Chevalier's knowledge of Paris is erudite, but it is more than that of a scholar: it is the knowledge of a lover. The Assassination of Paris, first written in French in 1977, is a lover's lament for the murder of the city he has worshipped with a romantic passion all his life. From a lover, you do not expect a balanced account of the beloved's assets and liabilities. This is a threnody for the Paris of his youth, of his dreams and of a 'Parisian' culture that, he maintains, is no more.
He pinpoints the fatal onset of terminal disease to the late Fifties, a time when he himself was working in the Hotel de Ville for a couple of years before returning to the academic world, latterly at the College de France. To announce the death of Paris in the middle Fifties, I have to say, is a little premature. I first came to know the city well and to love it in my own way during that very period, and if to Chevalier's expert eye murderous tendencies were already apparent, the symptoms were certainly a long time in making themselves manifest to me.
Paris did not die as early as Chevalier says it did - indeed it is not yet dead. Reports of its assassination, as Mark Twain might have said, are exaggerated. Moreover, it can be argued that Paris has resisted the universal pressures that have afflicted all those ancient cities which swelled to megapolitan size in the 19th century. London, Rome, Milan, Vienna, Brussels, Boston, Philadelphia and New York have all suffered as much as Paris from the impact of automobiles, suburbs, crowding, high rise building, immigration both domestic and international, real estate speculation, and the dispersal and relative impoverishment of the old bourgeoisie.
Chevalier does not always avoid, either, the irritating whine of the old- timer for whom everything has gone downhill since he first discovered a city that was old centuries before his own arrival there. Worse, he can be parochial. He bangs on at excessive length about the sins of a group of people he calls 'technocrats'. Much of what he has to say is little more than a settling of accounts between rival tribes of highly educated Frenchmen. In particular, Chevalier lowers himself to much tiresome, parish pump resentment on the part of a normalien, arts graduate of the Ecole Normale Superieure, put out by the rise to power of polytechniciens and narques from the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration.
Still, Paris is threatened. No one could now write the hit song of the Fifties, Paris, tu n'as pas change beaucoup. Indeed, the whole of the 'Paris' the world knows and loves is now no more than an 'inner city', home to fewer than two million out of more than ten million people who throng the region parisienne. In Paris, almost to the same extent as in London and New York, the inner city is the preserve of the very rich and the poor, dominated by big business and tourism. Once, what distinguished Paris, like New York, from London, was the fact that a prosperous, cultivated bourgeoisie lived 'over the shop', so that they were on hand to stroll on the boulevards, drop into cafes, go to theatres, cinemas, galleries and exhibitions, and shop in luxury boutiques: to live, in a word, the urban as opposed to the suburban life.
Chevalier is right that that way of life is under threat, and perhaps under sentence of death. Three projects, in particular, enrage him: the Montparnasse tower, threatening what was once the world's best-loved artists' quarter; the cluster of skyscrapers at La Defense, blocking the sky at the end of the axis of the Champs- Elysees; and - worst of all to the author's mind - the destruction of the meat, fruit and vegetable markets at Les Halles and their replacement by Richard Rogers' Pompidou Centre in the Place Beaubourg. Chevalier was a personal friend of Georges Pompidou, and he puzzles, without finding an answer, over how a man with such a rich knowledge of French literature could have desecrated the Paris of Villon and Rabelais, Balzac, Zola, and Baudelaire. He works himself up into a fine fret of indignation about the passing of the great iron sheds in the market, and even more about the disappearance of the muscular porters, the cheeky prostitutes, the restaurant owners and market traders from the Auvergne, who once jammed the streets around them.
The times change, and Paris, like the world's other great cities, changes with them. With a President of the Republic in Francois Mitterand who wants to leave great monuments behind him, and a mayor in Jacques Chirac who has used power in a dynamic way, Paris has changed more than London, where the only monuments of the Thatcher era are the bankrupt real estate speculations of Broadgate and Canary Wharf. One thing has not changed, and that is the conviction of literary men that Paris is on the brink of extinction. 'They want to demolish St Germain l'Auxerrois to align a street; one day they will destroy Notre Dame to enlarge the close; some day they will raze Paris to broaden the Plaine des Sablons.' That was Victor Hugo in 1831. Let us hope that Louis Chevalier's elegiac lament and prophetic warning is equally premature.Reuse content