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of some people dunking pieces of bread into the troughs of vespasiennes: the former men's toilets that have long since been replaced by the sanisettes designed for both sexes.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.