In Luc Sante’s densely-conjured and deeply researched new book The Other Paris, the now-infamous Bataclan Concert Hall is referenced in a long litany of examples of establishments that presented the entertainment beloved by the ancient city’s rough and tumble lower classes, as well as its emerging bourgeoisie and upper crusts. Back then it was the Ba-Ta-Clan, one of many cafes-concerts that drew on its neighborhood’s pre-boulevard days as the center for both Paris’ theatrical world, and much of its crime. As well as a great example of what a working, everyday but still grand place the city was in its heyday.
Sante, who lives in Kingston and will be reading at Golden Notebook at 4 p.m. Saturday, November 21, is considered by many as one of our great writers and thinkers. He teaches at Bard, is a regular in the New York Review of Books, and has built a reputation for hard-boiled analysis based on a historian’s eye for both telling idiosyncratic details and intuitive leaps of empathetic understanding that has made his first work, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, a modern classic. Yet he manages something new, and particularly apt given the past week’s tragic news, from his latest focus of a city…by shifting from an earlier nod to life’s underbelly as something cool to a newer, heartrending understanding that humanity’s glories are based on its challenges, and not just its perfections.
The man’s methodology, his very writing style, is unique and timely. Sante mixes up classic detective novel elements of hardboiled description with analytic flourishes and a way with quotes, sometimes attributed immediately, but often mixed into the flow of a narrative that gains added power, and sends one to further sources, when referenced in his notes later on. He appreciates the beauty inherent in old names, the poetry of musically-organized lists.
In a section on an ancient Parisian tradition wherein certain sections of the city were considered off-limits to officialdom and labeled cour des miracles, he described, for instance, an abandoned cloister across from the College de France…
As late as the 1840s the right of asylum was apparently still in effect in the ruins, with its four wings laid out in the sign of the cross (the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, and the Amen), its gardens, and its “innumerable quantity of houses — no, we’re wrong, it is a single house with many staircases, behind which lurk the sort of ignoble, sordid, stinking cesspools that are decorated with the term ‘courtyard.’” It gave shelter to a population that owed fealty “much more to the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Egyptian Empire than to the Repubic.” That is, to say, its inhabitants included buskers, street singers, sword swallowers, egg balancers, acrobats, tooth pullers, and fire eaters. More than likely its other tenants included practitioners of the short con, but the ones Privat lists are all trying for an honest living, however improvised. They were rag washers, doll dressers, makers of matches, of toy boxes, of toy parachutes, people who cut up rabbit fur to make felt, women who put wicks in lanterns, who unglued the silk of men’s hats, who made funeral wreaths from hoof scrapings, people who abridged famous plays for use in puppet theaters.”
Could one ask for a better example of the sad dignity of everyone’s attempt to find a place in this world, pre-celebrity?
Sure, there’s a structure here that elevates the very act of searching through history, or cities, for meaning as heroic, and which ends up using the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Guy DeBord’s Deconstructivist explorations of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as still-hip New Wave cinema, as examples of the culture that can arise from hidden dystopian realities. But it’s Sante’s ability to dive into the ways people slip into or react to crime, amuse themselves despite poverty and busy-ness, build societies on the fringes of moneyed worlds, and rise up to seek more that hold this work together.
The Mahgrebites, or earlier populations of Muslims who settled on Paris’ edges starting a century ago are seen as essential parts of this boiling pot; their plights rendered understandable. Just as major flare-ups of violence occur regularly throughout any community’s history. Call it liberal arts education at its most effective. And yes, the book makes one want to return, again and again, to Paris to explore what’s left after the years of boulevard building, Pompidou- and Mitterand-developments, and endless gentrification the author laments while himself wandering in search of what was, still is, and should remain as a means of keeping Paris’ humanity truly alive.
One whole chapter about “The Zone,” an area that was once where the walls were, and later the Peripherique beltway highway, shows all that made such an entity a natural outgrowth, and part of, a larger city, but is now the Banlieues, a meanly-treated and seen nightmare suburb where the poor, and Islam, has been relegated to fester. Sante’s description of what was, is full of life, a great accounting, but inevitably part of a larger thesis that reminds us how important it is to never forget parts of what we inhabit. All life, he says again and again in his work, is deserving of both attention and care.
What a long distance this man has come from a simple love for the bohemian life, as we all have had in our use, to a feel for how Bohemian rhapsodies can warp the true melodies the world offers us all.
“The game may not be over, but its rules have irrevocably changed,” Sante writes in his final chapter, which speaks to the difficulties we all face trying to take in all our lives encounter as if working towards some literary quantum theory. “The small has been consumed by the big, the poor have been evicted by the rich, the drifters are behind glass in museums. Everything that was once directly lived has moved away into representation. If the game is ever to resume, it will have to take on hitherto unimagined forms. It will have much larger walls to undermine, will be able to thrive only in the cracks that form in the ordered surfaces of the future. It is to be hoped, of course, that the surface is shattered by buffoonery and overreaching rather than war or disease, but there can be no guarantee.”
What an honor it feels like to be reading, and chiming in on Sante’s vision of Paris in this week of such conflicted meanings.
“The history of Paris teaches us that beauty is a by-product of danger, that liberty is at best a consequence of neglect, that wisdom is entwined with decay,” he concludes The Other Paris. “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.”
Luc Sante’s reading from, and book signing for, The Other Paris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) takes place Saturday, November 21 at 4 p.m. at the Golden Notebook, 29 Tinker Street in Woodstock. Call 679-8000 or see www.goldennotebook.com for further information).