Midnight Dreams of Every Paris


A panoramic view of the big city from the hillside Parc de Belleville. Far from the picturesque quais of the Seine and the chic quarters to the west, a  neighborhood of small, deteriorating houses was destroyed to create this park in 1988, but some semblance of a neighborly “village” lives on in streets and cafés nearby and in some spots in the park itself.

by Charles Rearick

Every year brings a stream of new works on Paris—always an appealing subject for writers and film makers.  Last spring’s output was exceptional in several regards.  For the movie-going public, there was Woody Allen’s latest: Midnight in Paris.  It came to cinemas in Paris in May—to largely favorable reviews–just as I was beginning a six-week stay there.  And about the same time, I began hearing of a new book by noted author David McCullough: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, which quickly became a best-seller in the United States. These two new American works, both of them well executed and well received, interest me in particular, as almost everything about Paris interests me: I have been writing about the city and visiting it regularly for decades. Here I’ll make just a few quick observations about the movie and the book: different though they are, they share some common perspectives.  Both of them feature Americans’ experience in Paris–famous Americans for the most part.  Both look back to earlier, seemingly better times– the 1920s (Midnight) and the nineteenth century (Greater Journey).  And both present Paris in its most attractive light and locales–that is, selectively.

A clutch of Paris books that are not American-centered also appeared this spring– to considerably less press notice.  I’d like to take note of a few of them briefly, not to review or evaluate them, but to reflect on their different approaches to Paris– and the insights they can bring to readers and travelers. As the author of one of those books, I’ll write about my take on the city and how it is different from others. However “different” should not be read to imply that the others are less informative or worthwhile.

My fundamental premise is that Paris is much too large and diverse for any one work to capture it all or to satisfy every reader’s interests. As a multi-faceted city of over two million inhabitants in its twenty arrondissements (districts) and now over eleven million in the greater metropolitan area, Paris has developed attractions and assets that appeal to the regular multitude of visitors as well as locals and their diversity of interests. We can speak of Paris “in the plural,” Julian Green has observed: there are many “Parises.” The question for every writer or explorer of the city is: which of the Parises merit our attention most, given the usual limitations of time and space? In responding, every author inevitably comes up with something different– the particular questions posed, the facets of the city chosen, and the answers and specifics given.

A village-like neighborhood known as “la campagne à Paris”, several streets (Rue Jules-Siegfried, Rue Irénée Blanc) away from the Porte de Bagnolet (20th arrondissement).

First, consider the version of Paris exemplified by the new book titled Paris Revealed: The Secret Life of a City by Stephen Clarke, published last March. This is the latest addition to a regular stream of publications promising to disclose what is secret and unknown about Paris. In the 19th century, books pitching insider knowledge were often guides to Paris’s “pleasures”—in particular, its brothels (maisons closes and unauthorized maisons de rendez-vous) with addresses and sometimes names and descriptions of Parisiennes for hire.  In our more liberated time the focus has shifted to other kinds of “secrets.” Despite all the histories and guides to the world’s most written-about city, many readers evidently perk up at the suggestion that some hidden history remains to be uncovered.

“Secret” Paris can mean many things.  It is what tourists or visitors don’t see or have time to find, observed Parisian writer Julian Green. It can also mean what locals don’t talk about because it seems so natural and ordinary.  And it can refer to that elusive notion dear to French writers who love Paris: the “soul” of the city.

But most books with “secret” in their title proceed by cataloguing unusual particulars to be found throughout the city, going topographically from quarter to quarter. The secrets are often quirky details about famous people or events and odd tidbits about a place, such as the spot where you can still see the foundation stones once supporting the guillotine in the prison Grande Roquette … or the Palais Royal cutlery shop where Charlotte Corday bought the knife that she used to kill Marat.  This is the stuff of what the French call petite histoire, offbeat tales that are not found in the Michelin guide or in the big-picture histories recounting events and projects shaping the city. Books working this vein are not just in English for tourists wanting to go beyond the Cityrama tour.  Many of them are in French—intended for visitors (provincials and foreigners) as well as Parisians.  They bear titles such as Paris Secret, Secrets de Paris, Paris inconnu, Paris secrets et mystères, Paris secret et insolite.  Andrew Hussey’s Paris: The Secret History (2006), in both the English original and the French translation, stands out as the exception: it gives a full historical narrative, though most of it hardly deserves to be called “secret.”

Sunday morning market in the once-revolutionary quartier of the Bastille, now a trendy and increasingly gentrified neighborhood.

Another book published last March is Keith Reader’s The Place de la Bastille: The Story of a Quartier.  This kind of study brings home an essential truth about the city: its quarters or neighborhoods have their own particular social character and history. Anyone interested in the special features of one neighborhood or another can readily find an abundance of such micro-history– studies of a Parisian street, arrondissement, or just about any other part of the whole.  To be sure, certain quarters stand out and merit closer attention, having played larger roles in making of city and its reputation:  Montmartre for artistic life, the Grands Boulevards for theater and fashionable life in the 19th century, the Champs-Élysées for elite commerce and trendy nightlife in the twentieth century, the 16th arrondissement for art nouveau architecture. But off-the-tourist-path quarters, too, offer notable points of interests: in the upper parts of Belleville, for example, we find not only the scenic hillside park Buttes-Chaumont and the Parc de Belleville, but also historic memory sites that range from the last bloody battlegrounds of the Paris Commune (May 1871) to the birthplaces and memorials of Édith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier. Belleville is the very source of the stereotypical Parisian worker, the slangy Parigot, long starring in Parisian popular culture (songs and movies).  Whether Belleville or elsewhere, a local history may be of particular interest when it’s about the neighborhood where you are staying. (That’s how I have used local guides in recent years, when renting apartments in the 11th, 12th, and 20th arrondissements.)

My own book, Paris Dreams, Paris Memories: The City and Its Mystique, is an example of a third approach– a historical study that tells about the city as a whole, period-by-period, from the nineteenth century to the present.  Histories of Paris generally give close attention to major events (wars, revolutions), dramatic alterations of the cityscape (Haussmann’s urbanist operations under Napoleon III, for example), and times of cultural brilliance.  Colin Jones’s narrative Paris, A Biography (2004) does a good job of delivering that kind of history in a broad-brush narrative covering more than two thousand years.  My own account, focused on the modern era, takes on a specific but large question: why has Paris long enjoyed star status in the world’s eyes? What are the historical sources of its prestige and its mystique? My answer comes in the form of select themes–facets of Paris–and the story of their role in making the contemporary city.

The commemorative ceremony last May 28, in the cemetery Père Lachaise,at the Mur des Fédérés where the last Communards were shot and killed 140 years ago. This year, the 140th anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871, occasioned more remembrances than usual and a bigger crowd at the historic wall.

I’ve tried to explain what is usually taken for granted– long-conventional views of Paris as the incomparable great city, beautiful and enchanting, home to the best in everything– from art and fashion to cooking and philosophizing.  Paris’s magic and mystique, in my accounting, stem from multiple sources, which my chapters trace through their history.

The most obvious source is the work of the state and elites over centuries, creating the picture-postcard locales featured in Woody Allen’s opening segment (the Champs-Élysées, Place de la Concorde, etc.). That version of Paris is what the famous catchword “City of Light” / Ville lumière spotlights—the shining center of modernity and cultural excellence, the locus of dreams and memories of urban elegance and pleasure, fashion, and sophistication. Images of that Paris have become lodged in collective memory around the world by travelers’ accounts, guidebooks, paintings, and movies—Hollywood’s in particular.

But the French capital as the Ville lumière is just one of a handful of identities of Paris that have flourished in the last century and a half.  One big secret about Paris, I concluded years ago, is how the several different Parises have emerged and contributed to the appeal and mystique of the modern city.  Alongside the shining city of cultural modernity / Ville lumière there’s the historic Old Paris, studded with architectural gems and “monuments”— from the medieval era (or even further back, Roman times) to recent centuries, “old” being redefined periodically. And in counterpoint to the Paris of elegance and refinement, there’s the city of earthy “pleasures” and rollicking “high times,” symbolized by nightly scenes at the Moulin Rouge and Maxim’s.  There’s also the city of fascinating mystery, crime, and lowlife (slumming tours, apache dances, the catacombs, Grand Guignol, etc.). And there’s the Paris of village-like neighborhoods, the quartiers in which ordinary Parisians live apart from the cosmopolitan big city. You can see something of that small-town community life regularly in local street markets, neighborhood flea markets (brocantes, vide-greniers), the Bastille Day dance at the nearby fire station, exhibits and concerts in the arrondissement town-hall, association activities and festivities, etc. (liveliest in the historically plebeian eastern and northern arrondissements—11th, 18th, 19th, 20th). Finally, on the periphery of the central city, the brick-and-concrete Paris of large housing projects crops up, continuing into the long-neglected, stigmatized, problematic suburbs.  Greater Paris sprawls out and out through more than 350 towns, the old bourgs and villes nouvelles of the banlieue, most of which remains out-of-sight and out-of-mind to the world that can’t take its eyes off “beau Paris.”

These are, in my view, the main versions of the modern city.  Each one of them merits being highlighted and understood—as facets of the Paris that that we can visit today. A single generalizing narrative or a single thematic focus doesn’t do them justice. Nor does a description of them in guides and travel articles.  In historical perspective, we can recognize them as living forms of centuries-old visions of the city—as long historical continuities that get lost in short-period accounts of dramatic events or famous people.

So, yes, much of Paris remains hidden to the tourist who has only a few days to “see” the city.  And much of the city remains “secret” to the routine-bound Parisian who doesn’t explore the quartiers far from home and workplace.  Besides scattered little-known sites, the historical sources of modern Paris remain hidden as well– or at least not commonly known.  To understand those, we need to learn about luminaries and the powerful creators of the Ville lumière, but we also need to go beyond all that and look into the other versions of the city—other Parises that countless unheard-of Parisians have helped bring into being and now keep alive.

Woody Allen’s movie doesn’t try to do that, of course; rather it entertains us with an amusing new fantasy, set in familiar locations loaded with old dreams– dreams of enchanting nights in a magical City of Light, with epoch-making writers and artists, charming bistros and sidewalk cafés, chic boulevards and winding cobblestone streets.  The Paris of the film is a historically ready-made set for Allen’s tale– the story of an American screenwriter who dreams of writing a book inspired by the incredibly marvelous city and the ghosts of its many creative geniuses.  He even dreams of living there, leading the good life not possible elsewhere… and ends up walking in the rain along the Seine (when it’s neither cold nor drenching), happening upon a beguiling new friend, and falling in love.  In the end, the film warns us against nostalgic fantasizing– against thinking that some earlier time was better than the present.  But it leaves us with another dreamy notion: that a ultra-glamorous city called Paris (famous but to most people barely-known) is a better place to live and work.  I myself confess to falling for that one, but I still want to know more about the other Parises.

About the Author:

Charles Rearick is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of Beyond the Enlightenment: Historians and Folklore in Nineteenth-Century France (1974), Pleasures of the Belle Epoque: Entertainment and Festivity in Turn-of-the-Century France (1985), and The French in Love and War: Popular Culture in France in the Era of the World Wars (1997). His most recent work is Paris Dreams, Paris Memories: The City and Its Mystique