Dossing Down in Doorways


Paris, Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Nuit Blanche : Nathan Coley, 2006. Photograph by Vincent Desjardins

From Dublin Review of Books:

Sante’s chapter on insurgents across the centuries is detailed and evocative but ties itself, however colourfully, to a history of facts and dates and salient events. By chapter 11 even the most uptight reader of this book will long have surrendered to the decadent and slovenly miasma of its portrayal of Paris. The book has by then convinced you of un certain regard. It has opened your pores to a city of dossing down in doorways and addicted you to its history of impressions and characters, its cast of underdogs offered up with immense human insight. The struggles of these dead ancestors help us recognise our own foibles. These Parisians beam back down to us a spectrum of familiar traits: being constrained by economics, taking care of one’s affairs, seeking to escape it all through music, dance and drink. The observations in these pages include those of documenters and social historians, who themselves are worthy citizens of the shifting urban pile that is Paris. The book fuels a desire to be other people in the past, to have lived other lives. You may find yourself wanting to have been one of these thieves, one of these gangsters or molls, maybe a whore or a pimp enlivened in Sante’s lamplighter luminance.

I am reminded of numerous personal escapades and investigations of Paris over four years in the mid-1990s. One such night adventure, banal enough yet vivid, followed several hours swigging the demonic Huit Six beer, the flattened navy cans of which on any street always suggest doorways populated by lost drinkers and people fallen through the cracks. With my friend Philippe M, a fellow swaggering pastmaster of the twentieth arrondissement, I had scrambled up a rough ancient wall to find some type of flat-field nuclear or electrical-type space from which mushroom-shaped vents sprouted. This was a different planet, a phase of science in the shadow of the St Blaise church on rue de Bagnolet just up from a squat that later decayed into a Starck-designed boutique hotel. What should have been a country churchyard or series of outer-rim city graves appeared to be some type of suburban reservoir. Our arms weakened on the wall and we slid back down to earth, chests cut and grazed, two cats scalded by curiosity.

Sante tells us that in 1894 there were five hundred anarchists in Paris. Earlier he bemoans the city’s shift to routine and conformity, and alludes to his hope that “the perverse human capacity for disobedience will prevail in the end, the way worms can undermine a wall”. One can savour his use of “respectable” when he writes of “people whose collections had taken over the lion’s share of their lodgings and those who earned a respectable living from mail order fraud”. He quotes Louis Aragon, writing about the Buttes Chaumont park in 1926, in which he describes Paris at night: “It’s an immense monster made of sheet metal, pierced by a thousand eyes.” This is a nugget of urban description to cherish. And he tells us that the “past is always in flux … surviving as a dynamic undercurrent … among a great many people lying low who remember things.” Sante’s heart is with those people lying low who remember things. His book is a vivid protection and fortress for a collective and popular memory of Paris.

“Down Among the Dead Men”, John Fleming, Dublin Review of Books