Books

Golden Age Thinking in Eric Hazan's Threnody for Old Paris: 'The Invention of Paris'

This bespeaks a warm affection for the peripatetic poets, novelists, and philosophers 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 Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps

Publisher: Verso
Length: 400 pages
Author: Eric Hazan
Price: $19.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2011-06
Amazon

“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 20 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 the stippled, romantic, if unfocused photographs of Atget, 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.

3

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image