The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps

By Eric Hazan. Verso Books, 2011. 400 pages. $19.95. ISBN: 978-1-844-67705-4.

“There’s no city like this in the world. There never was…Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form,” says Gil Pender, the hapless, time-traveling romantic in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. “Nowhere else in Europe has a great capital developed in the same way as Paris, with such discontinuity and in so irregular a rhythm. What gave the city this rhythm was the centrifugal succession of its walled precincts,” echoes Eric Hazan in The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps. The storied vicinity of Montmartre, for one, is open to historical dispute. Some argue that it “starts when you cross the route of the no. 2 Métro line, whose stations…mark the curve of the former wall of the Farmers-General,” while others contend that the boundary is “much lower, on the Grands Boulevards.” The boundaries depend more on a wanderer’s sense of a quarter’s historical and literary resonance and topography than on clear demarcation. “Like the background of certain Dadaist photomontages, composed out of jostling fragments of city photographs, the most commonplace transitions sometimes have the most surprising shocks in store,” Hazan muses.

So begins a discursive tale of “discontinuous” time, moveable feasts, and literary meanderings, told by the founder of the French publisher La Fabrique. Published in French in 2002, newly translated into English, and reprinted, The Invention of Paris bespeaks a warm affection for the peripatetic poets, novelists, and philosophers—Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, and Walter Benjamin, in particular—who witnessed Paris’s transformation from medieval to modern metropolis under the aegis of Louis XIV, Baron Haussmann, and engineers who developed gas lighting in the mid-1800s.

The book is divided into sections on Old Paris, New Paris, flânerie, or “wandering,” and the invention of photography, the latter two being key to our understanding of the modernization of Paris in the 19th century. Dividing the narrative at all is a strange choice, given the opening comparison of Parisian development to “the growth rings of a tree,” and the lengthy disclaimer that histories of this city defy either boundaries or linearity.

Within “Old Paris,” sections devoted to Paris’s twenty arrondissements, each of which contain four quartiers, denote changes in character, commerce, and charm. On the affluent Right Bank of the Seine, for example, is the Palais-Royal, once “the agora or forum of Paris, its fame spreading right across Europe.” Royalists gathered there during the Revolution; printers and publishers like Stock, Garnier, and Le Dontu staffed a book bazaar, and restaurants like those described in Balzac’s La Comédie humaine thrived until the 1830s. The Bourse quarter, with its beautiful neo-Grecian architecture, housed the Bibliothèque Nationale and the original Opéra Garnier, and was a locus of financial activity. Though some banks have relocated, coins are still changed and gold sold there. Poulet-Malassis, publisher of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, had offices in the Arcades, while Les Halles was a bustling marketplace. Sentier was the Parisian Fleet Street, but “the crisis of the written press, the merger of titles, and the migration of printing works to the suburbs, have left behind only pale vestiges of this glorious age,” the Figaro and Tribune buildings. The Left Bank, by contrast, developed gradually, and still has a reputation for “maternally welcoming students, writers, publishers and bookshops, art and experimental cinemas” and exiled or expatriate writers from England, Ireland, and America.

Hazan inflects his detailed descriptions with nostalgia for these quarters, which, like Baudelaire and Atget, he believes faced “brutal intervention,” “cuttings,” and “destruction” in the hands of urban planners and developers. He heralds the “unbroken rhythmic scansion” of the old Parisian Boulevards, lamenting, “from Haussmann through to Poincaré this urban intimacy was hollowed out.” The veritable beauty of this golden age thinking can be found in the tempered wistfulness of Baudelaire’s prose poems and Atget’s stippled, romantic, if unfocused photographs, but Hazan’s weighty prose makes it mawkish.

Hazan’s erudition resonates through the verse and citations he grafts onto his story, yet his tale is beleaguered by block quotations and pleonastic footnotes. Readers who embrace concision should to turn to Norman Davies or Graham Robb’s magisterial European histories, or, for a little wit and mirth, to publishing rainmaker Richard Seaver’s memoir, The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the ‘50s, New York in the ‘60s, rather than to Hazan’s prolix book.

This piece was published in PopMatters here.

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