Paris Vagabond by Jean-Paul Clébert (tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith). NYRB Classics. $18.95, 336pp.
In the September 1956 issue of the Belgian surrealist journal Les Lèvres Nues, the French Marxist Guy Debord turned the act of wandering into criticism. His “Theory of the Dérive” defined the forms and contours of the dérive (literally “drift” or “drifting”), “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances” and one of the basic practices of the avant-garde Letterist International collective. Debord elaborates:
In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.
Their purpose was to find liberation from the prescribed, from the mundane, from capitalism. The Letterists saw their world (in most cases, Paris) as a series of borders and zones to cross, penetrate, and peruse; the body was to become as water, flowing freely and filling up all open space. With its elements of chance, impulse, and instinct, the act of the dérive was akin to play, and Debord thought real action was essential to the dérive’s fun: “Written descriptions can be no more than passwords to this great game.”
Yet, Debord’s theory—though it musters Chombart de Lauwe and Pierre Vendryes and, naturally, Marx—likely found its initial form not in an action or happening or event but in a text. Paris Vagabond by Jean-Paul Clébert arrived to minor acclaim four years before the publication of Debord’s treatise. Clébert’s vivid, incantatory descriptions of Paris’s streets and back alleys, its abandoned attics and houses of ill-repute, its losers, liars, poor, criminals, and outcasts, caught the attention of the budding Letterists, who incorporated the author’s aleatory aesthetic into their project. As Luc Sante reports in his introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, whole passages from Debord’s theory “[sound] like nothing so much as descriptions of Clébert’s book.” And while Debord and the writings of the Letterists and, later, Situationists have found a long life in the world of critical theory, English-language readers have had to wait until now to read Clébert’s magnificent ode to the underbelly of Paris, rendered beautifully from the French by translator Donald Nicholson-Smith.
Clébert wasn’t born on the streets, but he was eager to adopt them. Raised in a middle-class family and educated at a Jesuit boarding school, the seventeen-year-old Jean-Paul fled the academy to join the French Resistance in 1943. After a brief tour of Asia following the war, he returned to France to live among the homeless on the streets of the capital. Paris Vagabond is the author’s record of his experience, composed from a collection of notes he took along the way. Clébert assembled the book at random, pulling each note out of a sack before setting it down on the page. The resulting style foregoes straight narrative in favor of a series of descriptions—of senses, spaces, and people—nestled alongside the occasional anecdote or bit of advice. Clébert is particularly good on the body, and his descriptions of the sights, sounds, and smells of his jaunts are drawn all the sharper for lack of food and shelter. To wit—the author on a decidedly rank canal: “[One’s] sense of smell is over-stimulated by a succession of odors, as follows (read slowly): cheese, very violent, then, by turns, gas welding, fresh periwinkles, and new rust.” Here, a lecture on cleanliness, to put it mildly:
Washing one’s balls is something else again. Despite the very relative modesty of your clochard, when it comes to displaying such portions of his person it is challenging and dangerous for him to expose his hindquarters or manly accoutrements to the gaze of curious passers-by bent double over a parapet above. And worse even than the risk of shocking such gawkers is the need to avoid attracting the attention of cops on the prowl quite liable to haul you in on a double charge of affronting public decency and exhibitionism. Sheer prudo-religiosity!
Past the humor, there’s a sheer pragmatism to the passage that speaks to the constant tension of problem and solution in the life of a vagabond. The body has its needs—for food, for shelter, for pleasure—and Paris Vagabond never shies away from explaining how to satisfy those needs without the comfort and privacy of a home.
We meet many people across Clébert’s wanderings, and his characters (for that’s what they become) parade past the reader, page by page, each pausing only for a brief second before plunging back into the seedy tableau. While out measuring rooms for an architect, our hero is “struck by the odor of soil and dead leaves” and encounters a mushroom farm inside of an apartment. “I would have had to clamber in damp darkness,” he writes, “over little mounds of earth on which white spots were breaking out.” On the Buttes-Chaumont he discovers an artist’s workshop filled with uncaged birds, “an immense glassed-in space that stunned you with cries and colors.” A page later, on assignment in the Saint-Pierre neighborhood, we’re in an apartment-turned-serpentarium, with snakes nestled in every nook: “They were everywhere, slithering under tables and around the feet of chairs. . . . I left with my tail between my legs, ignoring the gentleman’s polite and soothing explanations.” Friends and acquaintances are equally mad. There’s Jérôme, the grave robber, “the world’s expert on the topography and benefits of Paris’s cemeteries,” who engages in the business of “headhunting.” Inside a crypt, a motivated headhunter need only avoid the caretaker, hold his breath, “grasp hold of a head by thrusting a finger and thumb into the eye sockets, twist sharply so as to snap the uppermost vertebra, and toss each skull into [a] sack.” The heads, for their part, become curios to sell to discerning bidders. And Monsieur Claude, aka Mr. Numb, “who sticks needles, pins or nails into a part of his anatomy chosen by any enthusiast who pays a round.” Only for those paying a premium does Mr. Numb reserve his best: “[He] will adorn the knob of his penis with a tight sheaf of tiny needles, a spectacle prone to make young tourists blanch and choke.” The case of Marceau and his two wives is particularly emblematic of the carefree vagabond cast. After Marceau goes missing during a multi-day bender, the police discover a corpse, which wife number one (the one and only, at the time) identifies as her husband’s. The woman grieves over free drinks from anyone who will pay their respects, until one morning when Marceau returns from the dead with wife number two in hand, “this to the outrage of the other one, who bombarded him with curses.” The polygamist remains officially deceased: “[The police] struck Marceau off the roster of the living and registered his death as accidental. End of story.”
Clébert’s prose has a meandering, breathless quality that seemingly extends the narrator’s nerve endings to every corner of the immediate world. Sentences roam at length, wide-eyed and open-ended, diving down alleys and across canals to take in everything that the author comes across. Lists abound, as Clébert looks to take in as much sensory data as possible. An early passage attempts to grapple with the poetics of Parisian spaces:
Parisian itineraries. Leisurely strolls quite obviously (and fortunately) unknown to the tourist trade, for there is nothing to see on these routes except for poetry in the rough, which paying travelers would never appreciate: the poetry of masonry, cobbles, boundary stones, carriage entrances, dormer windows, tiled roofs, patches of grass, odd trees, dead ends, byways, blind alleys, inner courtyards, storage sheds for coal or building materials, wreckers’ yards; the poetry of workshops, still vacant lots, bowling alleys, bistros-cum-refreshment stands; the poetry of colors but also of smells, a different smell for every doorway.
Clébert’s is a style of radical openness, and his sentences reproduce the possibilities of wandering, of getting lost. Wonders litter the landscape, and the key to locating this “poetry of the rough” is to drop out from bourgeois society and embrace the working class, the outcast, and the vagabond fringes. Paris Vagabond functions in part as an archive of these wonders, preserved before time and the changing city rob them of “a measure of their brutal poetry.”
As in the original, Patrice Molinard’s photography accompanies Clébert’s text. Across the 115 plates we encounter the breadth of vagabond’s capital: vaulted rooftops, canal bridges, public gardens, empty lots and teeming bistros, alleyways with walls climbing up and out of frame; we glimpse images of children clinging tightly to one another, merchants and their wares, workers and their work, junkers and their junk, prostitutes, nuns, and every manner of man in between. Molinard’s photographs feel raw and often give the voyeuristic impression of seeing something we shouldn’t. One such image, arriving at the end of Clébert’s chronicle, captures perfectly Paris Vagabond’s tension between beauty and madness.
A group huddles together in the background, all focusing down on a point obscured to the viewer. Perhaps they’re following a game? Or listening intently to a story? One of their rank gazes directly at the camera, his eyes wide and wild. Before them a man lies infant-like on the pavement—sleeping or unconscious or worse—with the top of his head pressed against the wheel of a car. Litter covers the ground around his inert body, or what at first appears to be litter, because the longer you look at the photo, the more the debris begins to look like petals, white petals dotting the pavement into the foreground where they rest atop a puddle; and reflected in the puddle: the sky.
Hal Hlavinka is the events coordinator at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Music & Literature, and Golden Handcuffs Review, among other places.
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