The Invention of Paris is nowhere near as much fun as Graham Robb’s Parisians, but in fairness, Eric Hazan probably had something else in mind from the start. Robb is frankly, joyously anecdotal, while Hazan’s aim is perhaps more holistic; he wants to look at the city as an entirety, possibly even as a single character. I’ve done more reading about this city than about any other, so maybe this is true of London or New York or Berlin as well, but it seems strikingly the case with Paris: the history varies dramatically depending on your outlook. And to an extent that I hadn’t encountered before (except in Albert Boime’s Art and the French Commune), Hazan comes from the left. So his history is largely the tale of an oppressed working class. I have no difficulty with this per se — nobody is doubting that conditions in the Faubourg St. Antoine were dreadful in 1789. It’s the nostalgia I find a little harder to swallow.
And, frankly, the book isn’t all it could be. Hazan’s premise, clever enough, looks at the circular geography of Paris and tells its history as a perpetual expansion beyond the city walls. He refers to the “psychogeography of the boundary” which, though academic-speak, makes sense. Then the chapters follow the quarters of old Paris, the villages and faubourgs of new Paris. But in places they are little more than a rather dull guide-book, and feel quite second-hand.
Then the structure falls apart completely, with a section on Red Paris and another one that cobbles together a chapter on flâneurs and a chapter on photography of Paris. The last is particularly interesting, but they both feel like papers written for some other purpose and stripped of their footnotes for a lay audience.
Still, there are wonderful nuggets. My favorite concerned one of the reasons for the uniform look of the city. I knew (from footnotes to a Zola novel) that Haussmann decreed that new buildings in the elegant quarters should be constructed of cut stone. What Hazan told me is that long before that, the 13th-century King Philip IV ordered “every new house built in Paris to be covered with plaster,” in large part because of its fire-retardant qualities. In the succeeding paragraphs Hazan goes into some detail about lot sizes, disposition of courtyards, and construction techniques in the various quartiers of Paris, all fascinating material that would have been difficult to dig up. It was just the hand-wringing about all the vanished neighborhoods, the laments for the social mix of the old cafes, that I found annoying.