“This is not supposed to be a Baedeker or some tourist guide”: Clébert offers a hellish itinerary of the less fortunate quarters of Paris.
First published in 1952, Clébert’s Paris insolite has been classified as a novel, though it is as journalistic as George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London; if it has novelistic kinship, it might be to Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal. One of its larger themes is the gentrification of Paris, an ongoing process since the days of Baron Haussmann that quickened after World War II: he writes of the “brutal disappearance of the Saint-Séverin district, with its pick-up-sticks players and its hordes of derelicts,” while admitting that the city is dotted with “inhuman holes” that might stand a little policing up. Writing of the “lower depths…of a Paris to which the public is forbidden entry,” Clébert—or his alter ego, at any rate—has two constant preoccupations. He is hungry, ravenously hungry, all the time, and he observes bitterly, “You always come back to the same old question: how are you going to eat?” There are soup kitchens and charity wards, of course, but the Clébert-ian vagabond has his dignity. Then there is sex: if one is hungry and poor, who will partner with him? The answers are several and sometimes tiresome in their macho boastfulness: “All you fine chicks, young and fresh, who found pleasure with this city vagabond, I thank you!” The photographs, by Molinard, are in the stark documentary style of a Weegee or Robert Frank; some are quite ordinary, but others stand out, such as an anti–Déjeuner sur l’herbe in which three poor people gather around a makeshift hearth for warmth and companionship.
Altogether, they add to the impression that this is less a novel than a book of reportage. But no matter how it’s classified, it’s a sobering, eyes-wide-open view of the Paris no guidebook would care to portray.