Paris Vagabond by Jean-Paul Clébert

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Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Reviewed by Karen Langley

There’s a current literary trend of reissuing lost classics, and one of the most reliable imprints which is at the vanguard is NYRB Classics. They specialise in bringing a lot of unjustly neglected titles back into circulation and one of the most recent is an intriguing work, Paris Vagabond by Jean-Paul Clébert.

Clébert is not the author’s real name; from a bourgeois background, he took to wandering France. During WW2 he fought for the Resistance and after the war moved to Paris where he spent time living rough on the wrecked streets. While bumming his way round the disintegrating parts of the city, he scribbled notes and thoughts on myriad scraps of paper which he eventually knitted together to make this remarkable and vivid book.

What’s most striking initially is the landscape he paints; post-war Paris was in the grip of rebuilding, but much of the old city was still in place. We see a crumbling metropolis, with zones occupied by people in derelict shacks; there are plenty of nooks, crannies and hidden places for the clochard to sleep in; and narrow alleyways with bistros and dives at which to bum a bowl of soup or a glass or two of wine. Through all this drifts Clébert, regaling us with tales of fellow vagrants; escapades with prostitutes; struggles to find food and shelter in inclement weather; and how Paris is changing around him. It’s a heady mix, all told in lyrical prose, and records brilliantly a lost world.

The book is cleverly split into sections, focusing loosely on individual aspects of his life. Although I’ve read works before that cover the tramping life (Down and Out in Paris and London springs to mind instantly) this really brings into vivid relief the difficulties of this way of existence and the harsh, visceral realities; from having to wash in a freezing river to scavenging in bins for food, this is not an easy way to live. Yet Clébert relishes it, lauding his freedom from the quotidian, the everyday grind of normal life with house and office job. And certainly he seems mostly content with his lot.

Paris Vagabond has an added bonus in the form of the copious and wonderful photos it features by Patrice Molinard; after the first edition of the book was released, the publisher of the reprint requested illustrations, and so Molinard, guided by Clébert, produced the photos we see in the current edition. These really illuminate the text, capturing for posterity the lost, ramshackle environment Clébert was travelling through.

As night falls, I navigate the city. There is no storm, but a swell that is much worse. A soft, regular undulation that makes me nauseous. Ahead of me the roadway rises slowly, interminably, seems to hesitate for a moment, then descends just as gently, indefinitely. To negotiate the downslope, I must alternately lift my foot and thrust it forward, and I bungle this every time. I am looking for a safe place, a port to lay up in, some little impasse whose end would bring me up short and offer refuge… Paris by night is a labyrinth where every street opens onto another or onto one of the boulevards so aptly described as arteries – a labyrinth through which I make my way in fits and starts, like a blood clot, jolting down the steepest inclines, emerging from bottlenecks into empty space. And so I go, walking, plunging, flowing – a river hoping somehow to debouch into the sea, haven of peace and freedom from care.

That’s a long quote, but it really does give the flavour of what you’ll encounter here. Clébert’s prose is often rhythmic and beautiful, with long, winding paragraphs evoking landscape and emotions. The introduction by Luc Sante draws an interesting parallel with Kerouac’s ‘bop’ prose and I can see what he means, because some of the writing is as musical as the work of the Beats. Paris Vagabond is a fascinating book, although I did have one minor irritation. I most enjoyed the sections when Clébert was ruminating on the city and surroundings, because as a person I wasn’t actually drawn to him too much. The attitude towards women is frankly retrograde, and the author’s machismo can be a teeny bit wearing. The book was much, much better when the focus was away from Clébert himself and instead on his surroundings and his reactions to it – these parts were powerful and resonant, and the images of old Paris they conjured up will stay with me.

Despite the caveat, Paris Vagabond was a fabulous read; lyrical and memorable, it captures a long-gone lifestyle – or does it? I was going to say what a wonderful evocation this was of a lost way of life; however, looking at the streets nowadays, seeing the homeless and the refugees and the fractured inner cities, I’m not so sure things have changed all that much….

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings, where a version of this review first appeared.

Jean-Paul Clébert, Paris Vagabond, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYRB Classics, 2016). 978-1590179574, 342pp, paperback.

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