By Eric Hazan (translated by David Fernbach)

Verso. 272 pages. £14.99. ISBN 978-1-78663-258-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Near the end of this book, Eric Hazan, born and brought up in Paris, a city he has lived in all his life, says that “Parisian” is “what I feel myself to be, far more than French or Jewish – garments that do not suit me at all”. And it’s obvious from the way he writes about it that being Parisian represents, to him, much more than identifying with a specific location, but rather a state of mind that has been shaped by the history of Paris and its people.

He has certain concerns, and they’re clearly influenced by the radical legacy of the French capital. He can’t walk down a street or turn a corner without pointing out where a barricade was built in 1848 or 1871, or reflecting on which revolutionary occupied a particular house or frequented a particular café. It isn’t just political activists that excite his imagination, and he refers to novelists and poets, and painters and sculptors, who helped to create the story of Paris. Perhaps “legend” might be a better word?

He starts his journey through Paris at a bookshop in Ivry that, he tells us, “is not simply a shop that sells books, it is also a place of browsing and discovery”. It certainly sounds like the sort of bookshop I like to visit, with its “unstable” piles of books”. As Hazan says, “Perhaps you won’t find the title you’ve come to look for, but no matter, you will leave carrying a book of photography or philosophy, a Mexican novel or the memoirs of a forgotten revolutionary”.  It’s also somewhere that has readings, and where customers and staff get involved in discussions, “even arguments”. The proprietor, a Spaniard, “is representative of an endangered species, that of poetic communists”.

It might be hard to leave such an inviting location, but Hazan steps out into the street and starts to talk about the architecture he observes around him. But it doesn’t take him long to note that the area has links to Maurice Thorez, one-time head of the French Communist Party. He describes Thorez as “a thoroughly detestable character”, but goes on to outline his own membership of the Party, and what it gave him in terms of comradeship and the means to break with a world which, as “the son of a good bourgeois family of assimilated Jews”, he seemed destined for. It’s true that he did earn a living as a surgeon and, later, a publisher, but he always retained his left-wing convictions, along with a distaste for the high life.  When he points out that the “banking establishment”, BNP Paribas, has “disfigured the Maison Dorée on the Boulevard des Italiens, a masterpiece of romantic architecture”, he adds that it has also spread to the banlieue in its pursuit of “icy profitability”.

I can’t possibly follow Hazan along every route he takes through Paris as he comments on various avenues and boulevards and the buildings they contain. I’m being selective and partisan in that it’s often his remarks about rebels and revolutionaries that interest me, along with his notes about writers and artists. When he reaches the Place d’Italie, we are given a short account of what happened there during the June days in 1848 as working-class Parisians fought Government troops. We’re also told how, much later, the sculptor Giacometti was knocked down by a car in the Place d’Italie, “and left with a limp for the rest of his life”.

It’s a fact that, as Hazan freely admits, he is subject to the sort of nostalgia that many of us experience as the world around us changes. He no longer feels at home on the Left Bank. The working class were driven out of the area as rents rose in the 1960s. And following the events of 1968, students, who had once been concentrated around the Sorbonne, were dispersed to outlying districts where they could be “easily controlled”. The Left Bank has now been secured for “commodity fetishism”. Bookshops (“Another traditional activity of the Left Bank”), art galleries, publishers’ offices, and other signs of intellectual activity, have mostly disappeared. Hazan recalls a bookshop called Le Divan, “on the corner of the Place Saint Germain-des-Près and the Rue Bonaparte”. It was run by “an old-style author-publisher-bookseller, Henri Martineau, the great specialist in Stendhal of his time. He was kind enough to present me with copies of Henry Brulard and Le Souvenirs d’égotisme, in editions that were admirable both typographically and philologically. This corner has now reverted to luxury goods, like the former La Hune shop on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, which is today a Vuitton outlet, the very standard bearer of bourgeois vulgarity”.

It’s good that Hazan not only identifies the bookshops, but also names the people who ran them. This is one of the charms of his book, and he operates the same practice when talking about where barricades sprang up in June, 1848. The National Guard units from La Chapelle-Saint-Denis, working-class areas, went over to the side of the insurgents, with “one of its lieutenants, Legénissel, commanding the barricades on the Rue La Fayette at the corner with the Rue d’Abbeville, and giving Lamoricière’s troops a great deal of trouble”. Elsewhere, he notes the names and occupations of a group of workers who had been involved in the death of an army officer. And a “barricade on the Rue Planche Mibray was under the command of a sixty-year-old shoemaker named Voisambert”.

When Hazan reaches the Rue de l’Hirondelle he says that “Francis Carco tells that before the First World War this was the site of La Bolée, a replica of the Lapin Agile in the Latin Quarter, where the ‘clientele, made up of anarchists, prowlers, students, singers, comics, errand girls and poor wretches, feasted cheaply, not at all like a first-class waiting room but rather a third-class one, among dirty wrapping paper, charcuterie, and pitchers of cider’. There is no longer any trace of the time when the Latin Quarter was dirty and wretched, and the surroundings of the Collège de France the domain of rag-pickers”.

In an interesting aside when writing about the destruction of “Baltard’s pavilions” in Les Halles, Hazan comments on the way in which old commercial sites have been developed once their original use has declined. They become “sad ‘spaces’ given over to the sale of T-shirts and souvenirs, to fast food or museums in exile: Covent Garden in London, the Liverpool docks, the Fiat Lingotto in Turin, the port of San Francisco”. I can understand how he feels. I was born in 1936, the same year as Hazan, and have memories of the old Covent Garden, Liverpool when it was a working port, and the small port of Preston when tankers and timber ships came up the river, and the dockers’ union, The Transport and General Workers Union, had its headquarters just outside the dock gates. The dockers have long since disappeared, and the dock is now a marina with yachts and shops and restaurants. 

As a union representative with an oil company I occasionally had to go to see the Branch Secretary, and I’d be told “He’s in his office”, meaning the bar of the Dockers’ Club just across the road. This has nothing to do with Paris, I know, but Hazan’s remarks about how industry and the working-class gives an area its character triggered the memories for me. And having first visited Paris over fifty years ago, and noticed how it as changed in recent years, I can sympathise with his lamentations for times when it did all seem different, and more varied and interesting.

Haussmann was responsible for much of the way that the Place due Chatelet (“the geographic centre of present day Paris”) now looks. But, Hazan stresses: “At the time when Nerval, Balzac, Eugène Sue and the young Victor Hugo were writing, the quarter between the Hotel de Ville and the Louvre Colonnade was a tangle of medieval alleys, the densest in the whole city”. Haussmann’s clearances, following on from the insurrection of June, 1848, and other similar events, were designed as much to give troops and their artillery open fields of fire as to improve living conditions and make life healthier for the inhabitants.

Restaurants inevitably occur during Hazan’s perambulations. He passes the “Bouillon Racine on the Rue Racine, where you could enjoy a bouillon of meat and vegetables. In the 1970s, it was still possible to eat very well here for next to nothing, but entrepeneurs noticed its splendid Art Nouveau décor bought the building and have developed it into a fancy restaurant”. In 1955, there was “a café on the corner of the Rue des Saint-Pères and the Rue Perronet. It was run by ‘Père Mathieu’, an old Auvergnat, who fed for free his student friends who came like him from the Massif Central, even paying for their books – which did not at all please his much younger wife, who saw her husband’s consumption of alcohol and tobacco make away with their capital”.

It will be obvious by now that I’ve rambled around Hazan’s rambles around Paris, just picking out particular passages that appealed to me. But I’ve appreciated his extensive coverage of the architecture of the various areas he ventured into. And his wide knowledge of the general history of Paris, and not just its radical aspects. Poets and painters, novelists and sculptors. Whenever I’ve been in Paris I’ve been overwhelmed by the fact that evidence of them abounds in the city, and not just because so many street names reflect their one-time presence there. It’s easy to almost feel their influence on how the city looks and feels and sometimes, if you can ignore the modern noises, even sounds. But I may have read too many books. Still, it is possible to ignore the present if you get away from the beaten track and find a quiet street or a small park.

I mentioned earlier that Hazan is conscious of the fact that, in describing how places he passes were once much different, he may be propounding the view of an old man who regrets what has changed. But change is inevitable, though it may not always be for the best. It’s a trait I share, and when he writes about an area which is slowly being taken over by young, middle-class families, his descriptions ring true to me from visits to cities other than Paris. He talks of “young white people” who have moved in “with their dress codes, pushchairs, trainers, hairstyles and iPads”, and I know where he is “coming from”, to use an expression they might employ. He refers to “young people so uniform they might be cloned. Organic restaurants are opened, delicatessens, Japanese restaurants. Then the old shops, shoe repairers, stationers or Arab patisseries, lower their shutters, and when these reopen, they are transformed into art galleries. Behind the works exhibited, files are stacked on shelves and young people tap on their computers. No one enters or leaves, no one stops to look, it’s a sign of the death throes of a working-class neighbourhood”.

An exaggeration? Possibly, though examples of gentrification can be found everywhere, and it’s sadly often true that, when young, middle-class types take over a neighbourhood, property prices shoot up and little local shops start to go out of business. The incomers have cars and can afford to do a weekly shop at the supermarkets that soon begin to appear on the scene.

Eric Hazan’s taste for the older, less fashionable Paris of bookshops, little art galleries, local shops, basically furnished bars and cafés, might deter some people, especially those who do like the kind of coffee houses where they can sit and peer at their iPads, talk on their mobile phones, or open up their computers. Hemingway wrote in bars, we’re told, and Sartre held court in cafés. It could be that the group around a table when I glance through the window of a coffee house might be planning a new literary or intellectual magazine, or debating a philosophical point, and the woman in the corner with a laptop open in front of her might be writing a novel, but I somehow doubt it. But then, I’m as old as Hazan, grew up with different ideas and interests to the young people around me, and it isn’t always easy coming to terms with the notion that change is inevitable. It doesn’t alter the fact that I was fascinated by his observations about Paris, a city he clearly knows and loves.