Francis-Noël Thomas

Paris at Street Level

Georges Perec was so singular in appearance that I think I would remember seeing him even if I had merely passed him wordlessly on the street. By the time he died in 1982, I had spent six consecutive summers at a small hotel a few blocks from where he lived. I often ate at a restaurant on the rue Lacépède, around the corner from Perec’s apartment building on the rue Linné, and I often entered the Jardin des Plantes by the back entrance, less than a block from the restaurant. Perec was fond of the Jardin des Plantes; its back entrance was barely a block from his front door.
     We must have shopped in some of the same stores on the rue Monge; we must have stood in line at the same post office on the rue des Écoles; we must have walked down the same street many times; but I don’t remember ever having seen him. He had already been dead for five years by the time I became aware of him. I had never heard of him before I read a review of David Bellos’s English translation of La vie mode d’emploi (Life A User’s Manual). I bought the book a few days after I read the review, and before I was halfway through it, I was convinced I was reading a masterpiece. I called Galignani, a big bookstore on the rue de Rivoli, from Chicago and asked them to send me a copy of the French text. The book arrived just a few days after I had finished reading the translation, and I started reading it all over again, this time in Perec’s unfiltered French. It is a book that explores a single (imaginary) apartment building in Paris and offers brief narratives about the people who live there or once lived there, but it is remarkable above all for its observation of surfaces. It prompts its readers to see the ordinary things around them, things so familiar that they can remain unnoticed. It is inspired by the same kind of sensibility that makes Eugène Atget’s photographs of old Paris so haunting.
     Perec undertook a number of documentary projects before he immersed himself in La vie mode d’emploi. One of them consisted of walking up and down the street on which he had spent most of his childhood and adolescence, first one side, then the other, noting what he saw, building by building. He did this at intervals of six months. I don’t know how long he kept it up, but before long he noticed changes—a surprising number of them on this street he knew so well. His notations show how a city changes incessantly, and since I loved to walk in the extended neighborhood of my hotel, where I have stayed for a month or so at a time for over thirty years, I have noticed the same phenomenon. Every day, I pass a flower shop that used to be a café. Across the street from the hotel there is an art gallery that was once a bakery, and a few blocks down the rue Monge towards the Place Maubert I pass a shop that now sells motorcycles; it used to be a shop selling bandes-dessinées (books of comic-strip art) and before that it was a shop selling Indian fabrics. Past the Place Maubert on the rue Lagrange, I try to avert my eyes from a little supermarket—part of a chain—because the space was formerly occupied by a bricolage called Aux Mille Couleurs, where I could always find just what I was looking for—wooden coat-hangers, a soap dish, a small hair drier, handmade scented soap from Provence (unwrapped), a vase, a pair of socks, a sharp knife for cutting cheese. It was a shop I loved. It’s been gone for six or seven years now, and I miss it all over again every time I walk past the detestable little supermarket that has supplanted it. For a long time, I couldn’t pass it without hearing a voice in my head telling me, as if I didn’t know, “Mille Couleurs used to be just here.” I didn’t take it for granted when it was there, but neither did I imagine it would just disappear one day, leaving me to feel as if I had lost something irreplaceable that had come to mean something to me—a cufflink, an old photograph, a favorite
scarf, a piece of my heart.
     The rue Lagrange is part of a small area in old Paris that was not fundamentally disturbed when Haussmann rebuilt the city in the 1860s; the streets between the rue de Bièvre and the rue Saint-Jacques, and between the Place Maubert and the quai de Montebello, at least one of which goes back to Roman times, are laid out in an irregular pattern that was established long before energetic city planners destroyed old neighborhoods wholesale in the name of modernity and efficiency. The rue Lagrange ends at the back entrance to a garden (le square Viviani) next to the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, parts of which go back to the twelfth century or even earlier; there are two exceptional trees in the garden near the north side of the church, one of which is propped up by what appears to be a cement support, but it still puts out new leaves every spring. There is a marker saying it was planted in 1602—it is the oldest tree in Paris. Just a few steps from the garden on the rue Lagrange there is a restaurant, part of a chain, on the ground floor of a quite attractive apartment building entirely in the style of Haussmann’s renovation. The space used to house Georges Garin’s well-regarded restaurant called Chez Garin, but I think Garin was already gone before I had ever walked down the rue Lagrange. The chain restaurant that has taken its place, an assault on the senses and an insult to the past, does not belong there. That this excrescence should survive Mille Couleurs is an allegory of what is wrong with the world.
     I have never done what Perec did—I have never kept notes on these changes, and as a result I sometimes find that I no longer remember what used to be at a particular address before whatever is there now, even when I am sure that what is there now wasn’t there when I first knew the street. On the rue Monge, just across the rue des Écoles, there is flower shop I like called Île aux Fleures. I buy flowers there regularly and have done so for about ten years now. I remember the corner before the flower shop was there, but I do not remember what it was that the flower shop replaced, although whatever it was, I must have passed it hundreds of times.
     Restaurants, even serious ones, come and go with surprising frequency. Dodin-Bouffant was a fixture on the Place Maubert for years. The space is now occupied by an Australian bar called The Long Hop. A perfectly good shoe store across from The Long Hop has been replaced by a store that sells video games and hideous plastic figurines that presumably represent characters from the games. I remember the shoe store because I once attempted to buy a pair of rubber boots there without knowing the French word for rubber boots. Despite an abundant classic French vocabulary, I could not explain what it was I wanted and had to leave without the boots—the word, by the way, is caoutchoucs; it is used in A la recherche du temps perdu in the form caoutchoucs américains when rubber boots (or “snow-boots,” as Proust calls them in English) were an American novelty in France—perhaps they still are.
     There is a Mexican restaurant on the rue des Bernardins, just a few steps towards the river going away from the boulevard Saint-Germain. I have never eaten at this restaurant, but I ate often at Duquesnoy, an excellent restaurant that used to occupy the same space. Duquesnoy moved to the rue des Bernardins in the spring of 1983, bringing its two Michelin stars with it, from its original location near Troyes. About five years later it moved to the seventh arrondissement and about a decade after that it closed. I remember having seen Madame Duquesnoy through the window making some last-minute adjustment a few days before the opening. I asked her when the restaurant was going to open and ate lunch there on its first day. Practically around the corner on the quai de la Tournelle, Bernard Pacaud and his wife, Danièlle, opened L’Ambroisie, another excellent restaurant that moved across the river five or six years later to the Place des Vosges shortly before it received its third star from the Guide Michelin.
     L’Ambroisie opened in 1981 or 1982. After François Mitterrand was elected president of the Republic in the spring of 1981, two police officers stood guard just next to the restaurant at one end of the alley-like rue de Bièvre. The rue de Bièvre is short as well as narrow; no street intersects it. It ends at the boulevard Saint-Germain, where two more officers were posted. The police remained at the two ends of the rue de Bièvre for fourteen years. François Mitterrand’s private apartment was approximately midway down the street. To look at the rue de Bièvre, you would hardly imagine you could drive a car down the street, but apparently you could before Monsieur Mitterrand’s election. The police did not interfere with pedestrians, but automobile traffic was suspended for the duration of the president’s two seven-year terms in office.
     The next street going west after the rue de Bièvre is the slightly wider and much more attractive rue Maître Albert, named for the medieval theologian and one-time member of the faculty of the nearby University of Paris, Albert the Great—died 1280, canonized tardily in 1933, which explains why the street is not the rue Saint Albert. The Place Maubert—“Maubert” is a distortion of “Maître Albert”—is also named for him. The rue Maître Albert begins at the quai and veers right ending in the Place Maubert. Before The Long Hop replaced Dodin-Bouffant, the end of the street ran past the kitchen. Some of the équipe regularly could be found standing just outside the kitchen smoking.
     The tangle of little streets between the Place Maubert and the quai de Montebello is immensely charming and is the antithesis of Haussmann’s straight broad boulevards and uniform six-story buildings. Every now and then, something new pops up in a tiny space along one of these streets and seems so entirely right that I have to make an effort to realize it was not always there. One of these happy innovations is a cyber-café on the rue de la Bûcherie. Tiny, discreet, friendly, it fits unobtrusively into this last surviving corner of medieval Paris and seems always to have been there, as if it had been a scriptorum in Maître Albert’s day and has been reequipped to keep up with later developments in the technology of writing. On the nearby rue Frédéric-Sauton a restaurant opened about a year ago. The space seems too narrow for a restaurant (or just about anything else), but the interior is ostentatiously beautiful and comfortable. It is a self-conscious and completely successful juxtaposition of the old—lovely antique mirrored boiserie running along the right-hand wall as you enter—and the new—a sophisticated French cuisine marked by exotic accents. It is the best restaurant in the immediate area since Ambroisie and Duquesnoy left the neighborhood over twenty years ago, and if it achieves the success it deserves, it will no doubt follow them to a more spacious location, but it will never be more charming than it is now. I came across this restaurant exactly as I came across Duquesnoy. I was walking down the rue Frédéric-Sauton towards the Place Maubert early one evening when the novelty of this enterprise and the great charm of the interior, quite evident from the sidewalk in front of a large window and its open door, attracted my eye. Three people were standing in front of the restaurant talking, and one of them, seeing me stop to look at the framed menu, said good humouredly, “It’s a really good restaurant.” A lively young woman enthusiastically agreed (she owns it and designed its interior) and gave me a little card. A week or so later when I ate there for the first time, she remembered me.
     I do not remember when I first encountered the photographs of old Paris taken between about 1898 and 1927 by Eugène Atget, but they have become part of my own experience of walking along these streets. They record surfaces; they are documents of a Paris that Atget thought was about to disappear; they are also intensely personal—Atget loved what he saw; so do I. He used heavy and cumbersome equipment and glass plates, and often took pictures very early in the morning when the streets were empty. He walked the streets of old Paris for over twenty years and wanted to preserve the character of these streets in his photographs. It was an individual enterprise, meagerly rewarded in his own lifetime.
     He took perhaps ten thousand photographs in his career documenting old Paris, its disappearing street trades, its shops and shop windows, its horse-drawn vehicles, its fortifications, its gardens, and its trees. He sold prints to painters, and sold many prints and glass plates to public institutions—the Bibliothèque nationale, the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, the musée Carnavalet. These institutions bought his photographs for their documentary value—Atget was never considered an artist in his lifetime, and never claimed to be one himself. It was the American photographer Berenice Abbott who first recognized the art of these photographs. It was she who is largely responsible for the worldwide recognition Atget has achieved.
     Unlike Perec noting small changes on a street he knew and unlike my observing small changes on the streets I have grown to love, Atget experienced a Paris that had been transformed on a massive scale. The physical changes brought on social changes, and a wave of mechanization, already evident, condemned certain trades and practices to oblivion. He knew Paris when only fragments of what he loved about it remained, a Paris so thoroughly renovated that even what survived of old Paris seemed displaced and in imminent danger of being improved out of recognition. The fourteenth edition of Baedeker’s Paris and Environs, published in time for the Universal Exposition of 1900, views this renovation as a great achievement:

During the Second Empire Paris underwent an almost entire transformation, on a scale of magnitude hitherto unparalleled. Dense masses of houses and numbers of tortuous streets were replaced by broad boulevards, spacious squares, and palatial edifices. . . . The stranger is almost invariably struck by the imposing effect produced by the city as a whole, and by the width, straightness, and admirable condition of the principal streets. Picturesqueness has doubtless been greatly sacrificed in the wholesale removal of the older buildings, but the superior convenience and utility of those spacious thoroughfares is easily appreciated; and the amount of traffic in them proves that their construction was a matter of almost absolute necessity.

     I have seen only a tiny fraction of Atget’s photographs, but about twenty-five years ago, one of those public institutions that bought plates from him made a hundred prints of each of fifty glass plates and sold them in sets of five at a single shop, the bookstore of the Monuments historiques et des sites in the musée Sully for, as I recall, the equivalent of about thirty dollars a set. I acquired a set of five photographs taken on the Île Saint-Louis, which I have studied at leisure. They are wonderful photographs; three of the five show buildings or perspectives that are very familiar to me. The manager of my hotel at the time, who was interested in old Paris, pointed out to me in one of these photographs a barely visible sliver of a shop sign on the ground floor of the building next to number 12 quai d’Orléans—a building we had both admired for its distinctive wrought iron balcony. The shop sign suggested something about when the photograph was taken, probably before the First World War because it has been that long since there were ground-floor shops in the apartment buildings on that stretch of the quai d’Orléans.
     In 1920 Atget wrote a letter to the director of the École des beaux-arts suggesting that his project of photographing old Paris was finished. He referred to his photographs as “documents artistiques,” and went on to say “Je puis dire que je possède tout le Vieux Paris” (I can say that I possess everything of old Paris). Walking in old Paris has been one the greatest pleasures of my life; I have walked the same streets for more than twenty years with a sense of exhilaration, and while I like to feel myself part of the life of these streets that have seen so much life, I have never imagined I possessed any ofit—but then I am not a photographer.
     Atget’s photographs add a certain dimension to these streets, which have, of course, changed both physically and socially since he photographed them. The streets between the Place Maubert and the quai de Montebello are so short that you can walk down any one of them in its entirity in a few minutes, and in the case of the rue Maître Albert, at least, I can rarely resist the pleasure of walking its entire length even when the walk takes me slightly out of my way. I know the rue de Bièvre much less well, but I was very much taken with a photograph of this street printed in Chroniques de la Bibliothèque nationale de France, a magazine published by the Bibliothèque nationale. The photograph was part of a retrospective exhibition mostly drawn from the library’s collection of about five thousand Atget photographs. The photograph of the rue de Bièvre was taken in 1924, about four years after Atget wrote that his project of documenting old Paris was finished. The article in Chroniques on the exhibition quotes the 1920 letter to the director of the École des beaux-arts. Atget was standing close to the end of the street near the Place Maubert, looking towards the quai. The pavement appears to be slightly wet, and the photograph must have been taken very early in the morning because there is no one on the street, and in the foreground, on the left, there are two or three handcarts and what look like two carriages of a type that was drawn by a single horse. The handcart nearest the viewer is positioned so that you can see its entire interior. It may be a baker’s cart. There are two hotels on the street and an icehouse. Running down the street, a little off center, is a path of light that leads to the end of the street and the quai.
     This photograph succeeds in reproducing the sense of walking down this street. There is nothing imposing here; it reflects the scale of human life and the intimacy of a street with only a few inhabitants. The buildings are both ordinary and distinctive to the practiced eye. They belong on this street, and the street itself, expressing laborious and unglamorous lives, is a complement to the buildings and the people who live in them. “The stranger” cannot be struck by any imposing effect on this little street; it could just as well be in a small town as in one of the great capitals of Europe. And what would “the stranger” be doing on this street where these handcarts could be left like this because everyone knows whose they are? Any stranger who somehow found himself on this street would not be able to see what is in the photograph because to see what is in the photograph requires local knowledge of a sort that must be acquired slowly over a period of years—quickened in this case by an awareness that the street and what it expresses to the knowing eye is on the threshold of extinction. Atget had been up before dawn, lugging his equipment through the streets day after day for over twenty-five years by the time he photographed this street. He knew at first hand and in detail the working lives of the street peddlers who pushed those handcarts. He lived only slightly better than they did.
     The path of light reflected on the street threads through the shadows cast by the buildings on either side and leads to the great city flooded with the morning light beyond this little street. You see a fragment of the great city through an opening between the buildings on the two sides of the street—which seems to converge as it approaches the quai. What you see, too vaguely to identify, across the quai is the garden behind Notre-Dame. If you had followed the path of light sixty years after the photograph was taken, you would have encountered the two police officers guarding the president’s street and if you turned to the right, you would have been standing at the door of L’Ambroisie. The police officers are gone now, and there is another president, whose private residence is in a suburb. Ambroisie has moved across the river; the social tone of the street has changed although there still was at least one artisan’s shop on the street as recently as a few years ago. Many visual details have changed, but, for someone so disposed, Atget’s sense of old Paris still can be experienced. I seem to encounter him every time I walk down these streets; he has taught me how to look at them, and they are even more precious for my having seen this glimpse oftheir life through his eyes.