The Invention of Paris, A History in Footsteps

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The Invention of Paris, A History in Footsteps: Eric Hazan | Verso (2010) pp400 (£20)

There are few cities in the world as indelibly branded, in both a commercial and a figurative sense, in the minds of people as Paris. This is all thanks to a handful of iconic monuments made famous from millions upon millions of reproductions, both professional and amateur. But also from a visual heritage that many people know, if few could actually name: the photography of Atget, Lartigue, Brassaï, Ronis, Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau, the paintings of Manet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec. And, of course, Paris has long had a grip on the popular imagination worldwide, renowned as a centre of libertinism, freethinking, artistic fervour, popular revolt, and, most curiously, romance.

Like so many popular conceptions the roots of this image of Paris are more recent than one thinks. The Paris familiar to most visitors to the city is the Haussmanian one, of radial boulevards and seemingly endless, meticulously crenellated blocks of sandstone apartment buildings. Most of which dates from the Second Empire, i.e. from Napoléon III’s coup d’état of December 1851 until his overthrow in 1870. Likewise, Notre Dame de Paris, the pearl of the city’s Gothic architecture, has little of its original medieval fabric about it. Until its massive renovation by Viollet-Le Duc in the 1840s, the cathedral was a sad dark lump on the cityscape, a cumbersome tallow candle eaten away by centuries of neglect and weathering. It was no accident that one of the most proactive members of the restoration committee was the man who did most to embed the cathedral into the collective conscience, both inside and outside France – Victor Hugo.

But before Haussmann, before the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Sacre Coeur, before the rise – and decline of Saint-Germain-de-Près and Montparnasse as centres of intellectual bustle, Paris was a dirty, dangerous, and corrupt town. It was largely undeveloped, with most of the Left Bank, and the western part of the city, nowadays inhabited by the rich and frequented en masse by tourists, green fields until well into the nineteenth century. Parts of the city, now gentrified beyond the means of even the middle-classes, such as the Marais, the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-de-Près, were long home to squalid tenements to rival Seán O’Casey’s Dublin, a labyrinth of mean streets to be avoided after dark by casual punters. The city was also, until quite recently, a formidable obstacle for mere pedestrians. Compared to London it was scarcely paved and the success of the famous arcades that sprouted around the Grands Boulevards in the mid-nineteenth century owed as much to their functioning as a parallel network of paved streets – like subterranean modern Montreal – as they did to the many shops and cafés they housed.

Éric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris traces the elaboration and evolution of the modern city, both spiritual and spatial. The book’s title places it, unconsciously at least, in the vein of Benedict Anderson’s analysis of the nineteenth century as a crucible of modern nationalism, even if Hazan idea of ‘invention’ has a more pejorative ring to it, connoting a fabrication of a prettified museum city for the delectation of tourists and the super rich. First published in French in 2002, the book now appears in English translation for the first time. Hazan contributes a new preface to the English edition and wonders about his capacity to grasp how much the city has changed in the intervening eight years, having left only for short periods, and he is instead forced to observe it changing ‘like the wrinkles on a beloved face that one observes every day.’ I can appreciate this difficulty, having moved to Paris the year the book was originally published. Things have certainly changed since then, but often at a pace that seems glacial. That period has also coincided with the enlightened, if sometimes misguided, tenure of Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who has bestowed on Paris a new robust civic atmosphere, even if one suspects it ultimately benefits the youthful, left-leaning middle-classes more than those further down the social scale.

Hazan, an art historian and publisher of note, was born in 1935 to a Jewish Egyptian father and a stateless Palestinian mother. It is this heritage that makes him more at ease with Paris’ multi-cultural complexion – so often ignored in official historiography – and the flux of time, than many French people of his generation. He names at one point among his favourite places in the capital the intersection of rues Jean-Pierre Timbaud and Morand in the 11th arrondissement. At this ‘impromptu square’ old working-class Paris, in the form of the headquarters of France’s metalworkers’ union, converges with recent immigration, in the form of a Mosque. Given that the Mosque, the Mosquée Omar, is considered one of the more radical in France, this fondness marks Hazan out as having a social sanguineness rare in French historians.

Not surprisingly, Hazan is a man of the left: strident yet lucid; withering yet good-humoured, angry but rarely dyspeptic. He is also capable of mourning the losses of the past without recourse to nostalgia. And he even sees Paris as recovering some of its vigour over the past two decades, as the architectural ravages visited on the city in the 1950s and 60s are replaced by more sensitive planning and Paris’ immigrant communities constitute themselves as the new working class. In this, he is similar to Alain Badiou, who has since the mid-1990s focused a project for a new working-class radicalism on the energy of the sans papiers and the youth of the banlieues. He is also surprisingly indulgent of the gentrification of the old working-class neighbourhoods (though to be true, this gentrification is really only partial) even if he can’t resist one or two well-aimed jabs that made me, personally, go ‘ouch’:

Working-class Paris occupies the east of the city – the northeast to be precise. People often say that this is also getting gentrified, that the marginal, the poor, the immigrants are steadily being driven out by the irresistible advance of the ‘bobos’ (‘bohemian bourgeois’ – intellectuals, artists, designers, journalists, etc.) who cultivate their superficial nonconformism and benign antiracism in these quarters, while driving up the rents with the help of property speculators…

… But working-class Paris is resisting rather better than people say.

The Invention of Paris begins by invoking the ‘psychogeography of the boundary’ and attempts to draw a definitive line between neighbouring quartiers that appear unusually distinct despite their physical proximity. Each new district begins ‘like a step into the void’ as that earlier astute psycho-cartographer of Paris, Walter Benjamin noted in The Arcades Project. Hazan notes the difference in temperament, comfort and even safety between adjacent neighbourhoods, differences that have persisted for centuries. For instance, rues Saint-Martin and Saint-Denis are only two blocks apart but the former is mild-mannered and respectable, the latter a seedy thoroughfare long populated by prostitutes, pimps and thieves (two of its more historically fearsome sidestreets are called rue de la Truanderie and rue de la Petite Truanderie – truanderie approximating to ‘gangsterism’).

Similarly Belleville continues to be a harder, more aggressive version of its East Paris neighbour Ménilmontant, despite the fact that many residents of either could hardly tell you where the border lies.

Paris grew out of what today is the geometrical centre of the city map, the two islands in the Seine, the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank, where the Celts and later the Romans built the first settlement, known variously as Lukotekia and Lutetia. The city evolved mainly northwards, on the Right Bank, where the Knights Templar ruled over a substantial sub-city known as The Temple (as is its descendant quarter today). Hazan treats these early quarters first, huddled as they are around where the modern Parisian arrondissements begins to spiral out from the 1st, around the Louvre, to the 20th, in the northeastern reaches. And much of the history he fills in is from before Louis XIV, who, nervous of conspiracy, moved his palace out to the relative safety of Versailles.

Next come the faubourgs, the neighbourhoods originally beyond the Wall of the Farmers-General, a seventeenth-century construction conceived not for fortification but to raise tolls on produce being introduced into the city. These neighbourhoods form the radial structure of the northeastern city, with the streets, rues Saint-Denis, du Temple, Saint-Antoine etc. reaching out into their homonyms in the faubourgs. Then there are the villages, old independent communes outside the city, incorporated into the city in the nineteenth century. These include Grenelle and Vaugirard on the Left Bank, Belleville and Ménilmontant on the Right, and most famously Montmartre.
Paris has the curious distinction of having been heavily fortified late in its history. The heavy walls, which roughly correspond to the modern boulevard périphérique ring road, were erected by Prime Minister Adolphe Thiers under King Louis Philippe in the 1840s. Paris had been occupied by Russians, British and Prussians after the defeat of Bonaparte and the prospect of war with the old enemies was still sufficiently real for a nervous government to tighten security. The walls lasted until after the Treaty of Versailles, when the National Assembly voted to tear them down.

Much of the picturesque majesty of modern Paris has its roots in nineteenth-century civic militarism and it is this that informs Hazan’s second chapter ‘Red Paris’. It is well known that Haussmann’s wide boulevards and cuttings through entire neighbourhoods were conceived to allow rapid movements of troops to quell popular revolts. But Hazan notes that such ‘strategic embellishments’ had already begun under Louis-Philippe, such as the linking of Les Halles and Bastille by Claude-Philibert de Rambuteau with the street that now bears his name. This first one facilitated the crushing of the revolution of 1848, which nevertheless managed to spark off similar revolts across Europe.
And the beauty of Paris is steeped in blood, and bears the dark imprint of black reaction. To our age, it would be as if we went to Santiago or Buenos Aires to marvel at the urban planning undertaken under Pinochet or Videla. The way was cleared for the conception of modern Paris following the coup d’état staged in 1851 by President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (nephew of Napoléon) who then declared himself Emperor Napoléon III. There then followed an era of severe political and civil repression, and the greatest prosperity ever known to France, fuelled by rampant unchecked capitalism and colonial plunder. Needless to say, the majority of French people, and Parisians, saw little of this wealth. In the meantime Baron Haussmann was enlisted to relay the city. He laid out many of the now world-famous boulevards, razing working-class communities, and centres of political dissent, in doing so. Amongst his legacy was the creation of Place de la République (initially known as Place du Château d’Eau) along the Grands Boulevards in the east of the city. The Prince-Eugène Republican Guard barracks was placed on the new square, easily linking up with the region’s main barracks a few miles out the road in Vincennes. Similar military installations were scattered across the city. They were to prove vital in the crushing of the Commune after the fall of the Second Empire.

Hazan draws on extensive contemporary accounts to relate the revolts of July 1830 (which installed Louis-Philippe as monarch), 1832, 1848, the coup d’état of 1851 and the seventy-day Commune of 1871. It’s a despairing catalogue of remarkable bravery and resourcefulness from a populace that had little left to lose, their constant betrayal by a left-liberal intelligentsia that failed to walk the walk when confronted with the flame of genuine popular rebellion and bloody repression on the part of a bourgeoisie whose savagery to this day informs class antagonisms in France. The liberals in Parliament mobilised far more readily to resist the 1851 coup than they did to support the Revolution three years earlier. But, as Hazan wryly notes, they got no help from the city’s working classes who found they had no favour to return and who mistakenly thought the incoming usurper was going to reinstate universal suffrage (he did, but only for property owners).
From the revolts of the era, Hazan draws a number heroes: Charles Delescuze, a veteran of 1830 and 1848, who died on the barricades at Place de Château d’Eau during the Commune, and Alphonse Baudin, a leftist parliamentarian, who died on a barricade while resisting the 1851 coup d’état. And then there is Victor Hugo. Wanted by the new government’s secret police after resistance to the coup was crushed, he went underground and was spirited out of the country to Guernesy, where he would live until the advent of the Third Republic in 1870. Racked by guilt over his and his cohorts’ inaction during the 1848 Revolution, he moved sharply leftward, forging a strident sense of social justice most famously exemplified in Les Misérables and became the standard-bearer in exile for the decimated pre-socialist French left.

Hazan has a palpable hatred of the Second Empire, calling at one point for all the streets bearing the names of military and political figures from that era to be renamed after characters in classic French literature. He is also scornful of official Republican history, which trumpets 1789 so loudly but shamefully ignores the bloodshed of the 19th century, compared to which the Terror of 1793 was a cakewalk. And the left do not escape his scorn: the mistakes of 1848 were repeated during the Commune, with the Social Democrats of the day holing up with the reactionaries out in Versailles and sanctioning the wholesale slaughter that followed. He is appalled too at the recent revisionism in Haussmann studies, which fobs off the social and civic victims of the ‘improvements’ in a paragraph or two, consigning them to collatoral damage in the necessary drive to build la plus belle ville du monde.

From the 20th century Hazan reserves particular scorn for Presidents de Gaulle and Pompidou, whom he accuses of rampant vandalism to the city during the 1950s and 60s. Here again, it is working class areas that were deemed expendable, this time for commercial rather than strategic ends. Upper Belleville in the 20th arrondissement and the Faubourg Saint-Marcel on the Left Bank were among those neighbourhoods scarred by indiscriminate development, while the food markets at Les Halles – ‘the belly of Paris’ in Zola’s famous words – were moved out to suburban Rungis, to be replaced by a hideously bleak underground shopping centre. Hazan also refuses to refer to the Centre Georges Pompidou by the name of the late President, preferring, like most Parisians, ‘Beaubourg’. This is partly because of Pompidou’s ‘deplorable artistic taste’ and opposition to Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s winning design. This is another refreshing aspect of Hazan’s polemicising against urban vandalism: he is capable of extricating genuine innovative architecture from the morass of planning disasters. He gives credit where it is due.

Other heroes he discerns from the 19th century are Baudelaire, the man who single-handedly invented flânerie, Manet and Atget. He also manages to find kind things to say about Degas and Balzac despite their political leanings. But the patrimoine of 19th-century French culture holds few models for Hazan, though it is curious that he should hold more store in the resolutely internal Proust rather than the crusading Zola, whom Hazan seems largely uninterested in.

If there might be a few quibbles about this fine book, the structure is one. It tails off towards the end, with the essays on flâneurs and early Parisian photography tacked on (though they are worthy in their own right). The book will also be of more use, and interest, to those that have at least a passing knowledge of Paris. There are parts of the city – namely the Europe quarter of the 18th arrondissement, the stomping ground of Baudelaire, Caillebot and Manet – that are unfamiliar to me. People who have spent less time in the city might have difficulty finding their bearings, though it’s true, that Google Streetview, whatever its questionable ethics, comes in handy in such circumstances.

Similarly, Hazan presumes a familiarity with French history that would be hard to expect of any but the most specialised English-speaker. He wrote the book for a French readership so this is to be expected. But, again it can be hard to find one’s way, given that the names Auguste Blanqui, Armand Barbès, Alexandre Ledru-Rollin and Louis Rollin have less consonance for non-French people than those of Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just and Marat. It’s a book that demands a bit of effort, but those of whom it demands it amply rewards.

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6 Responses

  1. Dana

    May 8, 2010 10:47 am

    Many thanks for this excellent review, of a book which I’m going to go straight out and purchase.

    I’ve lived in Paris for over 20 years, now, but there’s *still* plenty I don’t know about it. It’s a mysterious city, in this respect, each quartier with its own special flavor, like so many, nearly self-contained units. Indeed, this is what makes it endlessly intriguing.

    Years ago, the concièrge of the building in which I lived confessed to me, cigarette hanging from her lips and balais-brosse in hand, that she’d only ventured outside the 17th arrondissement a handful of times, in course of her life! She’d had no need to …

    Those who are interested in ‘The Invention of Paris’ might also enjoy reading ‘The Discovery of France’, written by English historian Graham Robb. A fascinating story of the process by which France became a ‘nation’, told by a man who cycled 50,000 kilometers to observe the provinces and document what he heard and saw.

    Here, again, one might think one knows a thing or two about France, but, well, you might want to read Robb’s book : )

    Although I have yet to read Hazan’s work, I sense that these two authors have done societies a tremendous service by researching and recounting the very mechanisms by which cities and territories evolve, many of which boil down to the containment of the richness and diversity of a peuple.

  2. William Wall

    May 8, 2010 3:34 pm

    The discovery of France is a wonderful book. And indeed, Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project is a fascinating compendium about Paris itself, as well as a great deal else. Great review. Many thanks. I too will buy the book.

  3. Seanachie

    May 9, 2010 9:24 am

    Thanks for the comments! The Discovery of France has long been on my to-read list. I hope to finally get around to it in the coming months. Robb has also published recently Parisians, which Julian Barnes recently reviewed along with The Invention of Paris in the London Review of Books (link needs registration, I’m afraid).

  4. Seán Báite

    June 14, 2010 1:03 pm

    Ta for the pointer to Hazan’s book Seanachie.. If I can ever afford to buy a book/get the train up to Paris again, I’ll have to give it a look (although there’s always the local bibliotheque, I suppose)
    Have you found a new flat somewhere up there ? Gentrified or not..
    William – funny you should mention Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’ as it looms fairly large over this project involving Cathal Coughlan :
    http://vimeo.com/9730708
    I’ve been pointing people in the direction of that documentary ever since John Green (of CounagoandSpaves) made me aware of its existence.
    Advance apologies for a terrible pun at this World Cup time, but isn’t one of those arcades called ‘Passage Brady’? Imagine naming an arcade after a pass from Chippy himself :-)

  5. John Green

    June 23, 2010 11:40 am

    Super review, Seanachie, thanks very much. I’ve now got Hazan’s book on the shelf awaiting a read. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to use Google Street View in concert with it, but it strikes me as an excellent idea.

    I’ve just finished Graham Robb’s “Parisians,” which gives an episodic history of Paris through a series of biographical vignettes of, I suppose, “exemplary” inhabitants of the city (Balzac, Baudelaire, Juliette Greco). Idiosyncratic by its nature and less obviously political in its tone. I’m now on David Harvey’s “Paris: Capital of Modernity,” which Donagh of this parish recommended. More my cup of tea in that Harvey’s approach is that of an urban geographer/sociologist who understands the role of class struggle in the formation of social space, as well as perceptions of it. Too early to recommend (I’m only on chapter 2!), but I look forward to Hazan’s book.

    Thanks again.