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Posts from the ‘Literature’ Category

29
Oct

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

ELLIOT PAUL, AN AMERICAN JOURNALIST, first walked into the rue de la Huchette in the summer of 1923. “There,” he wrote, “I found Paris”.

The rue de la Huchette looking to the east

The Last Time I Saw Paris is a memoir by Elliot Paul of his time in Paris between the First and Second World Wars. For most of that time, he worked as a journalist for the Paris Herald (now the International Herald Tribune) and he lived in the rue de la Huchette.

In the book, Paul paints an absorbing picture of daily life in the rue de la Huchette bringing together a cast of characters, from the stately Monsieur de Malancourt to l’Hibou, the tramp, from the culturally precocious Hyacinth to a flock of prostitutes. He weaves their friendships and enmities, culture and way of life into a rich and compelling tapestry.

The rue de la Huchette looking to the west

Today, the rue de la Huchette is a street with more gift shops than you could shake a stick at, more restaurants per square metre than anywhere else in Paris, most of them Greek, it’s a street constantly awash with tourists and it has perhaps the best jazz club in town.

Having read the book, I thought it would be interesting to follow in Elliot Paul’s footsteps and explore the rue de la Huchette.

Early afternoon sounds of the rue de la Huchette:

Rue de la Huchette by Eugène Atget

“The rue de la Huchette, in time and space, had a beginning, a middle and an ending. Centuries ago, when Paris was a walled city on the Île de la Cité and cows were pastured in what is now the place St. Germain, some of the first Parisians to quit the fortified island area settled along the left bank of the Seine. The rue de la Huchette runs parallel to the river, just a few yards south of the quai. No one seems to be clear about the meaning of its name, least of all the modern inhabitants.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

Rue du Chat Qui Pêche today

“The middle section of the street was cut, but not crossed, by two streets even smaller than the rue de la Huchette – the rue Zacharie and the rue du Chat Qui Pêche (street of the cat who fishes), so named because in the early days before the quai was built, a cat used to fish in the cellars when the Seine was high. The rue du Chat Qui Pêche had the distinction of being the narrowest and shortest in the world, with only one window not more than a foot square and no doors at all.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The Bureau de Police

“On one corner of the rue du Chat Qui Pêche stood the Bureau de Police, not important enough to rate a police car. It was lucky to have a telephone. The ‘flics’ or cops, used bicycles or patrolled soundlessly on foot, invariably in pairs.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former Bureau de Police today

“Le Panier Fleurie, the neighbourhood bordel run by Madame Mariette, was opposite the station house on the corner of the rue Zacharie.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former bordel, Le Panier Fleurie, today

“The south-east corner was occupied by a laundry which employed three hard-working girls and also served as a ‘clandestin’. That is to say, men who found it banal to patronise the orthodox establishment could, if they were known to Mme. Lanier, go upstairs with the laundress of their choice. This illegal arrangement increased the income of Mme. Lanier, her non-productive husband, and the girls, and, in the opinion of the easy-going sergeant, did no one any harm.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former laundry and ‘clandestin’ today

“The eastern end of the rue de la Huchette revolved around the Hôtel du Caveau.

There I found Paris – and France.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former Hôtel du Caveau today

Late afternoon sounds of the rue de la Huchette:

“In contrast with the Hôtel du Caveau, the residents and personnel of the Hôtel Normandie did not seem one weirdly assorted family. The Gentile patron did not beat his wife, a sad-faced Jewish woman from the Temple quarter, but he let her do practically all the work that the one-armed garcon, Louis, did not volunteer to do, when his own huge share had been accomplished.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former Hôtel Normandie today

“At the eastern end, next door to the Hôtel du Caveau, was the tiny stationary shop of Achille and Geneviève Taitbout, a small squint-eyed couple who shuffled around wearily, maintaining a perpetual relationship in their movements, like figures on a stage. Their daily routine involved getting up at five in the morning to receive a bundle of newspapers brought by a lad on a bicycle. On the infrequent occasions when the delivery boy did not show up, or was late, they pottered and muttered collectively, like a mechanical toy running down.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former papeterie today

“Green vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, etc., were purchased by Monsieur Henri in Les Halles, or central markets, with skill and discrimination. Some of his staple groceries he bought at the local Épicerie, or grocery, at N° 27, called ‘L’Épicerie Danton’ and owned by Jean-Baptiste Emile Denis Emanuel Corre and his wife, Gabrielle, who looked like a porcelain doll. Mme Corre had style without chic, and a kind of beauty without savour that remained constant throughout the years.”

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former L’Épicerie Danton today

“The horse butcher in the rue de la Huchette, N° 13, also had a sideline of mending hunting horns, so that when one passed his awninged and curtained doorway with the golden horse’s head aloft, one frequently heard their flourishes or plaintive moans.

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

The former horse butchers today

“… the florist at N° 23 had steady customers from large restaurants and hotels. The shop of Madame Durand was situated within easy walking distance of the fragrant Marché aux Fleurs behind the prefecture. Two mornings a week this market spilled over its boundaries on the quai and flooded the near-by bridges with potted plants and cut flowers, not to mention shrubs and, in season, Christmas trees. Therefore Albertine Durand could undersell other florists who could not have their wares transported so cheaply and easily. So Madame Durand did a business quite out of proportion to the size of our street. She got up at five every morning, dressed without waking her husband, the Gentile inspector of kosher meat, whose hours were from eight to six.

The Last Time I Saw Paris – Elliot Paul

Madame Durand’s florists shop today

“The spade-bearded Monsieur Saint-Aulaire, who presided over the two-man tailor shop at N° 21, could not afford an atelier on the boulevard. He had never prospered, and never gone broke. So he acted as if he were tailor by appointment to the Duc de Guise (pretender to the throne), and although his manners were impeccable, he did not consider it as much of an honour to make a chalk-mark on the shoulder of Senator Berenger as on that of the penniless Honoré de Senlis, who played billiards with a duke.”

Monsieur Saint-Aulaire’s tailor shop today

Like most long-time residents in Paris, I’ve become quite selective about which places in this city are my favourites and which are not. When I tell other long-time residents that one of my favourite places in Paris is the Rue de la Huchette I usually get, at best, a sideways glance or, more commonly, a look of total bewilderment.

But every time I walk along this street, Elliot Paul’s compelling inages of this place in the inter-war years always transcend today’s seemingly never-ending gift shops and eateries. Woolly hats and kebabs give way to images, not only of the the people I’ve already mentioned, but to Luttenschlager selling his articles of piety, Noël, the taxidermist, Dorlan the bookbinder, Gilottes at the bakery, Julien and Mme. Julien the barber and hairdreser, Joli, the cleaner and dyer, Gion and Bernice and their music shop not to mention Maurice, pedlar of goldfish. Of course, the threat of the Second World War endowed all these quiet, heroic lives with a tragic poignancy.

I’m just sorry that I haven’t (yet) been able to find any sounds of the rue de la Huchette during the inter-war years to match the word pictures that Elliot Paul paints but my search will continue.

Oh, yes … the jazz club! It’s in the basement of the former Hôtel du Caveau and I promise you, it’s well worth a visit. You’ll find jazz here to satisfy every taste. You might like to take a look at this to give you a flavour!

 

11
Oct

Au Bonheur des Dames

AU BONHEUR DES DAMES is a novel by Emile Zola set in the world of the department store in nineteenth-century Paris. It covers the period approximately from 1864 to 1869 and it’s the eleventh novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macqart series.

From Zola’s original manuscript for Au Bonheur des Dames

When Zola was writing Au Bonheur des Dames, department stores were not only a new concept, their approach to retail sales was nothing short of revolutionary, which I suppose is what sparked Zola’s interest. Today of course we take department stores and other mega retail outlets for granted.

Following on from a blog piece I published recently about l’Assommoir, a Zola novel set around the quartier de la Goutte d’Or , I thought it would be interesting to capture today’s soundscape of Zola’s setting for Au Bonheur des Dames.

The department store at the centre of Zola’s novel is called Au Bonheur des Dames (Ladies’ Delight or Ladies’ Paradise) and Zola modelled it on Aristide Boucicaut’s hugely successful, Au Bon Marché, which, by 1852, had become one of the largest stores in Paris and one of the first department stores in the world.

Aristide Boucicaut

Boucicaut had revolutionary ideas about retailing. Under the Ancien Régime the typical retail outlet was the boutique specialising in one variety of product with no fixed pricing – bargaining was the rule. Boucicaut changed all that.

The change that he brought to retailing included everything we take for granted today. He was the first to “pile it high and sell it cheap”, he introduced the selling of more than one variety of product under the same roof, fixed pricing, the price ticketing of individual items, free entry encouraging customers to browse at will, the clearance sale, and for his employees – commission on sales and participation in profits.

These revolutionary changes of course came at a price.

Au Bon Marché in 1910

In the novel we see Octave Mouret, the owner of Au Bonheur des Dames, aiming to overwhelm the senses of his female customers, forcing them to spend by bombarding them with an array of choices and by juxtaposing goods in enticing and intoxicating ways. Massive advertising, huge sales, home delivery, a system of refunds and novelties such as a reading room and a snack bar, further induce his female clientele to patronize his store in growing numbers. In the process, he drives smaller, speciality shops out of business.

At the start of the book, Au Bonheur des Dames occupies almost a whole city block but Mouret is not beyond using all his political wiles to expand even further and threaten the existence of all the neighbourhood shops.

Au Bon Marché – Gravure

Today, Au Bon Marché is owned by the luxury goods group, LVMH, and it occupies more than one city block with the department store sitting cheek by jowl with the food hall, La Grande Épicerie de Paris, across the street.

Inside Au Bon Marché

Sounds inside the department store:

Just like Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, Au Bon Marché aims to overwhelm the senses of its customers with an astonishing array of luxury brands juxtaposed in enticing and intoxicating ways.

Inside La Grande Épicerie de Paris

Sounds inside La Grande Épicerie de Paris:

Personally, I find the department store with its luxury brand boutiques and obscenely expensive prices not to my taste. But the food hall, La Grande Épicerie de Paris, is an absolute delight. With over 5,000 products from around the world they cater for every imaginable taste. If you can’t find it anywhere else, you’ll most likely find it here.

This year marks the 160th anniversary of Le Bon Marché.

In Au Bonheur des Dames, Zola tells the story of Denise Baudu, a 20-year-old woman from Valognes who comes to Paris with her brothers and begins working at the store as a saleswoman. We follow her progress amidst the many conflicts that spring from the struggles for advancement and the malicious infighting and gossip among the staff. But the novel is also about the symbols of capitalism, the rise of the modern city, class relations and, above all, the changes in consumer culture at the end of the nineteenth-century.

It’s fascinating to think that Emile Zola, with his characteristic eye for detail, must have walked through the vast expanse of Au Bon Marché collecting material for his novel just as I did collecting the sounds for this post. I wonder what he would make of the sights and sounds of Au Bon Marché today?

Reading Zola’s novel certainly adds an extra dimension to a visit to today’s Au Bon Marché. I thoroughly recommend it.

 

 

20
Aug

Le Quartier de la Goutte d’Or

ABOUT A MONTH AGO my friend Susanna (La Cosa Preziosa) told me that she had just finished reading the novel L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. She said that she’d really enjoyed the book and would love to hear a sonic exploration of its locations as they are today. That sounded like a fascinating challenge to me.

L’Assommoir (1877) is considered to be one of Zola’s masterpieces – a harsh and uncompromising study of alcoholism and poverty in the working-class districts of Paris. The novel is set in the area surrounding the Rue de la Goutte d’Or, bordered by the Boulevard Barbès and the Boulevard de la Chapelle, an area close to the Métro station Barbès-Rochechouart in the 18th arrondissement. Today, the area still has its working-class roots although the population now comprises to a large extent immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere.

Boulevard Barbès

The Boulevard Barbès was created in 1867 as a travaux haussmanniens, part of Baron Haussmann’s transformation of Paris under the Second Empire. The Boulevard Barbés is the main artery through le quartier de la Goutte d’Or, the Goutte d’Or district.

Sounds of Boulevard Barbés :

Boulevard Barbés

The Boulevard de la Chapelle marks the border between the 10th arrondissement and the 18th arrondissement of Paris. It corresponds in part to the Mur des Fermiers Généraux, the Farmers-General wall, which, until 1860, marked the border between the communes of Paris and La Chapelle.

Boulevard de la Chapelle

The area around the Métro Barbès-Rochechouart and the Boulevard de la Chapelle is extremely lively and resembles a huge street bazaar with a jumble of stalls and vendors selling mainly cheap clothing. On a Saturday morning a colourful food market appears under the elevated Métro line.

Boulevard de la Chapelle

In the novel, it is here in the Boulevard de la Chapelle, in the Hôtel Boncoeur, that we first encounter Gervaise Macquart as her tragic story unfolds.

Sounds of Boulevard de la Chapelle:

Boulevard de la Chapelle

And so to the Rue de la Goutte d’Or, the working-class hub around which the life of Zola’s characters rotate.

Rue de la Goutte d’Or

Since the early years of the 20th century, the Rue de la Goutte d’Or and its environs has been home to an immigrant population. The North Africans came first but the big wave of immigrants arrived in the 1950s, often to work in the automobile industry. Today, as well as the North Africans, other communities have become established including people from the West Indies and from Bulgaria.

Sounds of the Rue de la Goutte d’Or:

Rue de la Goutte d’Or

The novel l’Assomoir is essentially the story of Gervaise Macquart running away to Paris with her shiftless lover Lantier to work as a washerwoman in a hot, busy laundry in one of the seedier areas of the city. Well that seedy area was around here in the rue Neuve-de-la Goutte d’Or with its red brick washhouse reeking of steam.  The Rue Neuve-de-la Goutte d’Or is now called the Rue des Islettes .

Rue des Islettes

Rue de la Goutte d’Or

Rue de la Goutte d’Or

Villa Poisonniére



In the middle of this North African enclave, behind an iron gate, is the Villa Poissonnière, an incongruous alleyway, which almost seems to have been placed here by mistake. This is believed to have been the property of a wine grower when this was open countryside, ideally situated on a sunny slope rolling gently to the south. In the Middle Ages the wine of the Goutte d’Or had quite a reputation. In fact, the name of the street itself comes from the particular golden colour of the white wine produced here.  It was customary at the time for the City of Paris to give the king wine from the Goutte d’Or on his birthday.

Rue de la Goutte d’Or

L’Assomoir is one of the most powerful novels in French literature due in part to the huge amount of research Zola carried out both into the language of the street but also into the actual conditions in working-class 19th-century Paris.

And as for Gervaise …

“She sank lower day by day. As soon as she got a little money from any source whatever she drank it away at once. Her landlord decided to turn her out of the room she occupied, and as Father Bru was discovered dead one day in his den under the stairs, M. Marescot allowed her to take possession of his quarters. It was there, therefore, on the old straw bed, that she lay waiting for death to come. Apparently even Mother Earth would have none of her. She tried several times to throw herself out of the window, but death took her by bits, as it were. In fact, no one knew exactly when she died or exactly what she died of. They spoke of cold and hunger.

But the truth was she died of utter weariness of life …”

Rue de la Goutte d’Or

 L’Assomoir is a novel written 135 years ago in which Emile Zola uses words to paint a vivid picture of 19th century working-class life in Paris at its darkest. Although we have contemporary visual images to support and add to Zola’s picture we have no contemporary sounds to give us a sonic perspective. We may think we know what the 19th century sounds of the quartier de la Goutte d’Or were but the fact is, we simply do not have any record of them. It is a sad truth, but most of our sonic heritage has passed by unrecorded.

The good news is that if anyone researching the location of L’Assomoir 135 years from now happens to come across this blog in some dusty electronic archive then they will at least have a contemporary account of the sounds of the quartier de la Goutte d’Or on one day in August 2012.

In the meantime I hope you enjoy them.

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