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Luc Sante: My Method is the Magpie’s

The critic discusses his new book on the grittier side of Paris, and the effect terrorism might have on France.

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Image from Flickr user Zoriah.

Even before the recent terrorist attacks on Paris, Luc Sante’s new book seemed timely. The city’s contentious past seemed to be disappearing into a glittery present, rendering it necessary to uncover Paris’s sedimentary layers of grit. Filthy in all the right ways, The Other Paris is a worthy bookend to Sante’s 1991 classic Low Life. This is the city of danger, intrigue, and excitement. And while the future of Paris may now be less certain than it was before Friday the 13th, its past now stands in sharp relief.

–Ted Hamm for Guernica

Guernica: Tell us a bit about how you’re defining the “Other Paris.” What determined its borders, and how did inhabitants view their own place in the city?

Luc Sante: I wanted to tell the story of what Louis Chevalier calls the “working and dangerous classes.” Those are my people—my forebears on both sides all the way back, Belgian in my case but with many cultural points of similarity—and it also happens to be the aspect of Parisian life that American readers know the least about. It’s easy enough to define the borders there, since they were vigorously enforced by the larger culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as indeed they still are. Ambiguity arises only in a few specific areas: the worlds of literature and art, for example. Many writers and artists portrayed the poor sympathetically, and even fought on their behalf, but they themselves were not of that class. Gay life is perhaps even more subject to ambiguity, since it so often involves crossing classes.

Paris had more sex than most church-laden places, and more church than most sex-laden places.

Guernica: Elite Parisians called these folks la canaille, while a Marxist would group them together as the lumpenproletariat. Do you think the rag-pickers, prostitutes, and black marketeers shared many affinities with one another?

Luc Sante: I do. They came from similar backgrounds and frequently from the same families, as a dip into Zola will illustrate. They were poor people trying to live, with straitened means for doing so.

Guernica: You’re recapturing Paris through the lens of literary urban history, yet the work also reminded me of the classic WPA guides. We hear from great literary figures (Balzac, Hugo, and Zola), leading historians (Louis Chevalier, Richard Cobb), and Situationists (Guy Debord, Jean-Paul Clebert) but also from investigative reporters, guidebook writers, and popular singers (Damia, Edith Piaf). How would you describe your method?

Luc Sante: My method is the magpie’s: I look for shiny things. That is, I look for concrete material details of daily life, and I look for vigorous prose, which is the only kind I can read for very long. That effectively bars a great deal of scholarly work, but I didn’t feel its loss. It’s not hard to find vigorously written, colorfully detailed accounts of life in the Paris of the past, in all kinds of places. There is not just the eloquence of the people you list, but also that of reactionaries like Maxime du Camp and the Goncourt brothers, and even of a police commissioner like Adolphe Gronfier. There is such an abundance of engaging writing about the city, much of it untranslated, that my research felt like a spree.

Guernica: Tell us about some of the bookshops, archives and other locations where you found your material. Did you have some sleuths who helped you?

Luc Sante: I found material, first of all, on my own bookshelves—in some ways it feels as if I’ve been researching this book since I was a teenager. And I found stuff at the New York Public Library during my year as a Cullman Fellow there. And bookstores, most notably L’Oeil du Silence (R.I.P.), Delamain, and the Librairie du Patrimoine in Paris, as well as the outdoor book market on Rue Brancion and the nearby flea market at Porte de Vanves. And of course eBay and ABEbooks, the former especially for pictures. Archives didn’t come into it—archives are for research on the micro level. I was going widescreen. I always work solo, but a bunch of people helped me, mostly by supplying me with movies. (Some of them got me copies of out-of-print VHS tapes and DVDs, but it’s astonishing how almost any movie ever made, no matter how long out of circulation, can be found in the netherworld of Bittorrent.)

The Revolution never really ended, but it did sputter out lengthily.

Guernica: The book is replete with illustrations—including prints, photos, book covers, lyric sheets and more. Why are so many images from 1910?

Luc Sante: The year 1910—approximately—can be accounted for by the great flourishing of the picture postcard between 1900 and the start of WWI. Seemingly every corner in Paris, down to the least picturesque and salubrious, can be found represented in a postcard. But then those cards weren’t intended for tourists. They were meant for locals, to represent their own neighborhoods.
Guernica: Does that mean the postcards were locally produced, within each neighborhood?

Luc Sante: No, they were produced by competing sets of entrepreneurs who vied with one another to cover the most territory.

Guernica: In your chapter on the sexual underground of the city, you call Paris “the world capital of contradictions.” Why here more than elsewhere?

Luc Sante: Well, Paris had more sex than most church-laden places, and more church than most sex-laden places. Parisians crowed about Travail-Famille-Patrie while frequenting brothels. They enjoyed visiting drag shows while clamping down on homosexuality. They celebrated romance while treating women like dirt. Many of these contradictions existed elsewhere, but I do think Paris ruled the hypocrisy championships.

Guernica: To what extent does the “Other Paris” still exist today—and can the fight to save it serve as a rallying cry? Here I’m thinking of Henri Lefebvre and “the right to the city.”

Luc Sante: There are still poor people living in Paris, because they are grandfathered in and are lucky enough to have landlords who are not jackals, or because they live in the housing projects of Belleville or down in the Thirteenth arrondissement. There are, here and there, surviving bars—recently I found one tucked away in the back room of a tobacco shop in the neighborhood that was formerly Les Halles. And we are on the threshold of Le Grand Paris, the proposed expansion that will see the immediate banlieue, beginning with Pantin, Aubervilliers, and Saint- Denis, folded into the city itself, a change with potentially major and reverberating consequences. Then again, neoliberalism seems to ramp up every day, making it ever more difficult for anyone but corporations to own and run things and define the flavor of a place. I’d love to be optimistic about the future, but it’s not easy.

What they began to worry about was not so much
terrorism as the reaction to it.

Guernica: Yet in recounting the city’s radical tradition, from 1789 through the Paris Commune of 1871 to May ’68, you also say that the “French Revolution never really ended.” Might that legacy inspire some optimism?

Luc Sante: As per Gramsci: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. But optimism is in ever shorter supply. The Revolution never really ended, but it did sputter out lengthily. The betrayal of its spirit by the Communist Party was vividly illustrated in May ’68, and the fact that so many ex-Communists—entire towns’ and neighborhoods’ worth—have recently rallied to the National Front completes the cycle of baleful irony.

Guernica: The nightmarish recent terrorist assaults occurred in the region of the city you describe as the haven of the “Other Paris.” Any thoughts regarding what the consequences might be?

Luc Sante: On the night of the attacks I happened to be at a conference at the University of Chicago attended by many French writers and intellectuals, and after they all determined their loved ones were safe, what they began to worry about was not so much terrorism as the reaction to it—that this could be the thing that kicks France into fascism. Marine Le Pen was already looking strong in the provinces, and the provinces have historically shown a liking for iron rule. Paris and its banlieue may preserve a left majority, but the ghosts of Pétain and Maurras and Boulanger hover all around it. I sure hope this all constitutes alarmism.

Guernica: You’ve now written about New York City and Paris. Is there another major city that might similarly captivate you?

Luc Sante: There are cities I love in various ways, from Tangier to Lisbon to Los Angeles, but New York and Paris are the cities in which I have a lifetime of experience, so no other project would be quite the same as the two I’ve done.

Luc Sante will discuss the work in Brooklyn on Monday 11/23 (with Ted Hamm) at St. Joseph’s College (245 Clinton Avenue, 7 p.m.) and on Tuesday 12/1 (with Jason Diamond) at WORD (126 Franklin Street, 7 p.m.).

Luc Sante‘s books include Low Life, The Factory of Facts, and Kill All Your Darlings. A contributor to the New York Review of Books since 1981, he is currently a visiting professor of writing and the history of photography at Bard College.

Ted Hamm, a founder of the Brooklyn Rail, is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

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