The Other Paris by Luc Sante

Summary as presented on the book

Paris, the City of Light, the city of fine dining and seductive couture and intellectual hauteur, was until fairly recently always accompanied by its shadow: the city of the poor, the outcast, the criminal, the eccentric, the wilfully nonconforming. In The Other Paris, Luc Sante gives us a panoramic view of that second metropolis, which has nearly vanished but whose traces are in the bricks and stones of the contemporary city, in the culture of France itself, and, by extension, throughout the world.

 

Summary if I had written it

A trip through the Paris of the poor, the workers and the outcast in the 19th and early 20th century, showing the city behind the postcard and the people who made it what it was and what it is now.

 

Review

As for « Low Life » the structure of the book is thematic rather than chronologic. There are 12 chapters with titles that sometimes can seem a bit obscure to the non-initiated (e.g. « Mort aux Vaches » or « la zone »).

Contrary to Low Life though, the Paris described by Sante even if it has almost completely disappeared is still very much remembered and cherished by some Parisians (some of the places described were still very much there in the 30s when my late grand-father was a child). And some of the events described have left unforgettable marks on the cityscape (when you burn down a Royal Palace it does leave a scar…). The lowest of the low in this « other Paris » are the rag-pickers (chiffoniers or Biffins in the Parisian slang). And they still exist in Paris, in a slightly changed form, but latest estimates put their number at 3000 (see this article http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2013/06/11/achetez-malin-achetez-biffins-derriere-le-slogan-la-volonte-de-pouvoir-vendre-en-toute-legalite_3428039_3224.html ).

The Other Paris is a place of deep poverty and misery but it is also strangely enough a place of joy and hope. Paris is a very politicised city, especially in the 19th century and this gives its workers (because it is a very industrialised city) a deep sense of the unfairness of their condition and a deep desire to change the order of things. Cafés and balls are an important aspect of the city life, for all classes and they give the feeling of a city where no matter how hard life is, there is always a way to have a bit of fun on a Saturday night.

Paris also seem easier to live in for women. In Low Life, I got the feeling that the only option available to the poor women of New York was prostitution. In Paris, while prostitution was undeniably there (it was one of the main tourist attractions of the city), it seems like a last resort for women and not as the only choice. There are a lot of little jobs for women in Paris. They may not be enough to pay the rent, hence the occasional prostitution, but the feeling I got from reading the book was that Paris was a place of equal misery and almost equal opportunities. Putting it bluntly: if I had had a choice between being a poor immigrant girl in New York or a poor working girl in Paris, I would have chosen Paris. Less chances of being killed before the age of 30.

I really enjoyed the book, probably because it refers to places and event that mean something to me and to a part of my family. I think anyone living in or loving Paris would probably enjoy the book too.

The working poor of Paris have been studied before, mainly because of the Commune, but I found Sante’s take on the subject to be original, thorough and very human.

Reading both The Other Paris and Low Life also allows to compare how two of the biggest metropolis of the 19th and 20th century treated their poor (I think a book on London would be rather nice too, to complete the picture) without having the story coloured by a predefined political narrative.

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