Monday, November 9, 2015

"Couldn't an exciting
film be made from the map of Paris?" asked the writer Walter
Benjamin.
"From the compression of a centuries-long movement of streets,
boulevards, arcades, and squares into the space of half an hour?" In
his new and original history of Paris, the writer, essayist, professor, and
historian Luc Sante tells the story of the city as a living entity, animated
by hundreds of years of human endeavor, getting at the question of what gives
a city the thing that we refer to as its "soul." Paris is a place of
lights and luxuries, but underneath its globalized surface lie years of
struggle, violence, splendor, and joy.
In this thematically organized story,
Sante constructs his mesmerizing narrative out of art, reportage, and
documentary records of Paris's teeming past—street by street, cobblestone
by cobblestone—with an archivist's skill and a novelist's sensibility.
Precise and compact, yet leisurely in the cultural history it explores, The
Other Paris provides a writer's answer to Benjamin's question; it is not
only a reflection on the French capital, but a meditation on what it means to
live in a dynamic and densely populated metropolis.
With love, disdain, and
scholarship, Sante shares his intimate knowledge of what Paris, the great
modern city, has grown and lost.
The reader joins him in a wild and secret
guided tour of the underbellies and crannies of Paris, moving cinematically
from century to century, neighborhood to neighborhood.
The result is like a
"choose your" own adventure" for the city of lights—a game of dodging,
weaving, upheaval and renewal, arriving at what it has become today.
Courtesy of Farrar,
Straus and Giroux Is this a book of nostalgia, in any way?
Well, in the sense that it expresses regret for things lost, I suppose so.
But
nostalgia is so passive, and is so frequently channeled into marketing, that I
consign it to the flames.
Also, these days "nostalgia" is the term lazy media
reach for whenever interest or concern for the past is expressed--as if our
blinders only permitted us to look in one direction, as if the past weren't
always with us and in so many ways always recurring.
Is Paris's past being elided by the way the city is changing now? How or
how not? Paris is much better preserved than most of the world's great
cities, but that preservation tends to be concerned primarily with
surfaces--literally so, when the façade is all that is left of a
building--and with cleaned and polished surfaces those buildings only enjoyed
for a few weeks when they were new.
The life of the people--their markets,
their entertainments, their vices and threats--has been written out of most of
the city now.
You could easily get the impression that the Marais has hosted
an unbroken line of prosperous consumers from the seventeenth century until
now.
Why Paris? Could such a book be written about any modern European city?
Maybe.
But Paris is the one I know best, and Paris is also a champion of
recent history--capital of the nineteenth century and a strong second in the
twentieth.
No other city has accumulated such a heap of contradictions anytime
recently, not even New York.
Courtesy of Farrar,
Straus and Giroux Is there an inherent violence or chaos to
living in any city? There is.
It's an inescapable effect of concentrated
bodies.
What role does disobedience play in the ecology of the city? Disobedience
is what moves things forward.
That is, it's the only means by which ideas that
are not to the benefit of regnant powers can be expressed and taken up.
Is it absent from Paris, now? Not entirely.
Paris is still the place
where strikes and demonstrations are staged, for example.
But on a day-to-day
sidewalk level it is much harder for anything spontaneous to occur.
You dislike the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, the Pompidou, and the
Bastille Opéra—what is the best or most valuable development or addition to
the buildings of Paris over the past hundred years? Well, the Quai de
Branly Museum is not a particularly good museum, but I sort of like the way it
looks from the outside.
I'm stumped trying to think of something
else.
Contemporary architecture seems to nearly always represent violence on
behalf of money and abstract theory against people, community, and
self-determination.
That said, there are contexts in which it seems
appropriate: Rotterdam is a good example--the physical openness of the city,
made possible by WWII carpet-bombing.
Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux Do such
things as Guy Debord's "ambience units" (corners of the city that can be
identified in a few words by what happens there) still exist today? And how do
they exist, if so? There are little bits here and there--I'm fond of the
Place de Rhin et Danube east of the Buttes-Chaumont, for example, as well as
the nearby Mouzaïa neighborhood.
But of course those are old and for the time
being unchanged.
The problem is that rent and in particular commercial rent
has made it impossible for people to build real local communities.
Your
favorite local bistro will be replaced by a branch of a chain, or the owner
will be ambitious and want to expand.
Back when making a living, rather than
making a profit, was uppermost in the minds of innkeepers and shopkeepers,
inns and shops could be local institutions.
Now they're merely services.
And
needless to say, the characters who animated such places are mostly gone, or
dead, or working long hours.
Do you have ay such favorite places in Paris that persist? Bistros and such?
I have my little rituals every time I go to Paris.
I have lunch on
successive days at Bouillon Chartier, at the pho restaurant on Rue Volta (in
what was long thought to be the oldest house in the city--although it's not
far off), and at L'As du Fallafel on Rue des Rosiers.
And I always visit the
Carnavalet Museum, as well as the incredible Museum of Comparative Anatomy in
the Jardin des Plantes (although no visit will ever replicate the thrill I got
upon entering the first time by accident). What is your favorite route to
walk through Paris? Rue Oberkampf to Rue de Ménilmontant to Rue
Saint-Fargeau, uphill for exercise and successive cultures, and back downhill
for the exhilaration.
How does the accretion of winding streets (as opposed to the a planned grid,
such as New York) create a walking experience? At its best it's a prospect
of continual surprise--even if you know the territory you can still be
startled by the contrast between one street and the next.
Courtesy of Farrar,
Straus and Giroux The descriptions in the book are excellent for
placing images of past versions of Paris, and parts of Paris that no longer
exist.
Was the visual element important to the writing, to the way you
imagined the book's narrative making its way? I do think visually, and
(in part to circumvent having to pay rights to institutions for every
successive edition) I started collecting images as soon as I started thinking
about the book--almost all the images are from my own archives.
Anyway, yes--I
need to see, to imagine myself into a scene.
Scale and light and color
(although I'm partly colorblind) are absolutely crucial to my being able to
write about a place or a thing.
As a writer, you act something like a flaneur, and the reader truly gets the
feeling of walking through different parts of the city, and through different
times.
Was this your aim, stylistically? Yes, that was exactly my aim, and
I'm glad it comes across.
When I walk through Paris, I'm always walking
through the collection of successive Parises.
Where, in the city of today, is medieval Paris in strongest evidence? You
can indeed feel medieval Paris if you look above the street level in certain
places, especially Rue Volta, certain streets in the Marais or off Mouffetard.
Are there any traces of "the zone" (chaotic slums that grew round the
fortifications that defined Paris is the early twentieth century) left on the
city of today? There is one tiny bit near Porte d'Italie.
Reading The Other Paris, I can't shake the feeling that Paris is a city in
which death has an excellent history.
I love the description of the old Cité, of which Balzac wrote that "then
habitants, who in June lit their lamps at five in the afternoon, and never
blew them out in winter." Is it possible to imagine a Paris of today on
which Haussmann had had no influence? A city that had been modernized less
deliberately, or by another kind of planner? It might look like parts of
Naples or Lisbon, which have retained their seemingly impenetrable
working-class neighborhoods, with houses canted every which way.
Will you write another city book? If somebody gave me the time and the
money, I'd love to write a book about Tangier.
Maybe Chicago, too.
Consider
the fact that those two very different cities were my first two thoughts!
In his new and original history of Paris, the writer, essayist,
professor, and historian Luc Sante tells the story of the city as a living
entity, animated by hundreds of years of human endeavor, getting at the
question of what gives a city the thing that we refer to as its "soul."

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