Can cities still inspire vivid, obsessive description? Reading Paris Vagabond, first published in French in 1952, one can’t help but think of the near-extinction of a particular literary gene (or genre), at least in the West: the impulse to write about cities as teeming with life, often the worst of it. But cities themselves haven’t changed much. The big metropolises are still places of stratification—the greatest differences between rich and poor and the greatest variety of crime—and are still defined by cycles of redevelopment and decay that put them in a state of perpetual transition. Like most good books about urban space, Paris Vagabond describes a cityscape mid-phase between past and future. There is the Zone, a patch of undeveloped land, home to ragpickers, that is “gradually disappearing, like a grease spot being vigorously rubbed”; “neon is invading the shops on even the darkest streets,” and the Saint-Ouen flea market is “no longer a place for good deals where good folk … go on Sunday mornings.” The one ironic constant about cities is that they are never what they used to be.
Paris Vagabond is called a novel, though it doesn’t qualify as one. It was written by a man who called himself Jean-Paul Clébert, a name adopted in the French Resistance; in the storied French tradition of privacy, his real name has remained unknown. Clébert lived on the fringes of Paris in the years after the war, writing about what he saw and what he knew, eventually assembling his notes into a book about the down-and-out Paris that would soon cease to be. Within a few years, he’d leave Paris, too, and would live the rest of his life in Oppède-Le-Vieux, a medieval village built on a hilltop in Provence, where he remained a prolific author, writing about the folklore and culture of a place that seemed isolated from modernity, at least for a time. (He would also write a few straightforward works of fiction, one of which, The Blockhouse, was made into a movie with Peter Sellers.) But he couldn’t outrun gentrification, even in the countryside; in his later years, Clébert could count Ridley Scott among his neighbors.
Illustrated with stark photographs by Clébert’s friend, Patrice Molinard, Paris Vagabond is a deliberate crawl through the seediest and most squalid corners of post-war Paris, detailed in lengthy paragraphs where long, asyndetic sentences curve around staccato bursts of description, slipping between the immediacy of present tense and the “used to be” of the past. He writes of hotels, flophouses, one-room apartments, two-room brothels, and countless street characters and vagrants. It was authenticity that made the book a sensation in French literary circles, though, ironically, Clébert’s writing it at its least evocative when he writes in the first person, and its most effortless when he erases any trace of an I, writing of a “dog-legged alley that outsiders avoid,” a dive where the ceilings are “full of holes plugged with paper” and “you can see and smell a mud floor” under the floorboards, or a canal where the “twilight walkers are all morose, sad drunks, living a dog’s life or suffering from cancer of the face.” In his compulsive inventorying of specifics, he crafts a world of detritus and stupor, bad things done and worse things seen—but also of constant activity, motivation, and drama, where the most basic urges are forced to cohabit, sometimes hostilely.