An Unreconstructed Haussmann

Volume 2, Issue 1

It is hard to imagine, come a certain age, having to finish a novel one does not like, as was the case with our present reviewer. Skeptics might keep in mind the paucity of novels about haussmannization. Short of assigning one of Zola’s Rougon-Macquarts, the field is rather barren. It was therefore intriguing to discover that a contemporary novelist has engaged with the period imaginatively, transposing the relationship between Haussmann and Paris into a “romance.” An adolescent girl, Madeleine, (whom we might treat as Paris herself) raised on the crowded and insalubrious Ile de la Cité, dreams of a “lost nobility.” In her yearning for upward mobility and self-improvement, she gives herself to (or alternatively, is “rescued by”) a Parisian entrepreneur, a demolition man who makes a fortune from urban renewal. Through his ambitions and hers, she becomes Haussmann’s mistress, and they form a precarious ménage-à-trois. That the romance turns sour is yet another reminder of the allegorical nature of this work. The playfulness includes pastiches of the nineteenth-century French novel with its obsession with the corrupt and hypocritical mores of the Second Empire. Paul La Farge did not write his novel with French historians in mind but, once one accepts the leap into fiction and reliance on metaphor, one can appreciate the cleverness of its conceit and, if one is so inclined, ask students what they make of this treatment of the rebuilding of Paris — that watershed moment, as David Jordan reminds us, not only in French but in world history.

An Unreconstructed Haussmann

David P. Jordan
University of Illinois at Chicago

In any historical fiction the fragile membrane separating invention from what is supported by documents is and must be frequently pierced.  The issues are how much and how well.  Speeches and conversations are invented as are characters by all who tackle the genre.  Encounters are imagined (Hilary Mantel is the master) and motives probed (Barry Unsworth’s Odysseus is brilliantly rendered).  The ultimate test is historical verisimilitude: are the characters plausible, the conversations believable, the events possible.  Is there the magic (or alchemy) that leads the reader to forget there even is a membrane between the recorded past and its fictional presentation?  Paul La Farge, Haussmann or the Distinction, fails most of these tests.  When we ask what resemblance his Haussmann bears to the actual Prefect of the Seine, what he tells us about Paris, and how believable are his invented characters the answer is repeatedly ”very little.”

Part of the problem is that La Farge’s novel is so encumbered with literary conceits that whatever historical verisimilitude his book might have is lost amid his eclectic literary cleverness.[1]  The existence of the novel itself rests on a conceit: La Farge is only the translator of an obscure book by the utterly obscure Paul Poissel, a fiction that harkens back at least as far as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.  The fictive Poissel eventually appears in his own novel, on p.  325.  La Farge’s work is redolent of such echoes.  He uses names as did Dickens: the Marquise de Viandhachée, the Chevalier Gastofouard.  He follows Balzac’s fascination with old men assuring their lust by having one (de Fonce) keep a resident beauty (Madeleine). The central episode of the novel, the love affair between Haussmann and Madeleine, already both the ward and mistress of his friend de Fonce, is presented as a kind of fairy tale, with the Prefect an unlikely prince charming.  In addition the writing calls attention to itself by incessant mannerisms.  La Farge, for example, is given to utterances almost sibylline in their obscurity but intended to be profound: “History abandoned Madeleine, but time, against which history is nothing, continued to do its work.” (p. 102) The author is more concerned with displaying his literary agility than with telling us much about Haussmann and the transformation of Paris.  All these habits are literary and matters of taste.  Some, this reviewer among them, find such pyrotechnics distracting: others may not.  The more important point is how useful is La Farge’s novel as an imaginative presentation of Haussmann and Paris.

Choosing Georges-Eugène Haussmann as the hero of a novel whose core is his affair with Madeleine is itself a piece of bravado.  Everything we know of Haussmann makes him the most unlikely prince charming, although the assertion cannot be tested. Virtually all of his letters were destroyed in World War I (including any love letters there may have been). It is, however, an interesting angle, for there is little enough in the historical record that makes Haussmann an attractive or sensitive man, even if he is an admirable and important one.  His favorite topic of conversation was himself.  His capacity for work was extraordinary.  He was obsessed with transforming Paris and, while corruption swilled around him, he left office with nothing but what he had saved from his salary and the few modest pieces of real estate he had acquired quite legitimately.  He was a man who found “poetry” in a budget and mistook his passion for urban hygiene, modernization, and control, along with his distaste for the medieval world, as evidence of his taste and aesthetic sophistication.  His name became a neologism – haussmanization – that meant urban renewal by demolition, and he gutted substantial parts of medieval Paris, most notoriously the Ile de la Cité.  The kings before him had tried to restrict the growth of their often ungovernable city.  Haussmann incorporated dozens of Paris’s surrounding communes into the new city which extended police control and cleared the way for modern, expanding Paris. His greatest triumphs were underground, in the sewers and water supply.  Here his rectilinear passion and reforming zeal were unchecked by historic Paris and the great buildings that thwarted his rationalism. These days we prefer those pockets of old Paris he left intact to his boulevards. This was not the case in the nineteenth century.  Haussmann’s Paris was the wonder of the world and the influence of the transformed city was felt everywhere, from Chicago to Buenos Aires.

Very little of this is in La Farge’s book, except in passing.  The only Haussmann project he lingers over is the failed attempt to put the cemeteries far outside the city, with a rail line to carry the corpses to their rest.  A few Haussmann locations, particularly the Parc Monceau, play a role in the novel.  The disappearance of the Bièvre River becomes a complex metaphor for the old Paris and the sense of loss that lingers over the novel.  Once a stinking stream perpetually polluted by tanners, it is also the place from which the infant heroine Madeleine is rescued.  Haussmann confined it to tunnels which he then covered over.  Its very existence is obscure today, save for a few plaques.

The opportunity to explore Haussmann’s innermost thoughts is also neglected by Lefarge.  Some sexual playfulness is imagined by the novelist, as is the dullness of his marriage and his affection for his youngest daughter, which were true enough, but there is little else.  In a way La Farge’s wholly invented character, de Fonce, is more interesting and representative. Nearly blinded from a childhood apprenticeship to a misanthropic blacksmith who kept him constantly at the forge, he escapes to Paris and finds his métier as a demolition man: one of those who got rich from selling remnants of the old Paris.  He has an innate sense of what is authentic and valuable in the rubble.  Hearths, doors, sconces, embrasures, carved stone, all are collected and either kept for his cluttered house or sold. He arranges for Madeleine to meet Haussmann, although his motives are murky.  His perversity, his  influence, his affection for the wrecked city often dominate the narrative and make a nice contrast with Haussmann the modern man, the man of the future. This purblind and deformed character sees what Haussmann does not.

It is difficult to imagine how one might use this book to teach anything about Haussmann, the transformation of Paris, the society and politics of the Second Empire, or the more general questions of modernization, urbanization, and the coming of a modern bureaucracy.  In addition it adds precious little to the historical Haussmann.  The great themes and questions of the transformation of Paris are in La Farge’s book, but they are obscured and not worth the effort for students to get at.

  1. For a survey of La Farge’s many imitations, poses, tropes, and conceits, see the review by Edmund White in The New York Times, Sunday book review, of October 21, 2001.

Paul La Farge, Haussmann or the Distinction (New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 2001), 400 pp.

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