BOOK REVIEW / Plus ca change . . .: 'Tales of the New Babylon: Paris 1869-1875' - Rupert Christiansen: Sinclair-Stevenson, 20 pounds: 'Paris Interzone' - James Campbell: Secker, 15.99 pounds

Click to follow
RUPERT CHRISTIANSEN's new book, like Caesar's Gaul, is divided into three parts. Unlike Caesar's Gallic Wars, it is great fun to read. Part One describes the last days of the Second Empire, the political anxieties underlying the decadent surface; Part Two takes us through the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war, and into the revolutionary period of the Commune; and Part Three describes the aftermath, nodding towards the emergence of new cultural forms. Christiansen cleverly prefaces his account with extracts from an 1869 guide to Paris for the English and American traveller, thus reminding the reader that if we're foreigners visiting La Grande Babylone, we come with a baggage of prejudice. Then, as now, the cautious British tourist feared 'the possibility of digestive contretemps'; another worry related to 'the effects of a too-eager readiness to yield to the siren calls' of the city's 'temptations and intoxications'. Luckily for us, Christiansen has no such anxieties, and takes us on a whirlwind tour of all levels of Parisian society, weaving historical facts together with gossip and anecdote with all the dash of the journalist spotting a good story.

He starts us off at the top, with a visit to the imperial chateau at Compiegne, where the gloomy, ailing Emperor Louis Napoleon and his tough, pious Empress Eugenie received the ambitious aristos and arrivistes of the day and subjected them to theatrical rituals of dining and hunting that combined ostentatious opulence with nerve- shattering boredom. Intrigues of all sorts went on behind the vulgarly glittering facade. Flaubert, one particularly grouchy guest, took it all down as good copy, to be sent on to his pal Zola.

The decadence and rot of Parisian society at this time were symbolised, Christiansen suggests, by mass murder turned into gawping spectacle, by displays of female genitals on stage disguised as ballet, by wretched theatre catering to bourgeois boredom, by mediocre art. Christiansen quotes mainly male views of cultural life, such as those of the cynical and misogynistic Goncourt brothers, and ignores what women writers and artists were getting up to at the time. The women in these chapters figure as sexual victims, paraded for sale in the corps de ballet, or as sexual predators, walking the streets as prostitutes.

Male sexual anxiety seems to have been high, rather like today's. Whereas we blame single mothers for the moral decay all around, French bourgeois, similarly needing to feel that female sexuality uncontrolled by men led to anarchy, blamed prostitutes: 'It became impossible to distinguish between a lady respectably on her own and a girl for hire. One does not know nowadays if it's honest women who are dressed like whores or whores who are dressed like honest women,' complained Maxime du Camp. In 1870, about 1,000 girls in Paris operated through brothels, and about another 2,500 were registered as independent. But how many solicited outside the system, part-time whores or casuals? Maxime du Camp guessed at more than 100,000, a figure which implied statistically that any woman you saw walking on the streets was likely to be a streetwalker, that a bonne bourgeoise, veiled, hatted and gloved, carrying a bag of shopping or hailing a cab, might strip down to 'as ruthless a whore as the most brazen and bosomy of flower-girls'.

Christiansen's language does betray where his sympathies lie. Ruefully, and perhaps tongue-in- cheek, he laments the good ole whores of the good ole days, but doesn't seem to notice that what he presents as facts are masculine fantasies represented in art: 'A generation earlier, in the days of Balzac and Louis Philippe . . . there had been a few lovely courtesans, Marie Duplessis for example, sentimentalised into lavender romance by Dumas fils in La Dame aux camelias; there had been the good-time grisettes, pretty, hard-working proletarians, who wanted boyfriends and a good time, such as Mimi and Musette in Murger's Scenes de la vie de Boheme; and there had been the dear old whores, who could be found in standard places and had for standard fees.'

The new generation of courtesans are not tarts with hearts of gold: 'For posterity they made potent symbols of the rapacity and tawdriness that lay at the bottom of the values of Second Empire Paris: Zola's Nana, whose fortunes plummet as drastically as they rise; Manet's Olympia, her skin a cadaverous, diseased yellow, her hand slammed possessively over her most precious commodity, her stiffly defensive and empty glare, indifferent to the bouquet just left by one of her admirers.' Well, that's one way of looking at it. 'Freedom' was the cry of the women in the Commune, and Christiansen makes you see why.

His book really takes off with its fascinating account of the Franco-Prussian War and the siege of Paris, providing a diary-cum-history, day by day, of Parisian suffering. The voices of the citizens come alive through verbatim quotations of their letters and diaries. The entries on food tell of the eating of rats, cats, dogs and even elephants. Some rich people were able to go on giving posh dinners, albeit of horse soup and blackbird pie, and some poor people starved to death. Illness was epidemic as human and animal excrement piled up in the streets.

Of course people felt very strongly about what was going on, but Christiansen's opera expertise seems to make him view expressions of powerful emotion with suspicion: male politicians who weep are just acting histrionically, while brave or mourning women 'rant', 'screech' and 'rave'.

No wonder he views the short-lived revolutionary Commune with such ambivalence, since it allowed 'unattractive women' to expound feminist and bloodthirsty views with 'fanatic earnestness'. Angry women are popularly supposed, in order to ridicule them, to be ugly harridans, and Christiansen depicts the working-class women who infiltrated the clubs rouges as 'a largely unrefined and uneducated lot, coarse-tongued and toothless . . .

they smoked cigarettes, coughed, drank absinthe and cohabited.' Plus ca change . . .

James Campbell's Paris Interzone picks up the story 60 years on, framing its narrative with the arrival in Paris of the American writer Richard Wright (later he would meet James Baldwin off the train) at the rue de Fleurus apartment of Gertrude Stein, and his death 14 years later. In this story Paris has recovered from its over-moral post-Commune rehabilitation and opens its doors to all sorts of rebels, refugees, adventurers, cheerful pornographers and revolutionaries. The city is a welcoming and tolerant hostess, less racist than now, more open to different cultures. It seems a paradise, perhaps necessarily so after the horrors of the war just past, a temporary one at least, as the French tried to forget the nightmare of the Occupation and think well of themselves again. Photos of smiling intellectuals hob-nobbing in cafes and bookshops decorate the text: Sartre and De Beauvoir chainsmoke next to Boris Vian and the Beats.

Perhaps now someone will write the story of Paris in the 1990s, still coming to terms with current racism, still charting the legacy of wartime collaboration, trying to cope with unemployment and with a generation of young people whose gifts are not sufficiently valued, but for whom the word revolution probably just reeks of 1960s nostalgia.

(Photograph omitted)