When you’re writing about a place where people live, work and play, the biggest challenge is to stop the everyday from coming across as, well, everyday. To put it another way, it is no mean feat to convincingly make the familiar strange, to force your reader to look at the things that surround them in a new, engaged way of seeing. Wherever you live, when you bustle through it bleary-eyed, on your way to work or way back home, then it becomes background, mundane.
The Bastille district of Paris, as Keith Reader points out on the first page of his new book is an perfect example of the everyday. It might be filled with bars, cafés, noise, traffic, people of a wide variety of backgrounds, it might steeped in history – the 1789 French revolution started here, fuelled by the disenfranchised artisans of the Faubourg Saint Antoine – but it isn’t immediately interesting to look at. It is a functional place, first and foremost. It isn’t on too many tourists’ must-see list. Equally, there are far more immediately obvious parts of Paris to write about; Montparnasse, Montmartre, the Marais (and lots of other places that don’t begin with the letter ‘m’). For those with a passing knowledge of Paris, the Bastille is a square where there used to be a prison, where there is an ugly opera house and not much else.
Reader’s two main achievements in The Place de la Bastille are both making the those who know the place well (I’ve lived in the area for the last two years) stop, take stock and renew their interest in it and effectively arguing why it is worthy of investigation by non-residents . For Reader the Bastille is an important site in the collective Parisian memory, but not just for the role it played in stoking revolutionary furore. Reader goes beyond the much-told nineteenth-century history and, in an approach he describes as ‘flânerie at a computer’, inspired by Walter Benjamin‘s wanderings, explores the history of the less-known corners of the locale. We learn, then, about the pimps and prostitutes of the once seedy, now just disheveled rue de la Roquette, about the gay cruising of the perennially debauched rue de Lappe, and the marginally less exciting fashion wholesalers of the rue Sedain.
Refreshingly, Reader’s desktop flânerie takes in an impressively broad range of sources topping his hat to the well-known Paris history books, such as Éric Hazan’s L’Invention de Paris (2002) and Andrew Hussey’s Paris, The Secret History (2006) but also an unconventional mix of pulp detective fiction and films as well as his own anecdotes, himself a former resident of the area. Reader has also impressively demonstrated how the Bastille continues to be relevant to the contemporary collective memory, citing the 1981 celebrations by the left to mark it’s return to power in the guise of François Mitterand’s presidency, mirrored recently to mark the 30 year anniversary, and the much-reported debates around the designed for the world’s biggest and most expensive opera house.
The book’s final chapter comprises a walking tour, a nice touch for those whose appetites to discover more about the area have been whetted by the previous pages. Whilst a well-argued, thoroughly-researched and scholarly work, it is vibrant and readable enough to interest a readership from outside the academic community from which Reader comes (he holds a professorship at the University of Glasgow). Only the works essential, yet densely theoretical, introduction risks deterring the broader readership this book deserves.