Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey

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The Independent Culture

Since the moment of its foundation, the City of Light has been alive with darkness. Andrew Hussey's masterly new history of Paris makes a virtue of iniquity, showing the capital from the perspective of the "dangerous classes" - a traditional term for the immigrants, activists, beggars, revolutionaries and criminals whose actions and accounts run beneath all official and dogmatic versions of the city's history. On every page, fragments of sinister trivia and captivating alternative histories bob up with the regularity of the corpses that have thronged the Seine since the time of the Parisii.

Paris is a prodigiously researched narrative, studded with gems of testimony from a host of recondite sources. Among them are the 15th-century bourgeois ("one of the most notorious killjoys in French literary history") whose diary complained that Joan of Arc was "a nuisance and a bad influence on the young", and the 16th-century lowlife from Gentilly who charged tourists a packet to meet the very Devil himself - in actuality a vermilion-dyed goat surrounded by capering accomplices. Higher but not much mightier was King Charles VI, who became convinced that he was made of glass "and had iron rods inserted into his clothes so he would not shatter on contact with other human beings".

Hussey is in perpetually genial command of a fascinating hoard of ephemera. Under his amused eye, the reader learns the preferred insults among tavern-brawlers of the 18th century ("'slut', 'bugger', 'nark', and 'dog' were commonplace," noted one assiduous observer) and what the claret in Baudelaire's favourite café was like ("it smelt strongly of the earth"). Glimpses of Situationist blueprints - a pedestrianised metro, on/off switches for the streetlamps - vie for prominence with the information that on the day of Victor Hugo's state funeral, the whores did it for free all day.

This is a Paris of voices and songs, and Hussey draws spicy epigraphs for each section from the work of the city's poets and balladeers. They range from the lays of the criminal bard Villon to the piercing abstractions of Apollinaire, but along the way there arise less emblematic refrains. A plague of coughing that struck Paris in the 15th century, it is said, was divine retribution for a song sung by working-class children: "What a cough you've caught in the con, old girl. What a cough, what a cough, in the con." (An outraged Almighty apparently visited Paris with a con of a cough in exchange.) Then there is the cheerful party song of the 1830s Bonsingo movement: "Let us smoke, smoke!" they sang. "Like cigarettes, all things are brief in a useless life!"

For each fragment of trivia there is chapter after chapter of meticulous scholarship. Hussey's easy style makes light work of the labyrinthine political intrigues that dog Paris to the present day: the early chapters shine in rendering the remote processes of Roman and medieval governance as entertaining contemporary prose, while later passages on the Nazi occupation and the city's persecution of Jews and Algerians are handled with commendably dry sensitivity.

The achievement is not one of simple collation. Paris's great litterateurs have traditionally been wanderers and observers, be they the licensed satirists of the medieval period, Balzac the midnight rambler or the theoric flâneurs Benjamin and Perec, and Hussey triumphantly aligns himself with this tradition. As a result, his book, like Peter Ackroyd's London, brims with rubbernecker's trouvailles. Breaking off from an erudite passage on the Templars, for example, he moves seamlessly to a description of the present-day Bar-Tabac des Templiers, where members of the Milice du Christ rub shoulders with Dan Brown dilettantes to debate the mysteries of the Order.

Frequently this street-level view throws up shocking juxtapositions and vivid historical ironies. Hussey describes how a few years ago he watched two pimps slash a rival in the face in broad daylight on a street known since the 16th century as a coupe-gorge, and he quietly reminds us that the nightmarish shopping centre at Les Halles is built deep into the site of Saints-Innocents, an ancient cemetery whose soil was renowned for "eating up a corpse" within days.

The most endearing thing about this passionately entertaining book is its stated goal of sending the reader back to the streets. It's a noble aim, in a history that is almost as good as a holiday all by itself. But perhaps the last word belongs to the 18th-century chronicler Louis-Sébastien Mercier, whose comment Hussey chooses as the epigraph for this book. "I have run so far to make this portrait of Paris," Mercier wrote, "that I can honestly say that I made it with my legs. I have also learned to walk on the stones of the capital in a nimble fashion, quick and lively. That is the secret that one must acquire in order to see everything."