27 January 2015

Jean-Paul Clébert: Paris insolite (1952; repr. (with photos by Patrice Molinard) 1954)

I sometimes think the internet – and I frequently ask myself how we previously managed to live without it – has made digression not only an art form but a necessity: the trouble is, how do you avoid infinite digression? I have no answers, it's just a query. After reading a relatively recent online article on the Nouvel Observateur website about the artist-tramp Marcel Bascoulard from Bourges – whose life was traumatised by his mother shooting his father dead and whose own life ended in his murder for reasons that still appear to be far from clear – I clicked on a link related to the (to me at least) unknown Jean-Paul Clébert, in which I read an obituary of the writer.

Above is a photograph of Clébert (1926–2011) from the cover of his first book, Paris insolite (1952), which surrealists apparently called a 'roman aléatoire', or 'aleatory novel'. This edition, though, is from Attila (2009) and based on the 1954 edition, which was published by the Club du meilleur livre, which was greatly enhanced by the 115 photos by Patrice Molinard. Clébert dedicates the book to the photographer Robert Doisneau, the writer Robert Giraud, and Patrice Molinard.

Clébert – until he reached almost thirty – lived the life of a tramp, which made possible the many realistic descriptions in this work, which appears to be the result of numerous scraps of paper such as the backs of cigarette packets and on toilet paper. This no doubt explains the desultory, digressive, repetitive nature of the book, but make no mistake: this makes Orwell's incursions into the world of the tramp look positively weak and even rather silly. But Paris insolite is of its time and obviously a great deal of self-censorship was involved: although the book isn't so much liberally sprinkled with street slang (some inevitably now old-fashioned) as it is stiffened with it in virtually every sentence, the reader is spared any 'strong' language that now gaily adorns many perfectly 'normal' reads. In fact Henry Miller's claim that 'Après avoir lu votre livre, j'ai les tripes remuées' ('After reading your book, my guts turned over') seems a wild exaggeration.

Admittedly, towards the end there's a description of the disinfection of tramps' clothes in which the smell emitting from them being washed reads a little uncomfortably, although – squeamish readers may now wish to skip to the next paragraph – Clébert glides quite smoothly (and non-explicitly) over a paragraph where he says that 'sexual perversion knows no limits'. Here he's talking about the practice of some people dunking pieces of bread into the troughs of vespasiennes: the former men's toilets that have long since been replaced by the sanisettes designed for both sexes. Clébert doesn't even mention what the men did with these soaked pieces of bread a few hours later when they came to collect them, although wouldn't 'gustatory perversion' be more appropriate than 'sexual perversion'? Clébert was no doubt living at a time when these people didn't actually have a name, and although the current Petit Robert, reverso.com and Wiktionnaire don't list the term, I'd previously seen it in a recent online article on Les Inrocks website and promptly verified that this wasn't some kind of joke by checking it out on several other places online: they're called croûtenards.

But let's return to (relative) sanity. I couldn't understand what possessed Clébert – born of a comfortable family – to decide after the war, when he was in his very early twenties, to live among a number of tramps in and around Paris. Initially he says he isn't a tramp, that you have to be over forty and not own a toothbrush to be a tramp, but a little later much more of his truth comes out: freedom is choosing where to live, not throwing your life away working forty-eight hours a week to keep yourself and your family happy. No, that's not living.

And so he chose to live in squalid conditions, very occasionally earning a little money as a métreur-appartments measuring flats and occasionally getting a bite to eat from the tenants but no sexual treats as he had to work with a partner; selling newspapers; and perhaps making a little win on the lottery. He sleeps outside, in squats, flop houses, flea pits, friends' slummy rooms, anywhere he can. He eats unsellable or waste food products from Les Halles and other markets; from dustbins; he scrounges from friends who have a little money; and drinks a great deal, mainly cheap wine in grungy cafés where he can talk to his mates. But he never allows them to think for a second that he's writing a book, as they'd see him as an intellectual, and he doesn't see himself as such; worse still, he's not an existentialist, and he's absolutely categorical about that. He is of course right about concealing the fact that he writes: he'd be torn to pieces if not literally then certainly verbally, and no one would ever be candid with him again. Best just to be as he looks, one of the lads, and there aren't a great number of women in la cloche.

The earthy, honest, largely candid rather than posed photos of Patrice Molinard (taken a few years after Clébert wrote the book) don't merely decorate it but complement it, they often underline the comments that Clébert is making. And even though it was written long before the masses of tourists came, Clébert mentions with scorn the American tourists, along with for instance the bouquinistes who've put up their prices greatly to meet the new money. But essentially of course we are seeing here the flipside of a beautiful city as it was in the late forties: the miserable wooden shacks and houses in la zone, the faubourgs built on wastelands around the old fortifications of Paris; the brothels, and the street-walkers who work for less and less money as they age; the alcoholism, the drinking for the sake of drinking in the bars where the tramps were once welcome and could afford to drink.

Not, certainly, a book to view with nostalgia, but depicted here are Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité within a world excluded from the tourist, where there are many immigrants – mainly arabs but also Jews and other Europeans – who form a part of the multicultural society within a society where there is not a word mentioned of racism.

A book of rare poetic beauty, a gem.


Vagabonde said...

Non je ne connais pas Published in Paris de Ford – je vais le mettre sur ma liste. En mars dernier j’ai lu « Paris in the Fifties » de Stanley Karnow – cela m’a rappelé quand j’allais danser dans les caves du quartier latin. J’aime beaucoup Key West en Floride et suis allée déjà 2 fois dans la maison d’Hemingway, avec tous les chats dans le jardin. J’ai acheté Paris Insolite comme Livre de Poche, sans illustrations. « Insolite » est un adjectif bien aimé en France – on le trouve partout. Comment peut-on traduire ça en anglais ?

Dr Tony Shaw said...

La Floride ? Il n'y a même pas moyen d'aller en ville ici (à Manchester) aujourd'hui à cause de la neige : vols suspendus, écoles fermées, et je ne sais pas quoi. D'accord, ce n'est pas comme au nord-est des États-Unis, mais c'est quand même loin d'être idéal. Mais je m'écarte du sujet, et vous parlez de la traduction du mot << insolite >>, et ça c'est une question très intéressante, et ça me fait réfléchir. Évidemment ça dépend du contexte: Strange ? Unusual ? Dans pas mal d'expressions ça marche sans doute, cependant pour le titre du bouquin de Clébert il y a (si vous m'excusez le calembour) quelque chose qui cloche. Alors, empruntant un mot-clé du sous-titre de mon blog, je suggère << Outsider Paris >>. Qu'est-ce que vous en pensez ?

Vagabonde said...

Oui, outsider Paris – peut-être, mais ce n’est pas exactement ça. Je crois que c’est un adjectif qui n’a pas de correspondant en anglais, et qu’il faut traduire par quelque chose d’autre comme bizarre, out of the norm, mais encore pas exactement ça. C’est un adjectif qui combine tous ces mots avec en plus, odd, peculiar and eccentric. Il y a des mots et adjectifs comme ca, par exemple en Russe ils ont des tas de mots pour la neige – depending on its shape, wetness, dryness and so fort.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

La traduction est souvent agaçante : c'est pour ça que je ne lis presque jamais les romans traduits. Je dirais même que beaucoup de romans sont impossibles de traduire, et qu'on ne peut avoir plus qu'une idée générale de ce que l'auteur veut dire.