Eugene Brennan is a writer and academic based in Paris.
Eric Hazan’s “A Walk Through Paris” is about, simply, a walk through Paris. But Paris being Paris, a walk through its streets is anything but simple — or ordinary. Here Hazan, who has spent his entire life in the City of Light, offers a perspective — “a radical exploration” — that is both personal and historical, drawing on his experiences as a student, surgeon, social critic and publisher of leftist books.
Hazan sets out from Ivry, in the southeast of the city, to Saint-Denis in the north. As he travels, memories rise “to the surface street by street, even very distant fragments of the past on the border of forgetfulness.” His journey sparks questions: For example, he wonders, why choose one route over another? At other moments, personal preferences lead him on more convoluted detours. Traversing the Ile de la Cité, he avoids the principal routes, as one would pass by the prefecture de police, “a sorry perspective,” and the other would proceed through the rue d’Arcole, lined with tourist shops full of “I Love Paris” T-shirts — a scene that’s “hardly more attractive.”
Still, what emerges from this book is a profound affection for the city, often expressed in endearingly idiosyncratic terms. On the rue Hautefeuille, where Charles Baudelaire was born, Hazan observes a hanging turret on the corner of a small cul-de-sac. Dating from the 16th century, this conical trunk is made of a knot-work series in decreasing diameter, “each ring bearing a different decoration — a masterpiece of masonry.” Hazan lists several other locations in the city where these turrets can be found, referring to the architectural structures as “friends of mine”; sometimes, he writes, he even makes a detour just for a chance to greet them.
The first part of the walk traverses the Left Bank, including the Latin Quarter, embedded in the international imagination of Paris as a center of intellectual life, full of arthouse cinemas, independent book shops and, in May 1968, civil unrest. Hazan, whose previous books include “A People’s History of the French Revolution,” finds this neighborhood sadly transformed. He writes of no longer feeling at home here, after high rents drove the working class away and boutique shops replaced many of the independent bookstores of the 6th arrondissement.
Most Parisians agree, however, that the pulse and energy of the contemporary city lie north of the river on the Right Bank. It’s twice as populous and contains, as Hazan notes, “pockets of popular resistance that are slow and difficult to suppress.” Walking from Châtalet in the center to La Chapelle in the north, Hazan seems pleasantly surprised to find that many neighborhoods remain working-class and multicultural. In this regard, Paris has fortunately seen nothing like the scale of gentrification and rent increases inflicted on cities like London and New York in recent decades. Here Hazan is interested in spaces of contradiction in the city center, where an imposing architectural grandeur exists in tension with the everyday lives of the people — where, he explains, there is a contrast “between the nobility of the stone and the quite plebeian activities.”
Hazan’s perspective is refreshing: Though he is an uncompromising critic of the destructive effects of gentrification, he also rejects the illusory comforts of nostalgia. To those who romanticize and wish for the return of the Trente Glorieuses, a period of postwar economic boom in France, Hazan argues that in fact the Gaullist years were “actually ones of conformity and boredom on the one hand, and of war and police brutality on the other.”
A similar perspective guides his analysis of gentrification. Hazan reminds us of the ways Paris has always been a battleground of class conflict; he offers wide-ranging historical examples of the gutting of formerly working-class neighborhoods and emphasizes popular insurrections throughout the city’s history. For Hazan, it is no coincidence that many of the areas of the city most resistant to gentrification are also areas with a strong revolutionary tradition.
Similarly, in the final pages, Hazan considers the historical continuities of other forms of oppression and resistance, elucidating the points of convergence between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. In tracing a continuity of resistance and its presence within the contradictions of the contemporary city, Hazan makes a compelling argument that “the people have not lost the battle of Paris.”
The walk is neatly bookended by visits to bookshops, beginning at the Envie de lire in Ivry and finishing at the Folies d’Encre at Saint-Denis. Both stores have essential roles in the life of their neighborhoods, beyond consumption of books: as meeting places, and social centers of discussion and political debate. This book similarly brings the solitary act of reading and the social experience of urban life into constant dialogue. Passages from Balzac, Baudelaire and André Breton come to mind at different street corners, verbal illuminations reflecting the ambience of a particular locale. In these enlightened pages, Hazan deftly guides the reader through a Paris where history and literature animate the lived experience of the present.
By Eric Hazan. Translated by David Fernbach
Verso. 208 pp. $22.95