Luc Sante is a Belgian-born American author who contributes to the New York Review of Books. He shot to fame in 1991 with Low Life, a well-informed exploration of the New York underground in the 19th century. Twenty-five years on, this subculture specialist has delved into the dark side of Paris in his latest book The Other Paris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Offering a wealth of anecdotes, photos, paintings and illustrations by Grandville, Luc Sante uses this exhaustive, extremely well-documented work to depict the “other” Paris: the city of “titis” (street urchins), crooks, Communards, washerwomen, anarchists and prostitutes. A dissenting, tough, resourceful hotbed. A Paris from a forgotten time.
Among your many sources, a particularly striking one is the journalism of the Bonneff brothers, who chronicled the ailments of the working class at the beginning of the 20th century and were then completely forgotten. How do you find your material?
In the case of this book, I began with my own bookshelves – I already had nearly a hundred pertinent items. For example, I had long thought of writing something on the Commune and the anarchists of the decades that followed it, so I had a great deal of literary material on those topics. And I had most of Balzac and Hugo and Zola. Books led me to other books. And my interest in photography and the graphic arts led me to magazines. And so on. I don’t even remember now what led me to the Bonneffs – maybe Lucien Descaves, whose work itself is pretty unknown now, and whom I discovered by finding a copy of his 1901 novel about the Commune, La colonne (alas not very good), on the shelves at the Strand Bookstore in New York.
Much of your book revolves around the bygone world of Les Halles, Paris’ famous wholesale market. Do you see its destruction as the greatest loss the city had to suffer?
When Paris lost Les Halles, it lost its direct connection to agriculture and fishing and animal husbandry, as well as much of its direct connection to the seasons. Les Halles was both a wholesale and retail market – Parisians could buy directly from producers (some produce could still be obtained at neighborhood markets, but nowhere on the same scale). The poor lost a steady source of pickup jobs and decent but discarded food. Paris lost a culture, really, the language and the sounds of the commerce, the bistros that served the trade, the network of supporting businesses. And it lost a great visual display, slightly different every day. And of course it lost the amazing cast-iron pavilions by Victor Baltard – incredible to think that all but one of them were melted down. Even if the market itself had to go for reasons of scale and the growth of the trucking industry, you’d think they would have saved those.
You contend that Paris, like other cities, has lost its “intimacy”. How did it disappear?
The intimacy of cities began to be chipped away first of all by the rise of the automobile. It took most of a century for kids to stop playing in the streets, but that time has arrived. Dogs don’t wander around off-leash anymore, either. The sense of neighborhood still exists, but as a shadow of its former self. Neoliberal economics dictates the need for growth, and that means that shopkeepers can no longer make a living but must seek for profits. The neighborhood bistro, as well as the laundry, the shoe repair, the small hardware store – all those pillars of a community are consequently fading away. And first television – which eliminated the neighborhood movie theaters – and then the Internet have conspired to keep people indoors. At one time it would have been unthinkable not to know everyone who lived in your building, but now it’s routine.
Your generation of intellectuals seems to be the last one with a fascination for Paris. Why has the city lost its spell on Americans?
First of all the romance of bohemia, with young artists living picturesque if impoverished lives, is completely gone. And then, for reasons that are not unrelated, French culture in general has become pretty dry and uninteresting over the past 30 or 40 years. There are of course individual writers and filmmakers and musicians, etc., who are very good, but the last time anyone noticed a hive of activity in French culture it was the fairly deadly world of academic theory, some 30 years ago. The Nouvelle Vague filmmakers are very old or dead; there are no more Surrealists and hardly any Situationists, etc. All of those congeries happened in large part because they met in certain neighborhoods, congregated daily in certain cafés, planned their activities around certain local institutions – and those things have become largely impossible, for the reasons cited above. And whatever anyone says, social-media formations cannot substitute for those in flesh and blood. You can’t have a viable movement if its members are scattered all over the Île-de-France. And so there’s nothing actual and living going on there for Americans to aspire to and to emulate.
What are your favorite places in Paris?
I always eat at Polidor (my other hangout, Chartier, steadily evolves toward the condition of a tourist trap). I always go to the flea market at Porte de Vanves. I always go to the movies on Rue des Écoles. I always go to one of the cemeteries, on every visit. I always buy books at Delamain (many of my other favorite bookstores have succumbed). I always walk through the arcades and the garden of the Palais-Royal and the Jardin des Plantes (stopping in to see the skeletal menagerie at the Musée d’Anatomie Comparée). I always stroll down Rue Mouffetard and up Rue de Ménilmontant and along Rue Saint-Antoine. I almost always visit the Carnavalet Museum. I always spend time looking down at the river. That will never change.
Article published in the March 2016 issue of France-Amérique.