Paris: The Secret History

Paris: The Secret History

4.2 10
by Andrew Hussey

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If Adam Gopniks Paris to the Moon described daily life in contemporary Paris, this book describes daily life in Paris throughout its history: a history of the city from the point of view of the Parisians themselves. Paris captures everyones imaginations: Its a backdrop for Prousts fictional pederast, Robert Doisneaus photographic kiss, and Edith Piafs serenaded


If Adam Gopniks Paris to the Moon described daily life in contemporary Paris, this book describes daily life in Paris throughout its history: a history of the city from the point of view of the Parisians themselves. Paris captures everyones imaginations: Its a backdrop for Prousts fictional pederast, Robert Doisneaus photographic kiss, and Edith Piafs serenaded soldier-lovers; a home as much to romance and love poems as to prostitution and opium dens. The many pieces of the city coexist, each one as real as the next. Whats more, the conflicted identity of the city is visible everywhere-between cobblestones, in bars, on the métro.
In this lively and lucid volume, Andrew Hussey brings to life the urchins and artists whove left their marks on the city, filling in the gaps of a history that affected the disenfranchised as much as the nobility. Paris: The Secret History ranges across centuries, movements, and cultural and political beliefs, from Napoleons overcrowded cemeteries to Balzacs nocturnal flight from his debts. For Hussey, Paris is a city whose long and conflicted history continues to thrive and change. The books is a picaresque journey through royal palaces, brothels, and sidewalk cafés, uncovering the rich, exotic, and often lurid history of the worlds most beloved city.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The 16th-century French wars of religion were less about Christian theology than about who ruled France; centuries later the French authorities, aided by , a significant number of ordinary citizens "willingly and enthusiastically" sent tens of thousands of Parisian Jews to their deaths during WWII. In his sprawling, eclectic, self-indulgent and entertaining unofficial antihistory of Paris, Hussey (The Game of War: The Life and Death of Guy Debord), head of French and comparative literature at the University of London in Paris, tells the story of Paris from the perspective of the city's marginal and subversive elements insurrectionists, criminals, immigrants and sexual outsiders. Highlights include descriptions of the Pont-Neuf during the reigns of Henri IV and Louis XIII as a cultural epicenter, a hangout for con artists and prostitutes, and a cauldron of antigovernment, antiroyal and antireligious activity. Hussey also tells of the "sacred geometry" of Notre-Dame as vivified by Victor Hugo. Also noteworthy in this overstuffed, unrestrained effort are Hussey's critique of former French president Mitterrand as "a master of double-dealing and double-talk whose only real loyalty was to himself and his position in power," and Hussey's take on the 2005 riots instigated by violent black and Arab suburban youths. B&w illus. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this impressive, fascinating, and highly readable work of cultural history, Hussey (French & comparative literature, Univ. of London, Paris) traces the history of Paris in chronological fashion through the lens of the "underclass," i.e., what the 19th century called the "dangerous classes"-insurrectionists, day laborers, criminals, gypsies, prostitutes-and the "bawdy and rough" areas they called home. He dispels certain popular myths, showing that there has never been any such thing as a "typical" Parisian and that for its first 1000 years Paris was not a great or beautiful city. These two themes shape his history. Though Hussey eschews the salons of the Enlightenment, he nonetheless draws connections between "high" and "low" Paris, demonstrating how insurrectionary hatred and bitterness developed in the lower depths. His familiar stories of the 1789 Revolution, the reconstruction activities of Haussmann, and the passions of the Commune are enriched by his argument that palpable class and geographic divisions became a powerful psychological factor driving such events. This is a timely book, for Hussey observes that Paris is still being shaped by new arrivals who are playing a role in remaking the city yet again. Recommended for academic collections and large public libraries.-Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A compelling history of the city on the Seine. Hussey (Comparative Literature/Univ. of London; The Game of War: The Life and Death of Guy Debord, 2001, not reviewed) observes that once humans arrived in Europe, the site on the Seine appears to have been continuously occupied. He discusses the Romans and their predecessors (Julian was the first to call the place "Paris," for the Parisii-of Celtic origin-who once lived there) and takes us through centuries of ensuing history in entertaining and enlightening fashion. All the familiar names are here: Clovis, Sainte Genevieve, Charlemagne, Abelard and Heloise, the Charleses and Francises and Henris and Louises (Louis XVI was, says Hussey, "a man without qualities" with a "silly Austrian wife"), Napoleon, de Gaulle. And countless artists, novelists, poets, playwrights, philosophers and prostitutes. Hussey sees the ancient conflict between ideas and desires as key to understanding the city. He guides us through important French poetry, novels, films, music-but also along the rivers of blood running in the streets in just about every century. He examines the long history of North Africans, Jews and other immigrants to the city. He wonders at the foul collaborations of many Parisians with the Nazis. Throughout, he endeavors mightily to focus on ordinary life, but he spends much time recalling the city's cultural history, as well-e.g., the building of Notre Dame, the arrival of the railway and Metro. An immensely readable, richly detailed and sometimes disturbing chronicle that explores much of the darkness in the City of Lights. Agent: Kathleen Anderson/Anderson/Grinberg Literary Management Inc.
From the Publisher

“In his outrageously readable, impressively researched, shockingly violent alternative history of Paris, Andrew Hussey illuminates the city's gutters, stews, slaughters, riots, underbellies and crimes in the shadowy corners that Balzac relished. The result is, literally and figuratively, a fascinating riot of a book.” —Simon Sebag Montefiore

“Magnificent and entertaining...At every turn, on every corner, the idle traveller through the book finds something new.” —London Observer

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Paris: The Secret History



Copyright © 2006 Andrew Hussey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-425-4


An Autopsy on an Old Whore

Paris arouses strong emotions. 'How different was my first sight of Paris from what I had expected,' wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the first explorers of the modern city. 'I had imagined a town as beautiful as it was large. I saw only dirty, stinking alleys, ugly black houses, a stench of filth and poverty. My distaste still lingers.' Years ago, I arrived in Paris for the first time, stepping down into the street from the metro station at Barbès and, like Rousseau and countless others arriving in the city for the first time, I did not see what I had expected to find. The streetscape was confusing, impossible to understand at first, a riot of alien colour and noise. Years later, Barbès remains one of my favourite places in Paris precisely because it is chaotic, occasionally sordid and always uncontrollable. It thrilled me then, and fascinates me now, because it belongs to several centuries all at once.

It took me a long time in Paris, and endless journeys around the city, to grasp the complexity of this fact. In its long and vast literary history, Paris has been variously represented as a prison, a paradise and a vision of hell. It has also been characterized as a beautiful woman, a sorceress and a demon. In this case, literature is not a refraction but an accurate reflection of daily life: Paris really is made up of radically different spaces and multiple personalities, always at odds with each other and often in noisy collision. It has been like this for nearly two thousand years.

In a shorter space of time, Paris has been reproduced in posters, postcards and prints that are sent around the world as empty metonyms for art, sex, food and culture. The Eiffel Tower, the Sacré-Coeur, Notre-Dame are all part of a global visual culture, a Disneyfied baby language that distorts and destroys real meaning. This process is greedy and all-consuming: not only monuments and churches but also the paintings of Degas and Manet, the photographs of Robert Doisneau or Willy Ronis, the films of Marcel Carné or François Truffaut have all been separated from their true context, reduced to cliché and commodity. Little wonder that in recent years it is the vibrant and unpredictable territories of Sydney, New York or London that have captured the world's imagination. And little wonder either that in the gloomiest of recent times, as its city centre has been once again violated by state and capital, one former lover of Paris, the English artist Ralph Rumney, has likened the city to 'the corpse of an old whore'.

But, alive or dead, the old whore still casts a powerful spell.

This book makes no claim to be a definitive history of Paris. The millions of words devoted to the city over the centuries suggest anyway that there is no such thing. Instead Paris: The Secret History aims to tell the story of Paris from the point of view of 'the dangerous classes', a term used by French historians to describe marginal and subversive elements in the city - insurrectionists, vagabonds, immigrants, sexual outsiders, criminals - the account of whose experiences contradict and oppose official history.

One of the inspirations behind this book is Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography and, in particular, Ackroyd's notion that history is not a fixed narrative but an unfinished dialogue. In this spirit, the narrative of Paris tries to trace the ever-changing geography of Paris, examining its history in space, in time and on the street. Neither travelogue nor guidebook, Paris is above all written to be used. It is a history book that can be taken to the bar, on to the metro, into the heart of the labyrinth itself - and there to be engaged as interpreter, guide and interlocutor.

Edmund White's slim and elegant volume The Flâneur also seeks to 'read' the city. More precisely, White's investigations borrow from the nineteenth-century Parisian practice of flânerie - aimless wanderings through Paris during which a gentleman might, in a spirit of detached irony, uncover the detailed contradictions of urban pleasure, from an encounter with an individual prostitute to an evening at a cabaret or an opium den. Unlike the flâneur, the subterranean adventurer here is not simply looking for pleasure - although I do not avoid it! - but also the associative significance of sites in the city. The explorer seeks intoxication, deliberately disorientates himself and sets out to get lost in the city in order to find his own way out. As the familiar becomes unfamiliar, the new and old meanings of buildings, roads, streets signs, squares and open spaces are revealed.

As he sketched out his own mental maps of Paris in the 1930s, the German critic Walter Benjamin insisted that it is in the shifting movement of everyday Paris that we can glimpse what it is that makes history. Benjamin's contention was that everyday experience - aimlessly strolling the streets, drinking coffee or alcohol, picking up someone of the opposite or same sex - always contains a larger, more complex meaning. Seen in this way, the life of the city is revealed as an endless series of moments, always ephemeral and sometimes baffling, that are also its real history.

Paris is above all, as Benjamin would have it, a city of secret adventures. Parisian mysteries appear on the surface of everyday life - the smile of a stranger on the metro, a bar you've never been to before, a visit to a forgotten part of the urban hinterland. The pleasures of the city can also be occluded, impenetrable and sometimes dangerous. Paris has always been a carnival of light and terror.

One of the cornerstones of the mythology of Paris is the notion that the city's architecture makes an ideal décor for a love story. The metaphors used to describe Paris in the nineteenth century - such as 'queen of the world' - emphasized the opulent and sensual nature of the city, feminizing it and making it the passive object of pleasure. The death of Diana - the final car journey from the chintzy elegance of the Place Vendôme to the mangled wreckage in the tunnel under the Pont d'Alma, where tourists still lay wreaths - could only have happened here.

But Parisians are not sentimental. They believe that the world is ruled by an ironic theory rather than by God. The stock character of the Parisian parigot is a native urban dweller whose dry black humour constantly and consistently works against government and state. Yes, love is central to both myth and reality in Paris, but so are food, drink, religion, money, war and sex. With this in mind, Paris is history told in the form of a journey - or rather several journeys - from bar, brothel and backroom, to the deprived estates on the city's outskirts and to the elegant salons and the citadels of power, everywhere interrogating, dissecting or simply being seduced by the spellbinding myths of Paris.

And Paris seduces without mercy. Diana is only the latest and most famous example of those who have been fatally seduced here. It is of course the cruellest paradox, as Diana discovered too suddenly, and then too late, that the old whore's spell is also a deadly curse.

The Invention of the Parisian

The history of Paris is not simply a tale of princesses and kings: in some ways, it is quite the opposite. Paris is, after all, the city where, after centuries of bloody conflict, the people's revolution was invented. Paris may be a world capital of politics, religion and culture, but it is also one of the defining truths of the city that its history has largely been forged in hardship by its inhabitants - the so-called petites gens (the ordinary people). This is why it is so important to be able to distinguish myth, legend and folklore from the way that real Parisians behave and see themselves.

As countless historians of Paris have already pointed out, it is no accident that the word 'Parisian' has long been synonymous with the word 'agitator'. This is a tendency that can indeed be traced in the Parisian and provincial imagination as far back as the Middle Ages, when Parisians were commonly described as trublions ('disturbers of the peace') or maillotins ('warhammers'). These terms always had a meaning that was both specific and political. The word maillotin was, for example, taken from the heavy lead mallets, or maillets, which angry rebels used in the fourteenth century to smash statues and heads (usually of money-lenders and tax officials, who were generally Jews and Lombards). Other agitators, trublions, led the disorderly and often spontaneous insurrections, or jacqueries, against government and king in the name of hunger and injustice. The most famous and successful of such jacqueries was led in 1357 by Étienne Marcel, who launched a workmen's strike and killed a prince, spattering himself with blood. Marcel's statue still presides over the Seine from the front edge of the Hôtel de Ville.

Outside Paris, the rebellious Parisians were laughed at as well as feared. In the mid-sixteenth century, Rabelais described the 'Parisian' uncharitably as a 'gros maroufle', an unscrupulous, vulgar and dishonest alley-cat. He confidently expected his description to raise a laugh of recognition throughout France as well as in Paris. Over time, the word 'Parisian' has also been used in French to describe fashionable cigarettes, numerous sexual positions (generally variants on sodomy, depending on which part of France you are in), trousers of blue material, biscuits, a useless sailor, a type of cooking, typographical plates. For provincials, à la parisienne meant a job not finished, or badly done. Provincial contempt for Parisians is caught in the children's rhyme 'Parisien, tête de chien, parigot, tête de veau' ('Parisian with a dog's head, Parisian with a calf 's head').

Within the city itself, however, Parisian identities have long been divided on a strictly hierarchical class basis. In the eighteenth century, Louis-Sébastien Mercier counted over a dozen different classes, but admitted he may have been skimming the surface. In 1841, Balzac used the word parisiénisme (a term first used in 1578) to refer to a complex series of codes and social patterns unique enough to make Paris and Parisian self-worship a target for satire: 'L'atticisme moderne, ce parisiénisme ... qui consiste à tout affleurer, à être profond sans en avoir l'air' ('The modern Atticism, this Parisianism ... which consists in making everything superficial, being profound without seeming to be so'). Parisians of a high social standing deliberately construed parisiénisme to mean fashionable, sophisticated, delightfully and charmingly light, elegant and witty. These were the sort of Parisians who deliberately cultivated the accent pointu - all words were 'hissed', with a sharp emphasis on a clipped pronunciation of short vowels at the end of a word - which for many provincials is the characteristic of the haughty and snobbish upper-class Parisian. This accent is still heard and continues to irritate contemporary non-Parisians as much as it irritated Balzac.

There was (and indeed there still is) a native Parisian accent common to the streets. This was originally a confluence of sounds from Picardy, Flanders, Normandy and Brittany. It was most probably first heard in the early 1100s as the low Latin of the rue de Fouarre - the ecclesiastical quarter of the fledgling city - disintegrated into French. It was modified in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by an influx of workers, mainly boatmen and traders, from the Berry, but otherwise has remained relatively untouched by outside influence. The common feature was (and is) a tendency to roll the 'r'. The sound er or el is often elongated or opened into the sound ar or arl. It is a tendency that can be traced back to the fifteenth century and the poet François Villon, who constantly mashes rhymes such as 'merle' ('blackbird') into 'marle'. A comic play at the time of Louis XIV has a character named Piarot (rather than 'Pierrot') after this same slurring tendency, and in the nineteenth century this sound was noted as the characteristic feature of the accent of Belleville and Ménilmontant, where a concierge was a 'conciarge'.

This was when the term parigot first became widely used to describe native working-class Parisian males. At first, it was used to deride and mock the lower orders. In literature, the parigots were laughed at, sexually exploited or dismissed as a caricature. In real life they were apparently just wicked: 'The Parigots are born bad, 'wrote a hack journalist. 'They admire crime, take part in it when they can, avoid work, and also seek an advantage for themselves whenever they can.' Only slightly less aggressive and derogatory than the word parigot was the term titi, a childish word used in the nineteenth century to describe a young worker, usually dressed in cap, scarf and smoking a pipe, with a cheeky manner. The style was so common as to be easily imitated by well-heeled and rebellious young men seeking to shock their peers: this masquerade of course carried with it the real danger of being discovered and beaten up as an insulting phoney by the real working classes.

Working-class Parisian women were, similarly, mysterious and threatening in equal measure. The working-class Parisian woman was above all not to be trusted - although she was worth cultivating for her sexual availability. By the nineteenth century, the working-class Parisienne was also termed parigote - and usually described as a harridan who did not hesitate to hurl insults or invective at any respectable bourgeois who crossed her path. These women were also, at least in the male imagination, amazingly good at sex. This image can traced back to the late Middle Ages, to François Villon, who holds a particular affection for a whorish lover, La Grosse Margot:

Puis paix se fait et me fait ung gros pet Plus enflee qu'ung vlimeux escharbot. Riant, m'assiet son poing sur mon sommet. Gogo me dit et me fiert le jambot. Tous deux yvres comme ung sabot Et au resveil quant le ventre luy bruit Monte sur moi que ne gaste son fruit. [We make the peace then in bed. She takes my fill, Gorged like a dung beetle, blows me a bad And mighty poisonous fart. I fit her bill, She says, and laughing bangs my nob quite glad. She thwacks my thigh and, after what we've had, Dead drunk we sleep like logs - and let in the fleas. Though when we stir her quim begins to tease.]

The image of the tender-hearted whore has persisted long into the twentieth century. Most notably, La Grosse Margot is evidently the ancestor of the most famous parigotes - the actress Arletty and the singers Fréhel and Édith Piaf. For obvious reasons, however, none of these women was ever entirely at ease with this caricature of their gender and social class.

Arletty, for example, lived and died in a plush apartment on the western side of the city, in every sense diametrically opposed to the areas of Belleville or Ménilmontant where her screen persona was born. Accused of collaborating with the Nazis (it was rumoured that the Parisian resistance planned to slice off her breasts as punishment) and cut off from the city culture that had inspired her, she died a melancholy, lonely figure.

Fréhel was in fact a native of Brittany who took her stage name from the Cap Fréhel of her native territory. She came to Paris as a child and worked as a street singer, making her name in the music halls of the period with a mixture of wit and melodrama. Her most famous moment came, however, when she was already past her peak. This is the role of Tania, a down-at-heel former star, in the 1937 film Pépé le Moko. She comforts Pépé, a stylish Parisian gangster (played by Jean Gabin) who is on the run in the casbah of Algiers, by singing him 'Où est-il donc?'('Where is it now?'). This is a haunting and nostalgic lament for the Old Paris of the Place Blanche, an imaginary Paris that Fréhel can never return to. She ended her career in poverty and destroyed by drink. Serge Gainsbourg, no stranger himself to alcoholic disaster, took her as an inspiration and recalled with affection buying her a drink - an exotic old lady, shaking with thirst, in a bar in rue du Faubourg du Temple in 1951.

Most iconic and damaged of all the parigotes was Édith Piaf, who was born in Belleville, the very heart of the working-class city. Her most famous songs exalted the myth that a parigote urchin from this part of the city could find love and happiness in 'le Grand Paris'. She sang brilliantly of cobbled streets, accordion players, whores, tough but vulnerable soldier-lovers, giving Paris a whole new mythology. When she became truly famous after the Second World War, she was never forgiven by those who knew her well and who said that her act was a lie at the service of those forces who kept the petites gens in their place. Friends and admirers from her early days, such as the pianist Georges van Parys, despised the post-war Piaf as a 'phoney' and described her as a traitor to her origins. Little wonder that Piaf - intelligent, shrewd, highly sexed and crushed by a celebrity that destroyed every inch of her true identity - took refuge in destructive love affairs and alcohol. Intriguingly enough, it was Piaf's 'authenticity' that ruined her. This was the very quality that she herself cherished more than any other. When it was gone, and she realized how distant she had become from her roots, she finally wrecked herself in drink. The Parisians who had once loved her accepted her squalid death with a characteristic lack of sentimentality.


Excerpted from Paris: The Secret History by ANDREW HUSSEY Copyright © 2006 by Andrew Hussey. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Andrew Hussey is a cultural historian and biographer. His previous book, a critically acclaimed biography of Guy Debord, was published in 2001. He is Lecturer in French studies at the University of Aberystwyth and divides his time between Ireland, Wales, and Paris.
Andrew Hussey is a cultural historian and biographer. His previous book, a critically acclaimed biography of Guy Debord, was published in 2001. He is Lecturer in French studies at the University of Aberystwyth and divides his time between Ireland, Wales, and Paris.

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Paris: The Secret History 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
DaveandElaine More than 1 year ago
Ever wonder just where historical events happened in Paris? Interested in Roman Lutetia, King Clovis, Sts. Genevieve & Denis, architecture, church history, Capetians, and would you be surprised that things and places in Paris from ts earliest times still exist? But most of all, are you interested in the the common, but extraordinary, people who lived in this great city these more than 2000 years? Where and how did they live? What did they do for a living, how healthy were they, where did they teach, do laundry, fetch water, worship, make love, build bridges, catch fish, where did they get all the stone for their city? Why did they rebel and die for their causes? Are you interested in more recent events like WW II, post war politics, student and ethnic uprisings, how the city fares today? You'll find the answers and so much more in this wonderfully enjoyable book. It reads like a novel full of colorful characters of every sort and from every era. Paris lives and breathes on every page. We visited the city last May-June and after reading Andrew Hussey's book we sigh more deeply than ever to go back. "Paris, The Secret History" could easily be used alongside any good guidebook for it provides layers of additional depth and passion to every place, every person and every event. Of the dozens of histories on the city of Paris that we've read, this is by far the best in every respect.
Bliokh More than 1 year ago
One can easily recommend some book because of its solid judgment and few errors. It is another matter altogether to be fascinated by the book despite its obvious failings. And this book is fascinating indeed. This is a popular history of Paris as a living being, mostly chronological, but unsystematic and anecdotal; I could not tear myself from it for several days.
Hussey's book contains many lapses of judgment. For instance, its author
does not seem to care about modern architecture preferring old slums with "character" and other sentimental stuff; another quintessential Parisian, probably Charles Nodier, once quipped: "During the times of Voltaire even educated people thought that a gazebo in a fake Greco-Roman style had style, while the Notre Dame did not." He obviously does not think much of scientists and engineers as well because the contributions of Parisians to scientific or technical progress are practically absent from the book. Not so of homosexuals whose progress is specifically outlined in every other chapter; and similarly to the Jews, who are mentioned only as nameless targets of persecution, while their cultural and economic contributions to the city are omitted. Without a slightest tint of disapproval Hussey provides a lengthy quote from XIXth Century American journalist who uses a racial slur to describe an Afro-American transplant to Paris. Slightly less troubling is his routine tutelage of young, sexually active women as "whores."
The author shares strange French adoration of L.-F. Seline though the private man was as personally repugnant as his Nazi views were inhumane; Jean Genet is rashly called the "enemy of all authority" (but obviously not the Gestapo, association with which he flaunted long before it became safe again). Marquis de Gallifet is nicknamed by Hussey a "sadistic dandy" for the dapper General's role as a butcher of Paris Commune in 1871. Forgotten is the General¿s achievement, as a French Minister of War, in creating professional and de-politicized French Army. Finally, the seat of Yaroslav the Wise, the Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus and Henry I father-in-law is called "an old Ukrainian city" about as accurately as it would be to call J. Caesar "an Italian dictator" or Cleopatra "an Arab princess."
Yet, for all its defects, "Paris" is a wonderful read.
This and other book reviews can be found on my blog
Anonymous 12 months ago
I came from the review of Goosefeather's Curse...?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lots of interesting facts about early Paris and how village evolved into modern day Paris. I wish I had read the book before going to on vacation to Paris.
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