Reviewed by Alex Andriesse
Legend has it that Jean-Paul Clébert composed Paris Insolite (translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith as Paris Vagabond) from “a hopeless conglomeration of used envelopes, newsprint edges, unfolded Gauloises packets, and multicolored and multifarious scraps of paper” (3). He hoarded this conglomeration in a paper bag and, most impressively, held onto it through a decade or so of wandering without fixed abode. When, around 1951, he began to write this book, as Luc Sante (the author, most recently, of The Other Paris) relates in his excellent foreword, Clébert drew out these scraps of paper “one by one at random, the shape of his text thus determined by a venerable Dada chance operation” (x). The book was meant to be as impromptu and unpredictable as the life its author had been leading.
Paris Vagabond is a pleasure to tag along with, from sentence to sentence, section to section, arrondissement to arrondissement. Its catalogs of wonders—“the opium dens around the Gare de Lyon where the Chinese hold fish fights”; “a barge named Gérard de Nerval”; a “café frequented exclusively by the deaf and dumb”—are as exotic to my eyes as the catalogs of Herodotus or Italo Calvino (4, 302). But Clébert never deliberately exoticizes his subjects, never reduces them to triteness or type. He loathes the picturesque (“which too often exploits the poor”) and keeps far from rote praise of “the poetry of the quays…and the virtues of the national art museums” (5, 15). The Paris he loves is a city populated by eccentrics, scavengers, vagrants, prostitutes, peddlers, petty criminals, petits rentiers, ruined widows, and workers on the verge of the abyss.
In this, as Sante puts it, Paris Vagabond “follows in the lineage of great narratives by champion walkers” such as Privat d’Anglemont and Léon-Paul Fargue (ix). Clébert is somewhat set apart from these two writers, however, in that he himself wasn’t only an eccentric, epic walker, but also a frequent vagrant and a sometime petty criminal. He was born into a bourgeois family and grew up in a wealthy Paris suburb, but at the age of seventeen (in 1943) escaped from his boarding school and joined the Resistance. In the decade following the Liberation, he drifted from job to job and place to place, though always returning to Paris, where he got to know the city’s obscurer corners as well as the people who inhabited them, and who inhabit this book.
To give some idea of the human diversity a reader will encounter in Paris Vagabond, here is an incomplete list of Parisians whom Clébert meets while briefly employed as a “measurer of living spaces” (a job that required him and a partner to enter apartments and measure every bit of space down to the last centimeter): a tenant who has converted two of his three rooms into a mushroom farm; a young man “with a strange expression” living in a glassed-in artist’s workshop “filled with birds flying free and not the slightest sign of a cage”; a very minor ledger clerk whose rat-trap garret is slithering with snakes; a prodigious collector of antique erotica; and an efficiency-obsessed astrologer who has wired his doorbell so that it also flushes the toilet (32).
And this is just the beginning. In the street, Clébert will introduce us to a still more diverse cast of characters, including Marceau the bigamist; Joséphine the hermaphrodite; Edmund du Plessis de Richelieu, a drunkard and “direct and authentic descendant of the cardinal”; Flea-Beard the ragpicker; and Martini, who launders the clothes of the homeless, a task for which a “cast-iron constitution” and a great deal of “Dutch courage” are required (229, 277). Among the recurring characters in the book—friends and associates of Clébert’s—are a tall, leather-clad American nicknamed The Shepherd and a Luftmensch named Luc, who is
working, among other things, on a history of exoticism in France, on two or three biographies of figures completely unknown and of strictly relative interest, and on an anthology of the proletarian literature of countries at the back of beyond. (172)
Perhaps the strangest of these recurring characters is Monsieur Maurice, also known as Jérôme:
[a] former City of Paris game warden, classic small-time crook, bar-tab scofflaw, fresh-faced con man, wily chiseler, ever-innocent two-timer, and my sometime companion in cell 253 at the Hôtel des Baumettes prison (25)
I suppose this catalog makes Jérôme seem strange enough; but this is all moonlight and roses compared with his ghoulish “headhunting” scheme, wherein he, together with an associate, bribe a guard at Père-Lachaise Cemetery into letting them enter one of the older crypts. Once inside, having waded “through a mire of crusted slime until they could feel the corpses,” they each “grasp hold of a head by thrusting a finger and thumb into the eye sockets, twist sharply so as to snap the uppermost vertebra, and toss each skull into their sack” (189).
I’ll spare you the rest. But Clébert won’t.
Paris Vagabond should be required reading for all Francophiles of the Eiffel Tower, Paris to the Moon variety. Clébert is far from cynical about the city, but he is always honest. He makes no effort to coddle the squeamish. “City canals are a great rubbish dump,” he writes:
Here more than anywhere else the poverty is glaring and the nights endless and frigid. Lone nocturnal or twilight walkers are all morose, sad drunks, living a dog’s life or suffering from cancer of the face. Instead of necking, couples jerk each other off brutally, wild-eyed, as though striving for one last climax, never speaking of the future […] (105)
Clébert doesn’t shy away from misery. Nor does he mistake his deliberately chosen existence as a tramp for the unchosen, unchoosable state of poverty. “[I]n the vast bordello of the capital,” he writes, “there are those who die of hunger who have never been consulted, who could not care less about the joys of freedom and tramping” (132). For the truth is that whenever Clébert wants to get a square meal (or get laid, as he boorishly brags about doing more than once), he can clean himself up, shave, and make a temporary go of it in straight society. As a young man from a middle-class background, he is able to climb up—not too far up, but further up than most of his companions—and down the social ladder, pretty much as he pleases.
The Paris that matters most to Clébert, however, is one known only to the poor and the outcast. It is a city whose meanings are mysterious, unfixed, and constantly shifting. At night, it’s a labyrinth or a warren. It’s a series of arteries (boulevards) and veins (alleys and streets). It’s a living body through which Clébert moves “in fits and starts, like a blood clot” (128). It’s a place teeming with sexual, though not always very erotic, possibilities. Above all, it’s a place that, according to him, can only be appreciated by initiates who know how to drift and how to look—by “a very few poets and very many vagabonds” (50).
Like the flâneur-scribblers in whose footsteps he follows, Clébert lets us peer at the city through his eyes. He shows us “the backstreets and dead ends that give off Rue Saint-Denis like herring bones” and “an ossified corridor [the Rue du Prévot] where the cracks work their merry work, destroying the last inscription: ‘Light and Lantern Repair,’ surrounded by graffiti in Yiddish” (288, 59). He describes The Zone (the now-vanished ring of open fields around the city proper), with its paths “muddy and full of dandelions” and its lots “dotted with unproductive Brussels sprouts” as well as he does the rectilinear Place des Vosges: “an anachronism of a square: a historic precinct where civilization has not yet penetrated, where the weather is fair even in the depths of winter” (83, 64). Always, Clébert is on the move, ogling the world with imagination, storing up phrases in memory and jotting them down later in breathless, cascading sentences, whimsical and improvisatory, like a good long ramble.
From the passages quoted, you will already have guessed that translating Clébert could be no easy task. Add to the complexity of his syntax his frequent use of 1950s Parisian slang, his fondness for the abstruse word, and his pitch-perfect ear, and you can appreciate something of the difficulty faced by Nicholson-Smith, whose longtime affection for the book—which, in his translator’s note, he says he first “fell in love with” half a century ago—animates every paragraph (xv).
In brief, Nicholson-Smith has done a seamless job of reassembling Paris Insolite in English. Since beginning this review, I’ve picked out a dozen different sentences to parse and praise. But it’s probably better if I simply point out the ingeniousness of Nicholson-Smith’s title, Paris Vagabond, which manages to make sense in both French and English, while also avoiding the translations of insolite (“unusual,” “strange,” “offbeat,” “underground”) that would have made the book sound like a guide for jaded tourists.
It’s remarkable, if not unusual, that Clébert’s book went untranslated for as long as it did. In France, Paris Insolite was an immediate sensation, popular enough that in 1954 a deluxe hardback edition was issued, for which the publisher requested illustrations. Clébert commissioned Patrice Molinard, “a street photographer he met at the fleamarket,” according to Sante, who provided 115 photographs of Parisian people, buildings, bridges, and graffiti, which are included, every other page or so, in this fine first English edition put out by New York Review Books (xi).
Paris Vagabond is a lively chronicle of neighborhoods, folkways, and colorful characters. It is youthful and frequently funny. But it’s also a record of some of the means by which Parisians survived the lean years after the Occupation, when many more people than usual were forced to scrape a living from “begging, bartering, stealing, doing odd jobs, collecting paper…or metal or rags, [or] selling each other trash at the flea markets” (Sante, 263). Much of Clébert’s considerable charm as a writer comes from his ability to describe this world (a world fast disappearing, even as he wrote) in prose that manages to be at once unflinching and supremely affectionate. It’s hard to think of another book about Paris that is so entertaining, so brutal, or so genuine.
Clébert, Jean-Paul. Paris Vagabond. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Photographs by Patrice Molinard. Foreword by Luc Sante. New York: New York Review Books, 2016.
Sante, Luc. The Other Paris. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.