Andrew Hussey -Paris: The Secret History

After a leisurely lunch with a friend that consisted of the most exquisite, crunchy, cherry tomatoes, avocado and greens dressed with an olive oil so tasty that it required a mere few grinds of sel de mer, baguette des près and a salty Roquefort to become an ideal light meal. I washed down with a glass of  Bordeaux and made my way towards the University of London in Paris for a conversation with Andrew Hussey, author of PARIS: THE SECRET HISTORY.


After a leisurely lunch with a friend that consisted of the most exquisite, crunchy, cherry tomatoes, avocado and greens dressed with an olive oil so tasty that it required a mere few grinds of sel de mer, baguette des près and a salty Roquefort to become an ideal light meal. I washed down with a glass of  Bordeaux and made my way towards the University of London in Paris for a conversation with Andrew Hussey, author of PARIS: THE SECRET HISTORY.

The rue du Bac towards the Seine; a left at rue de Grenelle, an exchange of smiles with a stunning blonde real estate agent and a right at rue Constantin from where the Union Jack blowing in the wind at #9 tells me that I have arrived.

A burly Liverpudlian Irishman greets me in his office and immediately suggests a coffee at a nearby café where rugby balls bedeck the walls.

TG: When did you first come to Paris?
AH:I came to Paris in 1981 when I was sixteen. The reason I came was my interest in The Doors. I read that Jim (Morrison) was a big francophile and was buried in Père Lachaise and I got a copy of Celine’s VOYAGE AU BOUT DE LA NUIT (JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT). Of course I couldn’t read in French so I got an English copy translated into New Yorkese by Ralph Manheim.

At that time (1981) Liverpool was torn by race riots so I got on a bus with 50 quid and made my pilgrimage to Paris and Père Lachaise. Of course I wound up in all the wrong neighborhoods–Pigalle, Barbès. I didn’t know where central Paris was but I fell in love with the backs streets and underground feeling. I was into African music and I was meeting Africans and Arabs in the bars and I was fascinated by the multicultural aspect of it. So I felt absolutely and irrevocably in love. So nowhere has ever made me feel so excited, thrilled, inspired as Paris-it’s a cliché but it’s true.

TG: When did you know that you had to live in Paris?
AH: When I went to Liverpool after that first visit-I always wanted to get back. My route back was studying French and steeping myself in the literature of Paris. I read everything I could get my hands on-Hemingway, Joyce. I studied French as well because I wanted to penetrate underground Paris. I started off with Zola, moved on to Louis Chevalier, Celine, François Villon. I’m an academic, a PH.D in French studies. I spent time at the University of Lyon, University of Dijon doing the conventional academic route but it was all driven by a visceral love for the city rather than some intellectual, abstract, dry notion of the place. And that’s still pretty much my relationship to Paris.

TG: When did the idea for this book begin to take shape in your mind?
AH: In a way it’s a book that I’ve wanted to write for ten or fifteen years. It’s a labor of love. What accelerated the process was that a couple of years ago Peter Ayckroyd, a writer I like a lot, published LONDON: A BIOGRAPHY and I thought that there are three cities in the world that count: New York, London and Paris and that Paris too needed a biography in the same sense. And even though there are good books on Paris I wanted something that looked at the dynamic of Parisian history. What has made Parisians who they are.

TG: On the cover of the American version of the book we see three images: a Marville image of an empty Paris street, opium smokers reclining on their beds and elegant prostitutes. Were you responsible for selecting them and why?
AH: Yes. I think that what I’ve tried to do in this book and these images demonstrate is to tell the story of Paris from the point of view of what I call the underground city–sex, drugs, revolution and the very streets themselves –the Marville photo of the empty street asks the question, Who lives on this street? In all of the histories of Paris one question was never asked: what makes Parisians Parisians? It’s partly culture and it’s partly taste. It’s the accents. There are a series of identities that seem to be in collision with each other. My notion is that partly why people are attracted to Paris is not simply because of the monumental, museum aspect of the city but because the city gives them something, a sense of transgression or transcendence or drugs, sex or inspiration that other cities don’t provide in the same way.

TG: Encapsulate a sense of your comprehensive book by discussing a few of the characters that you believe were most responsible for changing or defining Paris?
AH:  There are very famous figures like François I but I’ve focused on more obscure figures as well. I think that in Paris in the early Rennaissance period, the early Modern period the people who ran the city decided that this must be the greatest city in the world, a city in competition with ancient Rome. There was a great pride or hubris that was driving Parisian politics with a sense of history or destiny. My theory that in the Paris of today that is still what informs the thinking of ordinary people. They feel that they are at the center of the universe.

The people who populate the book are marginal and low-life figures and part of the reason for that is that I’ve been fascinated by how Parisian history has been driven by people at the edges. The greatest example is the revolution and the sans-culotttes. But it’s still there , the tension between the ordinary people and the people who try to control them, There’s a dynamic in the book between the organized and the organizers. You can see that in the streets of Paris. People admire the Haussmann boulevards but what people forget is that Haussmann’s designs upon the city were meant to control the mob-la racaille–the scum who were trying to wreck the city. The boulevards run from west to east so that the troops and guns could be moved across the city from rich neighborhoods to poor in times of the insurrection and mutiny.It is interesting that in 2006 this very old word racaille is used to describe the kids in the banlieu of the so-called Parisian intifada.

One of my heroes is François Villlon. obviously a great poet but a poet of the disposed. In Villon you’ve got this great Parisian sense of lots of things. You’ve got wit, gouaille a subversive sense of irony. You’ve got a taste for drink, whores, political subversion and you’ve got poetry that all comes together I this one bloke in the early renaissance period.

Spinning forward to the 20th century one of my heroes is Guy Debord, the founder of The Situationist International which is a revolutionary group made up of avant-garde artists and thinkers who thought they could launch the next French revolution by wandering drunkenly across the city reciting poetry and plays what they called Paris without spectacle. Debord killed himself in 1994 which was the final subversive act of Situationist agitation. And all of these people are characterized by extremity and their intransigence and I think that’s a
very important part of the Parisian spirit.

TG: Do you see anyone on the current political landscape in light of the upcoming election (2007) that suggests that spirit?
AH: The person who fascinates me although I’m not on his side is Sarkozy. And I found it interesting that Sarkozy’s favorite author is Celine.

TG: Not the anti-semitic tracts.
AH: This is the interesting thing. Sarkozy’s not going to be anti-semitic but I think Paris has always been an anti-semitic city and I think it’s on the rise at the moment. This is sort of a side issue from the Sarkozy thing. I’ve been thinking of doing a piece about this for a while. Last summer a group of black supremacists tibuca who went down to the rue des Rosiers and kidnapped and killed that Jewish guy. I’m not Jewish but I’ve always been very pro-Jewish in lots of ways. I feel almost like an American here and I’ve never felt so much antagonism towards Americans and Jews in this city. As much as I love Paris it’s a city that’s deeply flawed and it’s full of antagonisms and contradictions and anti-semitism is part of that.

Spinning back to Sarkozy one of the things that interests me about him is that there’s a whiff of sulphur about him. There’s something in the way he presents himself, the way he speaks and in a way one of the things about Paris in the past that has always interested me is that it has always been a fulcrum for violent tensions and I think that’s the case now. I think there’s a gathering storm in Paris and it’s interesting to be here at that time.

TG: In a conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévy he said this is a new anti-Semitsm not rooted in the classic, historical European anti-Semitism but rather in hostility towards Israel as an outlet and cover for those anti-Semitic feelings.
AH: I think that’s absolutely right and it’s interesting that the language of the recent riots has been entirely couched in the language of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s been called the “Parisian intifada.”

I was in Montparnasse recently and I was buying something from a Tunisian Arab and we were chatting away about football and I was using a few words of Arabic and he looks at me and says: ”You’re American.” And I say no. And he looks at me and says: “But you’re Jewish.” How did he make the connection? I’m not Jewish-physically an outsider, knows a few words of Arabic, speaks fluent French. I’ve got to be a Jew. It’s a mindset based on ignorance-ignorance of Jews for one thing.

In the 1930s you had this thing-the Jewish problem, the Jewish problem. I talk about this in the book- most Parisians had never met a Jew so they didn’t know what the Jewish problem was. They believed that they were all rich bankers living on the Riviera. That same kind of conspiracy mindset is at work in Paris today.

TG: I want to ask you two final questions. First of all how has Paris changed your life?
AH: It’s hard to imagine my life without Paris. Paris has been a channel that has taken me into literature and philosophy. It’s given me access to the Arab world which is a place I’m very interested in. It’s shaped me politically because that culture of contestation, the culture of revolt that is something that doesn’t belong in English politics in the same way. One of my big ideas and what interests me about Parisian culture is the slide between intellectual and real violence. This is the city where as Victor Hugo tells us: ”Ideas become bombs.” In the very literal sense because this is the city where the word terrorist was coined in a positive sense. I still haven’t worked out the precise relationship between the intellectual violence that writers and philosophers feel as their birthright as Parisians and the real violence that it gives birth to. In some ways I’m echoing the thoughts of the Chinese politicians who said that the French revolution wasn’t really over.

So what has Paris given me; not just a love of wine, women, food, clothing, style, architecture, painting, music but it’s also given me a political philosophy and a passion for thought.

TG: And finally, and you touched on it in your last remarks but more definitively how has Paris affected your work, both as a teacher and a writer?
AH: At the moment I’m working in Paris as an academic and from a research point of view I don’t want to be anywhere else. I have around me friends, books, archives and museums–all the things I need to be the intellectual I’m trying to be. As a teacher I teach Paris; a course called History and Politics of Paris and I’m absolutely passionate about it because I can’t think of a better experience for an English, American, non-French kids to come to Paris immerse themselves in this culture and come away transformed. I try to demonstrate that this just the beginning of a relationship with a culture that lasts a lifetime.


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