August 24, 2022

“All Paris” — The View from Balzac’s Grave

By Stuart Mitchner

Balzac, of course, had said it all before.
—from Dividing Paris

On August 18, 1850, Honoré de Balzac died in “the very pretty little house” he’d made for himself in the portion of a mansion that had “escaped demolition.” Victor Hugo’s description of Balzac’s last residence could have come from the pages of Esther da Costa Meyer’s Dividing Paris: Urban Renewal and Social Inequality: 1852-1870 (Princeton University Press), where demolition is a fact of life.

Squalor and Splendor
The first reference to a specific work by Balzac in Dividing Paris concerns an area “vividly described” in Cousine Bette (1846), a section of the city “wiped out” so that Napoleon III’s prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann “could build the Boulevard Malesherbes.”

Curious to read the passage mentioned, I found the most likely suspect 60 pages into my copy of the 1965 Penguin edition, in which Balzac describes a “conglomeration of houses … with decayed façades, … all that remains of an old quarter, in process of demolition since the day when Napoleon decided to complete the Louvre.” It’s “a sombre and deserted block, inhabited presumably by ghosts,” the houses “wrapped in the perpetual shadow cast by the high galleries of the Louvre, blackened on this side by the north wind.” What Balzac refers to as “these so-called dwellings” are “bounded by a swamp on the rue de Richelieu side, a sea of jostling broken paving stones towards the Tuileries, small plots and sinister hovels facing the galleries, and steppes of dressed stone and half-demolished ruins by the old Louvre.” In the spirit of Rabelais, Balzac imagines that “for nearly forty years the Louvre has been crying from the open mouths of all the gashed walls, the gaping windows, ‘Strike these excrescences from my face!’”

At this point Balzac puts his stamp on the passage and the city he’s reimagining for the ages: “One must suppose that the utility of this cut-throat place has been recognized, and the need to symbolize in the heart of Paris that intimate alliance of squalor and splendour which is characteristic of the queen of capital cities. Indeed, these stark ruins, … the shocking hovels of the rue du Musée, the boarded enclosure where the street-stall vendors display their wares, may perhaps have a longer and more prosperous existence than three dynasties!” There’s no “perhaps” about the title character Lisbeth Fischer, who is still alive in literature two centuries after taking advantage of the “moderate rent” asked for rooms in “condemned houses.” And what made it possible for Bette to obtain a room with a view? The demolition of a “famous house” that once stood in the way.

Side by Side
Beautifully designed and illustrated, Divided Paris can be read side by side with Balzac, thanks to da Costa Meyer’s command of extraordinary material culled from art and literature, the archives of politics and society, and other histories of Parisian life. All you have to do is open the book, look around inside, and begin reading, and you know the commentary is going to revivify generic terms like “urban renewal” and “social inequality.”

Balzac enters Divided Paris in the second chapter (“Requiem”) along with his favorite American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, the context being Haussmann’s “civilizing mission, a task of interior colonization, driven by the racialized fantasy of a mythical Paris where the poor threatened the lives and spaces of the rich.” The metaphorical framework for this depiction of the inner city as a jungle inhabited by Indians was provided by Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, which had been translated into French in 1826. For this reader, there’s a special pleasure in the appearance of the New-Jersey-born creator of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook. On the issue of “social inequality,” Balzac is quoted comparing Paris to “a forest peopled by twenty different tribes of red Indians … who all live by hunting the prosperous classes.” A more characteristic example of what Balzac takes from Cooper is his sketch of Bette as “the Mohican whose snares are inescapable, whose thoughts are impenetrably dissembled, whose swift decisions are reached on the evidence brought by senses developed to perfect keenness.”

The View
Cooper makes a more significant contribution to Divided Paris as the travel writer who came there to live in 1826 and wrote about it in Gleanings from Europe: France (1837). Reading his description of the city viewed from the heights of Montmartre, I was reminded of the skies and landscapes Balzac admired in novels like The Prairie.

Cooper feels “fortunate in our sky, which was well veiled in clouds, and occasionally darkened by mists.” After admitting that “a bright sun may suit particular scenes and moods,” he finds that, “as a rule, clouds, and very frequently, a partial obscurity, greatly aid a landscape,” which is “yet more true of a bird’s-eye view of a grey old mass of walls, which give up their confused and dusky objects all the better for the absence of glare. I love to study a place teeming with historical recollections, under this light; leaving the sites of memorable scenes to issue, one by one, out of the grey mass of gloom, as time gives up its facts from the obscurity of ages.”

“In Cooper’s beautiful text,” da Costa Meyer comments, “a benevolent and compliant nature collaborates with history in a world that providence has rendered meaningful.” She sees Cooper’s account “in contrast to the stubborn opacity of Paris under the glum, secular gaze” of the photographer Nadar, whose “despairing cry underscores the role of fantasy in the construction of memory and suggests that the object of desire was in part the city itself, the great seductress.”

The combination of the bird’s-eye view and Paris as the great seductress brought back thoughts of Balzac, his death, Hugo’s oration at Père La Chaise cemetery and one of the greatest moments in The Human Comedy, the conclusion of Père Goriot.

All Paris
In his oration at Balzac’s funeral, August 21, 1850, Hugo said: “Unknown to himself, whether he wished it or not, whether he consented or not, the author of this immense and strange work is one of the strong race of Revolutionist writers. Balzac goes straight to the goal. Body to body he seizes modern society; from all he wrests something, from these an illusion, from those a hope; from one a catch-word, from another a mask. He ransacked vice, he dissected passion. He searched out and sounded man, soul, heart, entrails, brain, — the abyss that each one has within himself.”

While Hugo was speaking from the grave site at Père La Chaise, “the sun set and all Paris appeared in the distance in the splendid haze of the setting orb.” Cooper’s “beautiful text” on the view from Montmartre avoids phrasing like “splendid haze” and “setting orb,” but “All Paris” means everything coming from Hugo, especially knowing that at that moment he’s standing where Balzac’s Eugene Rastignac stood after the burial of Father Goriot. Gazing out from the highest part of the cemetery, Rastignac saw Paris “spread out below on both banks of the winding Seine. Lights were beginning to twinkle here and there. His gaze fixed almost avidly upon the space that lay between the column of the Place Vendome and the dome of the Invalides; there lay the splendid world that he wished to gain. He eyed the humming hive with a look that foretold its despoliation, as if he already felt on his lips the sweetness of its honey, and said with superb defiance, “It’s war between us now!”

Translations and Regrets
The passages quoted from Cousine Bette and Pere Goriot were translated by Marion Ayton Crawford. The regrets are for not being able to do justice to the riches of Divided Paris, which I began reading less than a week ago. One of the special pleasures of the book is da Costa Meyer’s refreshingly diverse range of quotations, which remind me of Walter Benjamin’s great compendium, The Arcades Project, a volume I keep close at hand, as I will Divided Paris, which contains a passage from Franz Kafka I’ve saved for the end. It’s from the chapter titled “Requiem,” where the lost cities within the city are both mourned and manifested.

Kafka’s Paris
We walk through the broad streets of the newly built town. But our steps and our glances are uncertain. Inside we tremble just as before in the ancient streets of our misery. Our heart knows nothing of the slum clearance which has been achieved. The unhealthy old Jewish town within us is far more real than the new hygienic town around us. With our eyes open we walk through a dream: ourselves only a ghost of a vanished age.”