Culture

Paris the red courtesan

Imagine you could only read one book to prepare for your trip to Paris. Well, then choose this one: The Invention of Paris is its promising title. Published in French in 2002, it is, is now finally available in English and will be, read my lips, the new Bible for pilgrims travelling to Paris.

Eric Hazan, a surgeon in his first life, a publisher in his second, is the author of The Invention of Paris. A history told in Footsteps. Some say he is “a far-left radical publisher”. But don’t worry about that. What he performs is open-heart surgery on someone dear to him. The patient's name is Paris. His Invention of Paris tells the story of the city in the form of a detective novel: thrilling and exciting, inhabited by all sort of characters, by the perpetrators and the victims of history, by the powerful and the masses. To put it briefly, Hazans sees the city as a scene of political struggles, as a setting for hopes and illusions, as a stage of human comedy. But most of all, he wants to open our eyes and to make us see more than just the monuments, attractions and facades. His book is knowledgeable, without being academic. It is about history, of course, but it is also a social, a cultural, an architectural, a literary and a photographic history, let’s call it a “psychogeography”. "Circles" is the title of the first part of the book: it’s a walk that follows the growth rings of the city. Yes, Hazan conceives the invention of Paris like the skins of an onion or the growth of a tree: “From the wall of Philippe Auguste to the modern Péréphérique, six different walls followed one another over the course of eight centuries.” For him, each new boundary signalled “the birth of a new era”. He explains: "Each time population density reached intolerable levels within the walls, they abolished the fortifications and built new ones from the old material. The Faubourgs were integrated into the city, and the cycle began again." Today the walls have all disappeard. But they have left behind their landmarks and still give certain areas their distinctive character. Look at Pigalle: even if the sex-shops don't have much to do with the dance halls and cabarets of the late 18th century, the entertainment district is still the same, and the tourist buses stop here to show the naughty Paris. Eric Hazan loves Paris, of course. He loves the view from Rue Riquet onto the still uncovered rail tracks of the Gare de l'Est; he loves the vibrant rue du Faubourg du Temple, with its Pakistani shopkeepers, its hallal butchers and the Chinese pastry shops with wedding cakes taller than a man. Above all, he loves Belleville. Perhaps because in Belleville failed in what city governors have tried to achieve for centuries: to push out "the working class, the poor and marginalised, the disadvantaged and the prostitutes”. Hazan uses the word Les Miserables. Everything indeed began with Hugo’s novel: as a child, Hazan would stroll through Paris with this father, following in the footsteps of the protagonists of Les Miserables. On Sundays they would walk down Rue du Banquier or Rue du Champ-de-L'Alouette, "where Marius dreamed about Cosette". At the time, back in the fifties, and despite of the renewal zeal of Baron Haussmann, prefect of Paris from 1853 to 1870, the Faubourg Saint-Marceau was still recognizable. A little later, it had all disappeared. Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou both worked on the systematic destruction of the working class area. When asked about the most unpardonable urban crime, Hazan immediately replies: the destruction of the Île de la Cité. Under Haussmann, the cradle of Paris was razed to the ground. Apart from the Sainte-Chapelle and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, the entire medieval centre with its 14 churches were destroyed and replaced by symbolic buildings of the Empire: by barracks, by a courthouse and a hospital. Their architecture, says Hazan, is of “exquisite hideousness”. The reason for this urban radicalism is obvious: the Cité and the adjacent Latin Quarter were the central battlefield during the uprising of June 1848. A niche that had to be dug. Again and again Hazan asks how those historical social battlefields could have disappeared entirely. Here he enters the taboo-territory and comes to central chapter of his book: the "Red Paris”, which invented a new form of boundary, the barricade. Hazan describes Paris as a site of chronic struggle, with a succession of failed uprisings and vicious reprisals, whether imperial, monarchic or (alas) republican. The Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the Popincourt Quarter and the Faubourg du Temple formed what Hazans calls a "red stronghold" with a dangerous agglomeration of the proletarian underclass, "les classes dangéreuses et laborieuses". Baron Haussmann had no qualms about imposing the vast Place de la République on the ancient and delicate fabric of the city. Hazans book is a brilliant demonstration of the fact that there is not such thing as innocent urbanism. All urban changes, even advances such as street lighting and sidewalks, are the results of political calculation. After reading this book, Paris looks different. Less beautiful? Not at all. It just seems different from how we once imagined it. It hides its wounds expertly, and that makes the city look even more beautiful, and makes it even more fascinating. Eric Hazan: The Invention of Paris. A History told in Footsteps. Verso, 2010.Photos:
Hazan: An urban crime