A Four-Dimensional Portrait — The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps by Eric Hazan

The Invention of Paris

The Invention of Paris:
A History in Footsteps

BY Eric Hazan
(Verso Books, 2011)


From the Publisher:

The Invention of Paris is a tour through the streets and history of the French capital under the guidance of radical Parisian author and publisher Eric Hazan.

Hazan reveals a city whose squares echo with the riots, rebellions and revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Combining the raconteur’s ear for a story with a historian’s command of the facts, he introduces an incomparable cast of characters: the literati, the philosophers and the artists — Balzac, Baudelaire, Blanqui, Flaubert, Hugo, Maney, and Proust, of course; but also Doisneau, Nerval and Rousseau.

It is a Paris dyed a deep red in its convictions. It is haunted and vitalized by the history of the barricades, which Hazan retells in rich detail. The Invention of Paris opens a window on the forgotten byways of the capital’s vibrant and bloody past, revealing the city in striking new colors.”

Eric Hazan has written a marvelous book. The Invention of Paris is a dense meditation on a city that rewards the act of walking its streets. It is not a guide book, though any resident or visitor will learn a great deal by reading it. It is a four-dimensional portrait, interweaving the three dimensions visible to the walker’s senses with the fourth dimension of time. Hazan offers a vision of Paris that penetrates through centuries, as though he can see directly through the sidewalk to the foundations that archeologists uncover beneath construction sites or feel the walls of long-destroyed houses and the mud of former cart-ruts. To these he adds the fifth dimension of French literature, as he cites Balzac and Hugo, who describe settings for the creation of a fiction that preserves a “real” place no longer with us. This walk across a five-dimensional chess board is consistently framed by political analysis that is passionate and engaged. Hazan is a spokesman for the French intellectual tradition that aligns with no parties and no “isms” while seeing the comédie humaine as a continuous struggle for revolution.

The Invention of Paris is a dense meditation on a city that rewards the act of walking… It is a four-dimensional portrait, interweaving the three dimensions visible to the walker’s senses with the fourth dimension of time.

His agenda is presented in the organization of the book. First, “Walkways” takes us for a walk through each section of the modern city, though his narrative is more often focused on what was once there than what is there today. After having shown us each arrondissement, “Red Paris” takes us on a tour of the insurrections that took place in 1830, 1848 and 1871. In the end, “Crossing the swarming scene…” returns to the writers, photographers and painters of the nineteenth century — quotations from Nerval, Baudelaire and Balzac, the photos of Marville and Atget along with the paintings of Manet, Degas and Monet — whose response to the city they knew both preserves and creates our response to what we see today.

In some ways it is really two books: the tour and the commentary. The “Walkways” describes our common set, the theatre in which any of us experience the city, whether we are visitors or residents. The book was completed in 2000 (the original French edition appeared in 2002) and one of the most remarkable truths about his review of Paris’ urban reality is how little of the twentieth century city he chooses to describe. Hazan defines the reality of each district, its boundaries and nature, primarily from nineteenth century sources, describing how the eighteenth century metropolis was transformed from the estates and monastic quarters of the ancien régime into the bourgeois and workers’ districts that engaged repeatedly in acts of civil war, and then modernized (in some sense neutralized) by the “cuts” created by Haussmann’s design. As he walks us through the streets, he sees what is there today in terms of the streams, trades, theatres and markets that were there before.


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