In French, “salle des pas perdus” (literally “room of lost steps, or useless steps”) is a nice expression for the great hall in a public building (a train station, a court…), a place we just cross without paying attention, where people walk to and fro while waiting. The book I just finished about Paris history is titled: Paris’ invention, by Eric Hazan (published in 2004, only in French), and its subtitle is: There are no useless steps. I like this idea of learning more about the city I too often just walk through in a hurry, without paying attention. And what I liked even more about this book is the link made between historical facts, landmarks and literature, especially 19C novels and poems. Never before did I pay attention at where exactly took place the action of various Balzac novels, Hugo descriptions and Baudelaire poems. Did you ever? Well, I guess I didn’t even realize that the place I live in is the same place where The Miserables, the Cousine Bette or others are supposed to live.
Did you know, for example, that up until King Louis XIV, there were but three places lit up at night in the whole city of Paris? The door of the Chatelet court, the Nesle Tower where a lantern showed the way for the boats on the river Seine, and the lamp of the dead at the Innocent cemetery. The rest of the city was pitch-black and therefore dangerous.
Did you know that the passageways were built in the 19C around the Opera and Grands Boulevards to allow the new Paris citizens to stroll around the shops and cafés without floundering around in the mud or getting hit by a horse car? In 1800 there were but 3 streets in the whole city to have sidewalks.
Did you know that the turning point of the city nightlife came around 1840 when streets were equipped with gas lights? It’s only around 1850 that cafés become fashionable and set up tables outside, like shown in a few scenes of Maupassant’s Bel Ami.
In the 19C literature, the main city garden is the Jardin des Tuileries (close to the Louvres), but it shifts to the Left Bank and the Jardin du Luxembourg (closer to St. Germain des Prés and Montparnasse) with the 20C. The Luxembourg is the place for Sartre, Michel Leiris, Oscar Wilde, Henry Miller etc..
An important part of this 500-pages book is dedicated to the history of the local uprisings. Paris has always been prone to workers or students riots (which is the reason why the King moved to Versailles for a time), from the Middle Ages to May 1968. The heyday (or rather the darkest period, since most uprisings were crushed in blood) occurred during the 19C, with three violent revolutions in 1830, 1848 and 1870. Romantic writers (Musset, Hugo, Sand, Flaubert, Baudelaire…) often sided with the reformists and were frightened by the violent mob, but it was a very complex period and most were shocked when the army slaughtered them. The book describes well where and how it happened, and as it’s a dark chapter of French history that is always left unclear in our school curriculum, I learnt a lot about it and would like to find even more. I’m now quite tempted to read more of Victor Hugo, despite the huge size of his works.
Last week, I met up with Mr. Smithereens at the Fontaine des Innocents, near Les Halles, and it was fascinating and unsettling to think how this place must have been 500 years ago, with a filthy cemetery (that later was moved out and the bones deposited in the Catacombes), narrow, stinking lanes and one of the very few lights of the capital at night.