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Editor’s choice: Luc Sante’s ‘the other paris’

The Other Paris by Luc Sante, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 306 pages, $28. It befits the writer whose book about New York was accurately called, “Low Life”: Luc Sante has chosen to write about the Parisian neighborhoods that are not all about “money and power, and in that way common to old-money neighborhoods in many cities, it has probably preserved more of those small businesses, cafes and such things than have the more vulnerable neighborhoods elsewhere, because the rich have the power to save the things they love.”

He hopes to write about the Paris where “the market place of the street brought all types to the fore, and they did not necessarily speak correctly or measure their tones or clean themselves up; they might not have wished you well.” But the Paris of the poor now “assures them of well-lit, dust-free environs with up-to-date fixtures, but it relieves them of the ability to improvise, to carve out their own spaces, to conduct slap-up business in the public arena if that is what they wish to do. They are corralled and regulated in ways no nineteenth-century social engineer could have imagined.” The fundamentalist horrors of Paris a few weeks ago introduced us to new Parisian vulnerabilities. Sante’s Paris is Victor Hugo’s Paris and that of writers few of us read. It is geographical and anecdotal and specific and full of illustrations. “Show People” get their chapter (Nerval had written about a girl who lifted a 60-pound weight with her hair and a “fireproof Spaniard” who took baths in boiling oil.) So do “Insurgents” (“In a sense, the revolution that began in Paris in 1789 never really ended.”)

Sante, born in Belgium, is one of the great living masters of this kind of book. His closing lines: “There will never be a time when the wish for security does not lead to unconditional surrender. The history of Paris teaches us that beauty is a byproduct of danger, that liberty is at best a consequence of neglect, that wisdom is entwined with decay. Any Paris of the future that is neither a frozen artifact nor an inhabited holding company will perforce involve fear, dirt, sloth, ruin and accident. It will entail the continual experience of uncertainty because the only certainty is death.” – Jeff Simon