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Ruth Scurr on Paris

Posted on Jul 15, 2010

By Ruth Scurr

This review originally appeared in The TLS, whose website is, and is reposted with permission.

In the fifteenth of his “Theses on the Concept of History” (1940), Walter Benjamin noted that “calendars do not measure time as clocks do”. Benjamin, that “peerless Paris pedestrian”, is an inspiration for Eric Hazan’s fascinating book The Invention of Paris: A history in footsteps. In his preface to the new English edition (the book was first published in French in 2002 as L’Invention de Paris), Hazan notes that to spot what has changed in Paris in the last eight years, he would need to have gone away and returned after a long absence. Instead, he has been in Paris almost continuously recently, “and so I see it changing like the wrinkles on a beloved face that one observes every day”.

Hazan was born in Paris in 1936 (his mother was born in Palestine and his Jewish father came from Egypt). He studied medicine, left France in support of the FLN during the Algerian war, and later worked as a volunteer doctor in a refugee camp outside Beirut. In 1998, he founded the radical publishing house La Fabrique. His is a cleverly structured book. Tracing the walls and administrative boundaries that have successively encircled Paris down the centuries, Hazan describes how the city grew beyond them, like a grand and beautiful tree. He defines “Old Paris” as the area within the Boulevard of Louis XIV (the tree-lined avenue the King had built in the 1670s on the circuit of the razed old city walls) and “New Paris” as the area outside. “New Paris” is divided into two concentric rings: first, the ring of the faubourgs (covering the area beyond the Boulevard of Louis XIV up to the hated Wall of the Fermiers-Généraux, which was built to enclose the city for tax purposes in the 1780s); and second, the ring of “the villages of the crown” (covering the area beyond the Wall of the Fermiers-Généraux to the Boulevards des Maréchaux, which were begun in 1920, on the site of the defensive wall Adolphe Thiers had built in the 1840s).

Today you cannot see the line of the Boulevard Louis XIV, little remains of the Wall of the Fermiers-Généraux, and the Boulevards des Maréchaux have been lapped by the alarming Boulevard Périphérique: certainly more motorway than walkway.


book cover


The Invention of Paris: A History Told in Footsteps


By Eric Hazan


Verso, 400 pages


Buy the book


book cover


Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris


By Graham Robb


W. W. Norton & Company, 496 pages


Buy the book

At the heart of old Paris, in the Right Bank quartier of Tuileries-Saint-Honoré, Hazan marks the location of the house where Robespierre lived during the Terror, at the end of the rue Saint-Honoré: “the geographical axis of political life” in the Revolution. Within the same quartier lived the abbé Sieyès, Olympe de Gouges and Bertrand Barère. The Jacobin Club, the Convention, and the Committee of Public Safety, all met close by. In 1946, the Place du Marché-Saint-Honoré was renamed the Place Robespierre, “a decision reversed in 1950”, Hazan writes, “when the French bourgeoisie raised its head again”. Hazan’s radical sympathies are in evidence during his alert and erudite walks: in the Bourse quartier he notices the Hôtel de La Vrillière, designed by François Mansart, confiscated during the Revolution and turned into the Imprimerie Nationale. “Robespierre’s speeches were printed in runs of 400,000, and Marat needed three presses in the courtyard to print L’Ami du peuple.” In the Sentier quartier, Hazan commemorates the heyday of the daily press, between the end of the Second Empire and the First World War. Since then, the migration of printing works to the suburbs has left behind “only pale vestiges of this glorious age: the Figaro building on the corner of the Rue du Mail, the Tribune building, the fine caryatids of the building of La France, journal du soir, and the plaque on the Café du Croissant marking another Socialist lieu de mémoire: ‘Jaurès was assassinated here on 31 July 1914’  ”.

After his methodical street-by-street tour of the city, old and new, Hazan focuses the second part of his book on “Red Paris”, which is introduced with lines from Baudelaire’s projected epilogue to the 1861 edition of Les Fleurs du Mal: Your metal domes fired by the sun, Your theatre queens with enchanting voices, Your bells, canons, deafening orchestra, Your magic cobbles erected into fortresses, Your little orators with baroque turns of phrase Preaching love, and then your sewers full with blood, Pouring into hell like so many Orinocos. 

Hazan presents the nineteenth century as “the heyday of that great symbolic form of Parisian revolution that is the barricade”. At the centre of the Paris Commune of 1871, he describes Louise Michel—Anarchist, teacher and medical worker—reading Baudelaire in a trench while bullets whistled over her head. Fighters on either side of the barricades “called out to one another, insulting each other as under the walls of Troy”. In the century between 1871 and 1968, Hazan argues, “the pacification of political manners—in other words, the continuation of civil war by other means—favoured the return of illusion”. In his view, May 1968 was another revolution that has been wrongly described “by the vague and cowardly term ‘events’ ”.

“Red Paris” ends with a warning to those who rejoice to see the city so calm today: “The time of the oppressed is by nature discontinuous”, as Walter Benjamin knew, and not for nothing did participants in the street battles of July 1830 set fire to the clocks on monuments.

The final part of The Invention of Paris consists of two chapters, “Flâneurs” and “The Visual Image”, which overlap with a politically milder but equally fascinating new book by Graham Robb, Parisians: An adventure history of Paris. Hazan takes Jean-Jacques Rousseau for an early flâneur, crossing Paris in his sixties to go botanizing from his flat in the rue Plâtrière. He discusses the place of flânerie in Balzac’s personal and physical relation to Paris, and its role in the construction of the Comédie humaine. But it is in Baudelaire’s thinking and writing that the concept of flânerie is most elaborate: For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to choose to set up house in the heart of the multitude amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures ... the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy.

Robb’s first books were studies of Baudelaire: Baudelaire: Lecteur de Balzac (1988), La Poésie de Baudelaire et la poésie française, 1838-1852, and in 1989 he translated Claude Pichois and Jean Ziegler’s seminal biography of the poet. In the introduction to Parisians, he describes his first week in the city: a schoolboy’s present from his parents that included accommodation in a small hotel, a voucher for a boat ride on the Seine, and a coupon for a free gift to be redeemed at the Galeries Lafayette. Robb took his secondhand copy of the works of Baudelaire with him as a guide and sat deciphering the “Tableaux parisiens” and the chapter on “L’Héroïsme de la vie moderne” in a café near the Tour Saint-Jacques: “Parisian life is bursting with wonderful, poetic subjects: the miraculous envelops us; we breathe it in like the atmosphere, but we do not see it”.

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By moineau, July 17, 2010 at 4:34 pm Link to this comment

j’adore! an excellent article on two very enticing new books. the author of the first has such a fascinating international history, yet he is compelled to return to write about the city of paris… how telling! xoxooxox

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By Blackspeare, July 16, 2010 at 2:54 pm Link to this comment

Paris is the ultimate city——it is like five Manhattans linked side by side with a superb public transportation system and every third store is a restaurant or cafe!

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By NYCartist, July 16, 2010 at 11:02 am Link to this comment

I am a flaneur, albeit via wheelchair now not biped.
Beam me up to Paris, please.  Haven’t been there since 1964.  (Am 1/4 French; Jewish French grandfather who I never met.)  I am a flaneur in my own city,too, as can.  I love Paris.  My favorite city (besides Manhattan) is Firenze.

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