On the Cultural History of Paris: An Interview with Writer Luc Sante
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!