Review: Author Luc Sante’s ‘The Other Paris’ wanders the city streets of past and present
“Paris,” Walter Benjamin once wrote, “is a counterpoint in the social order to what Vesuvius is in the natural order: a menacing, hazardous massif, an ever-active hotbed of revolution. But just as the slopes of Vesuvius, thanks to the layers of lava that cover them, have been transformed into paradisal orchards, so the lava of revolutions provides uniquely fertile ground for the blossoming of art, festivity, fashion.”
Such a statement reverberates through Luc Sante’s “The Other Paris” like a thesis statement, an emblem of the city’s soul. Paris, Sante wants us to understand, is both like and unlike other cities: an expression of class, of history, but also improvisational, serendipitous. “The city,” he insists, “— compact and curled within itself, a labyrinth — had to be played like a game.”
This is an idea — I’ll admit it — that I love, not just in regard to Paris but also to the very essence of urban life. What are cities, after all, but what we make of them, the paths we carve through their maze of streets and neighborhoods, the individual existences we construct in relation to their collective ones?
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That’s why I live in a city, why I have always lived in cities, and if Paris can’t help but be an individual case, it is also representative. Like New York or London or even, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, it comes defined by the tension of its development, in which the past is both present and constantly subsumed.
“All cities are geological,” Sante points out, quoting Ivan Chtcheglov’s “Formula for a New City,” which was published in 1953 in the first issue of the Internationale Situationniste; “you can’t go three steps without meeting ghosts fortified with the aura of their legends.”
For anyone familiar with Sante’s work, it should come as no surprise that the situationists function as a kind of animating spirit in “The Other Paris.” His 1991 debut, “Low Life,” turned something of a similar glance toward the history of New York, where he lived for many years, and established something of a template, a way of looking at a city through the overlapping filter of its lost demimondes.
In both of these books, as well as in his essays and his exhilarating (anti-)memoir “The Factory of Facts,” he relies on the situationist model of drift, or dérive, a kind of willful process of getting lost. The only way of getting to know a city, he means to tell us — or, for that matter, getting to know ourselves — is to wander, starting at the periphery rather than the center, to build by slow accretion, out of the details that resonate or stick.
Thus, in “The Other Paris,” he appears to offer a catalog, taking us through capsule histories of bars and dance halls, bohemia, prostitution and street crime. He writes compellingly about class, always a central factor of his urban vision, arguing that Baron Haussmann’s 19th century reimagining of the city — a massive infrastructure project that created the look and flow of contemporary Paris — was in fact a mechanism of social control. “[B]oulevard,” he explains, “derives from the same root as bulwark,” revealing in a single sentence how the street becomes both thoroughfare and metaphor.
“He was called Attila by the people,” Sante writes of Haussmann, “and eminent domain was his knout. His actions affected 60 percent of the edifices in the city; he condemned and demolished some twenty thousand houses. He wiped out entire neighborhoods, such as the Carrousel, just west of the Louvre, now only a name given to a square and an arch.”
At the same time, Sante acknowledges, if Haussmann’s “hundred-foot-wide boulevards and drastically broadened streets may have been intended principally to serve the military in repressing popular uprisings, … you could almost think he foresaw the coming of the automobile, a mode of transport the old, chaotically arranged city could never have sustained.”
Sante is highlighting the law of unintended consequences, which brings us back to dérive again. Throughout “The Other Paris,” he invokes the figure of the flâneur, which is to say the one who walks to connect to the city through the soles of his or her feet.
“Paris invented the flâneur,” he notes, “and continues to press all leisurely and attentive walkers into exercising that pursuit, which is an active and engaged form of interaction with the city, one that sharpens concentration and enlarges imaginative empathy and overrides mere tourism.” Coming as it does early in the book, this serves to set the terms, the conditions, although that doesn’t becomes completely clear until Sante circles back to it at the end.
Here, we see the sneaky genius of “The Other Paris,” which, like “Low Life,” conceals the complexity of its structure, masquerading as a popular history or a set of popular histories, until it reveals that it has been about the circling all along. “The past is always present,” Sante tells us, although to read “The Other Paris” as an act of nostalgia is to miss the point.
Rather, it is an attempt to participate in a lineage, in a heritage, to undertake an excavation, to see the city as an ongoing interpretation, as a game once again. If this can feel impossible now, in an age of wealth and homogenization, when the gritty textures of the urban landscape have become, like Brassaï photographs, “absorbed into the sort of tourist nostalgia imagery that precludes thought or experience,” that is precisely what Sante writes against.
“Everything that was once directly lived,” he insists, “has moved away into representation.... Any Paris of the future that is neither a frozen artifact nor an inhabited holding company will perforce involve fear, dirt, sloth, ruin, and accident. It will entail the continual experience of uncertainty, because the only certainty is death.”
The Other Paris
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 304 pp., $28
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