27 September 2006

Drinkers and philosophers

Paris: The Secret History
by Andrew Hussey (Viking)

Not long after I moved to Paris, I took a visiting friend to the Café de Flore on Boulevard Saint-Germain. We settled at a table in the largely deserted interior, ordered coffee, and began setting up the pieces on a chessboard we had brought. A starched and moustachioed waiter glided over and pronounced that we could not play chess in the café. I wondered why not, and he said that it was against the law. Even with my already rich experience of the cretinisms of French bureaucracy, I could not understand how playing chess in a café might be against the law. Then I understood that the waiter thought we were going to play for money. I tried to convince him that we were not the sort of chess hustlers to be found down at the Jardin du Luxembourg. But the waiter was serenely possessed of that officiousness which, once decided however arbitrarily or indeed falsely on a point, will not budge. So we drank our coffee in haste and left. I have not been back.

The city thus taught me a valuable lesson. There is no point in going to the Flore: it’s not the same place as it was when Sartre and his gang hung out there. ((Actually, that gang in particular mostly went to the Deux Magots across the street, as a letter to the TLS subsequently pointed out.)) Nor will the literary daydreamer find much of Hemingway’s or Fitzgerald’s Paris in their old Montparnasse stamping ground. Such missions are for the waterproofed tourists who raise their digital cameras above their heads to take pictures of Chinese-run Italian pizza joints in the Latin Quarter. The real Paris is elsewhere.

This is one of the themes, too, of Andrew Hussey’s richly gossipy and diverting history of the city, which taught me that the idea of the café was anyway an Armenian import to Paris in the 1660s. (The bistrot, meanwhile, got its name from the Russian for “quickly” during the 1814 Cossack occupation.) Hussey aims to refute pessimists who say that Paris has become a husk, a virtual theme park of past glories. One cannot in the first place, however, get past the book’s subtitle without wishing that a publishing moratorium be declared on the phrase “secret history”, unless the book in question is actually revealing some hitherto restricted facts, squirrelled out of an archive of spies’ dossiers or ministers’ memos. The purported secrecy here is merely a different emphasis: the book “aims to tell the story of Paris from the point of view of ‘the dangerous classes'”. This means a concentration on the “whores and beggars . . . hustlers and vagabonds” who have always thronged Parisian streets, regular evocations of the stench of dead bodies, and a general insistence on the insalubrious shadows of the City of Light.

Hussey castigates the “weakness and stupidity of the monarchy”, and does not flinch from the horrific details of the regular mass slaughters of Parisians: the suppression of the Communards, for example, or the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre – though in speaking of the latter he displays a historian’s chauvinism in regard to his chosen subject by calling it, hyperbolically, “the gory equal of any of the most wretched ethnic genocides of the twentieth century”.

Hussey lavishes his witty affection, instead, on con artists, orgiasts, drunks and other flâneurs of the underbelly. Here is the enterprising César, who around the turn of the seventeenth century would charge city-dwellers forty-five or fifty pistols to see the devil. He took them to a quarry outside Paris, where the devil turned out to be a goat painted vermilion. Here, too, is the clown Tabarin, who worked the Pont-Neuf, and would, without apparent irony, interrupt his satirical sketches about quack doctors with attempts to sell his own quack medicine: thus, as Hussey notes wryly, “single-handedly inventing the commercial break”. It is also good to learn of “the drinker and philosopher Fernand Desnoyers” (an intriguing job description), who haunted Baudelaire’s favourite café, singing paeans to alcohol. The mysterious French phenomenon of the student strike, meanwhile, was inaugurated as long ago as 1229, when the youth of Paris downed quills in protest over the price of wine in taverns.

There are also cross-sectional cores or slivers of history that reach into the present day. So the story of the indefatigable Saint Denis – who, it is said, picked up his head, recently chopped off by the Romans, and wandered round Montmartre moaning prayers before finally dropping dead – ends with a fast-forward to the modern-day rue Saint-Denis, “where pagan pleasures, at 40 euros a throw, are on offer at every few paces”. An account of Charles’s victory over the Islamic forces at Poitiers in 732 is tailed by the author’s tense-sounding interview with Tariq Ramadan, “self-styled leader of Muslim youth in France”. Dashing through the history of the Knights Templar, we arrive in the vividly evoked atmosphere of televised horse-racing and chain-smoking of the present Bar-Tabac des Templiers, whose cellars allegedly still contain a shrine to Baphomet. And a discussion of the eighteenth-century explosion in printed pornography leads to an interview with the contemporary porn actress Ovidie, who has, the author notes, “the hard stare of a junior Maoist”.

These illuminating perpendicular interludes fade away in the second half of the book, however, and, from 1789 or so onwards it comes to read more like a linear sprint through not very secret history, glued together with some banal linking passages and cheesy cliffhangers. The compression involved in fitting two millennia into 400 pages takes its toll. In twenty-six pages on the Occupation during the Second World War, for instance, Hussey can do nothing with so multifaceted a figure as Ernst Jünger other than repeatedly to call him “urbane”.

Near the end, the author detects a renaissance in Parisian culture, represented by the band Air and the novelist Michel Houellebecq, with whom Hussey drinks beer while watching the 1998 World Cup. Houellebecq, possibly more admired in Britain than in France, no doubt brings satisfaction to many who desire perpetually to be reassured that the Left brought modern society to wrack and ruin. But mention his name to most of the Parisians I know and you’ll get the one-word answer that sums up the city’s eternally ironic spirit: Bof.