how few traces of the Great Revolution of 1789 remain. Danton is remembered in a statue, street and in cafés, but not Robespierre. The Third Republic (1870-1940) took Danton as its hero and the mark of that remains. Haussmann’s imprint is still heavy, as in the buildings around the Place Saint-Michel, although I confess I find them impressive in their high-balconied mass and force. At the Saint-Michel fountain, the sculpture of the archangel pinning down the dragon reveals the political triumph the surrounding buildings represent; in the words Hazan cites from Dolf Oehler’s Le Spleen contre l’oubli. Juin 1848 (1994), “the victory of the imperial and bourgeois order over the revolution, the triumph of Good over the bad people of 1848”.

Adrienne Monnier’s lending library, La Maison des Amis des Livres, opened in 1915 at No 7 on the Rue de L’Odéon; Sylvia Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, almost opposite, opened six years later. This stretch, still unmarked by plaques, was frequented by so many authors of the early twentieth century ‑ Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Scott Fitzgerald, Pound, Hemingway, Gide, Italo Svevo, Walter Benjamin among them ‑ that it is truly one of the birthplaces of Modernism. “The bad people of 1848” lost the political battle, but in important ways won the cultural battle, of which modernism was the melancholy triumph. The Goncourt brothers, in their Journal of May 1856, commenting waspishly on the “bohemian” lifestyle of Paris, wrote that the arrival of “la Bohème” was a sign of “the domination in literature of socialism”. One can think of many exceptions (Flaubert!), but from Baudelaire to Courbet to Zola there is a discernible degree of solidarity between “the artist” and “the people”. For Hazan, it is with L’Assommoir (1877), seventh in the twenty-volume Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, “that Zola made his entry as one the great writers of Paris, all of whom were in their way walkers”. The walking excludes Proust, but he is more a great writer from rather than of Paris. Nor would he have had any acquaintance with the Paris of Zola. The desolate working class districts of La Goutte-d’Or, along the Rue des Poissonniers, do at least include the Henri Sauvage building on the Rue des Amiraux, but this part of Hazan’s walk endorses the function and power of naturalism, not just as a literary genre, but as a form of moral indictment for an economically polarized social system where class and ethnic origin (African, Arabic, Algerian etc) are dangerously fused into a desolation even deeper than that which preceded 1848.

Two catastrophes of urban planning, the building of the Boulevard Périphérique (opened in 1973) and the destruction of Les Halles, the central food market (demolished 1971), are standard targets in any account of Paris’s architectural history. Yet the highway that divides Paris from the banlieues, that follows the line of the old fortifications of the city, seems to be an irredeemable error, while the loss of Les Halles has at least been compensated by something notable in its own Parisian way ‑ the nearby Centre Georges Pompidou, the Beaubourg. Hazan analyses the attractions of the Beaubourg, especially how it has made functionalism both exotic and amusing and, as is usual with him, integrates his account of the building as such with that of its use by the public or, more precisely several publics which have been encouraged or discouraged by entrance fees, the raising of restaurant prices and, most of all, by the quality of its exhibitions. Ultimately though, despite the Périphérique as a physical and as a psychological barrier, Hazan feels able to say (rather surprisingly) that “the city I have walked through is a working-class one”. Under the Second Empire, the crushing of the Commune was celebrated; three-quarters of the communards, claimed Maxime du Camp, were “foreigners”; during the German occupation, these foreigners were Jews; today they are “Islamists”. Hazan’s hope is that the “multi-coloured proletariat” of the present, bearing the inheritance of the former revolutionary journées, “united by the sense of its endless exploitation … will show one day that the people have not lost the battle of Paris”. Is Paris burning? Reading Hazan forces one always to ask just what it was I saw the last time I saw Paris.

No such pressure is exerted on the reader by Agnès Poirier’s Left Bank. It is written in the repellent narrative style of a bad television documentary or of an amalgam of the glossy magazine article and the tourist brochure, in which a fake past tense, that pretends to immediacy, alternates with a specious future tense that puts everything in a queasy perspective. So, as an example: under the sub-heading, in reference to Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, THE BOOK THAT BEAT THE COMMUNIST PARTY AT THE BALLOT BOX, we read that

April 1946 had come early” [?] “and the weather was so mild that Simone de Beauvoir wore neither stockings nor a coat.” Her mother told her “over lunch one day” about “that book everyone was reading at the moment by a certain Hungarian ex-Communist named Arthur Koestler”. Simone had read it already “before it reached the bookshops, on New Year’s Day 1945. It had come out a few months later and had been an instant success ... would reach 500,000 [copies] by the end of the yearAfter lunch the sun was shining … She walked straight to … Unlike Juliette Greco, Simone was not so fond of the place. Newspapers had announced … that Beauvoir and Sartre were deserting the Café de Flore … Koestler would find himself challenged as soon as he set foot in Paris a few months later, in October 1946

The tenses and time indicators, here shown in bold, reveal the effect of this sort of microwave treatment of celebrity material; this is the instant past, instant future, a confection, studded with detail to guarantee authenticity, that is neither literature nor history, a room at the Ritz stuffed with genuine antiques and the latest technology, in which you find you can consume culture like a sandwich. Another sub-heading: EXISTENTIALISM. THE NEW PHILOSOPHY THAT MAKES PEOPLE FAINT. At a crowded lecture given by Sartre in 1945, “Is Existentialism a Humanism?” two women fainted, one “and then another … Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s reputation was practically sealed that instant. Existentialism had struck and claimed its first two victims.” Boris Vian, the novelist, “would soon immortalize this memorable evening in his first novel”. And so on. In his book, Eric Hazan, tells us that “a gloomy stairway has been constructed and named after Boris Vian”. Then he asks: “Poor Boris; what sins did he have to expiate to be given this place out of thousands of others?” Well, now Poirier has given us the answer. It was Vian who, in her words and syntax, immortalised that memorable Sartre lecture that he would have attended on October 29th, 1945 as “a very tall, thin blond man with a pale face … crushed between a fat middle-aged woman and a young female student with a ponytail and a black turtleneck”. The stairway’s too good for him.

1/12/2018

Seamus Deane, formerly of UCD and now emeritus professor of Irish Studies at Notre Dame, USA, has published widely on Irish and French themes of the post-Enlightenment era.

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