Lawrence Osborne, Paris Dreambook: An Unconventional Guide to the Splendor and Squalor of the City (1990)
"You can't have Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as your favorite composers," Michael Tilson Thomas once declared. "They simply define what music is." By the same token, we might say you can't have New York, London, and Paris as your favorite cities, collectively defining as they do the standard against which we measure — and usually find wanting — all other cities. I myself have never named New York, London, or Paris among my favorites, though I've only spent a few weeks each in the first two. Paris I've never set foot in, possibly in subconscious reaction against its sheer belovedness, especially among my fellow Americans abroad. Even apart from my basic condition of Europhilia-phobia, something in the city's popular image always grated: not for me the picturesque City of Light and its innumerable boulevards, squares, and back alleys, all arbitrarily forced to retain their mid-19th-century shape.
Yet had I encountered Lawrence Osborne's version of the city in my youth, I'd surely have got to Paris long ago. An Englishman now resident in Bangkok, Osborne wrote Paris Dreambook early in his career, when first he was building his profile as a novelist. Though not a novel, the book also refuses to fulfill most of the expectations commonly raised by a non-fiction city book. Its subtitle, An Unconventional Guide to the Splendor and Squalor of the City, is in equal parts descriptive and misleading. In neither form nor content does the text resemble that of a guidebook, though the word "guide" may actually refer to its central character, whom the omniscient character calls only "the peasant." Seemingly an outsider to Paris, the peasant nevertheless knows the city intimately, or at least the parts of the city that surround his apartment building at 37 rue André Antoine.
That, as readers familiar with Paris may know, is a real address. A writer on cities named Alex Marshall (no relation) confirmed it first-hand two years after the book's publication, finding it "on a small, bumpy narrow street that twisted its way down a hill from a small plaza and church at the Place des Abbesses. Above the doorway to the otherwise plain building was a statue of a reclining nude woman." Inside he finds the Tanzanian concierge Osborne calls "Aladdin" and depicts as occupying a single room "in the middle of which, amid the paraphernalia of many assumed lives, Arabic dictionaries of medicinal spells hi-fi equipment, boxes of rabbits' feet, cabinets of tropical oil and herbs, cooking pots scented with clove oil, pots of lemon grass and cardamom pods, dense clothes racks and various firearms, hangs a khaki regulation tropics British army uniform decorated with a colored bands."
A former British soldier, police inspector, black magician, pornographic film star, and much else besides, the Aladdin of Paris Dreambook has lead a storied life indeed. So, apparently, did his real-life counterpart. "Over small cups of strong coffee, Ali confirmed Osborne’s tales and added a few more," writes Marshall. "He was such a nice boy," Ali recalls. "We would eat together often. He would ask me questions and write in a notebook. But I never dreamed he was writing a book." This suggests that the peasant is, at least in part, Osborne himself, described in the book's blunt author bio as having "lived in Paris for many years," but gone from 37 rue André Antoine by the time Marshall arrived. I looked the building up on Google Maps myself, as I did with every location referenced by Osborne, finding it still distinguished only by the nude over the entry.
The peasant's previous addresses of residence include 265 rue Saint-Denis, a street to which Osborne devotes an entire chapter. "The large building has a courtyard lined on one side with tall mirrors belonging to the Ateliers Sandra clothes shop on the ground floor. Over the impressive doorway a stone ogre gapes flanked by sculpted pine-cones and the usual twisted laurel leaves." I felt a rush of mild astonishment when I pulled up the street view of that address as well and saw the very same ogre, gaping still, with pinecones, laurel leaves and all. Ateliers Sandra has gone, but the ground floor remains a boutique, though now one called Diamonds for Eden. The peasant's apartment, Osborne writes, "is surrounded on all sides by rooms rented to prostitutes," but no intensity of zooming, alas, reveals to what degree this remains the case.
Prostitution is a theme of Paris Dreambook, as of the city itself, "the only one to have seen a particular culture of prostitution." The Paris of the Second Empire "was a satrapy of the courtesan, not only as the West's first society to be dominated by the cult of woman." One such woman, a retired professional, lives at No. 37: Madame Odette Pompom, with her fond memories of the Nazi officers who sought her skills as a dominatrix during the Occupation. "No one charts her mysterious circumnavigations of the City at night, nor the even more sly peregrinations of her shameless imagination," writes Osborne. "Like a certain kind of once-attractive Parisian woman she is obsessed with tarots, macrobiotics, and her own death": a savagely true observation even in non-Parisian contexts, but clouds of mortality have also descended upon the peasant, wholly male and comparatively young though he may be.
"As he grows older, more conscious of his thirty years, the peasant becomes increasingly obsessed with death," Osborne writes toward the end of the book, which from the beginning also evidences an obsession with the death of Paris, or Paris as he knows it. The opening of the first chapter envisions the metropolis drowning in its own sewage: "It rose further, inch by inch, The power station on the Edge of the city exploded and floated skyward. The people, in their desperation for their culture to survive, hauled gramophone records, shelves of books, books of reproductions and whole pianos to the roof tops. The death of the City! The wished for and the unthinkable." The peasant later imagines Parisian civilization falling to a variety of other forces, from a second Mongol invasion to graffiti and hip-hop fashion imported from the streets of New York to the all-rationalizing future.
"There’s no question that the City is being barbarized, that its intimacy is gradually being ironed out in favor of the creation of an empire of aggression in which the temples of food and sex will soon be as sexless and agastronomic as the cohorts of tourists that use them," Osborne writes, foreseeing the transformation of Paris into "the world's largest Disneyland," according to "government plans destined to be realized by the year 2000." The first thing to go will be rue Montorgueil, the street of restaurants, butchers, bakeries, and crémeries identifying Paris as "the pearl of gastronomic Shangri Las, boiling in its food lust, barely ceasing to wipe its lips, clean its teeth or inspect its own stools." Disneyland could never allow it —"it's unhygienic, it swarms with microbes and lethal doses of listeria" — but have faith, for "the glory and exhilaration of the sexless supermarket awaits you."
Rue Montorgueil has somehow survived into the 2020s — as has Pâtisserie Stohrer, the now 290-year-old site of some of the book's more memorable culinary-erotic reveries — though a Google search shows it to be something of a tourist trap itself. The peasant, needless to say, abhors tourism. In the summertime "it causes him physical anguish to enter the tourist arrondissements, the sixth or the second, for example, which — although their indigenous inhabitants might pretend otherwise — are slowly disintegrating under a bacterial wave, a miasmal tide, of virile vulgarity that will not be stopped by little things such as superior sneers and graceful retirement from the scene." We might see these as sentiments shared to some degree between the peasant and Osborne himself, who in 2006 published The Naked Tourist, a curmudgeonly account of his attempts to travel beyond the reach of the travel industry, and ultimately civilization itself.
In the 2000s Osborne was known for books of that kind, nonfiction much more straightforwardly written and structured than Paris Dreambook. Toward the end of that decade I interviewed him on my public radio show The Marketplace of Ideas about his second city book Bangkok Days, a work as satisfyingly impressionistic as its spiritual predecessor but rendered in comparatively austere prose. At that point he didn't yet live full-time in the Thai capital, but had spent a great deal of time there off and on. Explaining this long-term engagement with that city, he made an observation that has stuck with me ever since:
Our relationship to cities is very much like our relationships to a person. It’s almost like a love affair or a friendship. If you think about the way in which you get to know a human being in all their complexity, it’s something that happens over many, many years. You don’t meet somebody in one period of time and decide that they’re a friend or a lover. You do in some ways, but what you really do is drop in over and over again, you get to know that person over a very, very long period of time. And when that happens — ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years — the accumulation of those visits, the accumulation of that time spent, produces in you complex feelings.
I now see such a relationship as essential to a city book worth reading, as I do the experience with a range of world cities that makes comparison possible. In our conversation Osborne related one considerable aspect of Bangkok's appeal by citing "a kind of companionship of the street you can have there, which the West has lost." And one key city of the West in particular: "I moved to Paris when I was very young, in the 80s, and it was a city of ebullient street life. It would've been recognized by Henry Miller immediately. There was this feeling of turbulent life in the streets — wonderful. If you were poor and hard-up and lonely, you'd just go down to the street. It was great. That's all disappeared. You go to Paris now and it's a bureaucratic museum. The streets are just emptied out."
This certainly isn't true of the city of Paris Dreambook. Not that it doesn't present other challenges, saturated as it seems to be with sex, violence, gluttony, venality, hypocrisy, foreboding, and kitsch. An apparent obsession with these qualities, Osborne assures us, "is only the expression of a naïve, ultra-literary and perverse attraction towards them and the fact that our peasant, for some reason has spent all his life in the City in a state of perpetual poverty that has obliged him to get to know them whether he liked it or not." An unwillingness to confront the 21st-century "bureaucratic museum" lamented by Osborne and other observers has done its part to keep me from getting to know Paris myself. And as in other cities, even Los Angeles where I lived before and Seoul where I live now, the culture always convinces you that you've just missed a golden age.
The Paris of the 1980s holds as much appeal for me as the triumphalism of the fin de siècle or the magnificently cinephile postwar decades. Cinephiles today know it as the setting of quite a few films by Éric Rohmer in his most productive period, just as many students of the French language over the past couple of generations know it as the setting of the unsurpassed instructional-video series French in Action. In one episode young Robert and Mireille go see Rohmer's L'amour, l'après-midi at the 14 Juillet Parnasse after looking up its listings on the Minitel. Once the Studio-Paris, the Studio-Parnasse, and the Ce soir-Parnasse, the 14 Juillet Parnasse has been subsumed into the MK2 theater chain, just as the French-developed Minitel network, ads for whose sex channels and dating agencies "arouse the greatest frisson in the heart of our peasant voyeur," has been displaced by the global internet.
Yet I suspect the process of Disneyfication remains incomplete, that on certain subtle levels Paris remains Paris — and has yet to fully relinquish what Osborne calls "the grotesque, that essential component of human happiness." If nothing else, long has most of the central city's built environment remained famously, stubbornly, unaltered. Anyone willing can read the "masterpiece of literature" that is Paris Metro, with its stations defining "a mental geography that contains battlefields, poets, entire nations, capital cities, revolutionaries, animals and scientists." (Only about a dozen new chapters have been appended in the three decades since Osborne left.) Even the aboveground realm must still be rich with seeming incongruities as the Egyptian iconography attesting to "the formidable tradition of mental lust for the anti-Occidental, the inexhaustible spirit of chinoiserie, that has never loosened its hold since it was let loose among the intellectuals of the eighteenth century."
When I do get to Paris, I plan to walk what's left of "the sub-vitreous shopping malls which once ran from one end of Paris to the other in the nineteenth century," the "last optimistic architecture to have been added to the dense patchwork of the former merchants' quarter." Before then I'll make a closer reading of The Arcades Project, the magnificent intellectual-literary ruin Walter Benjamin built around those structures. I'll also read — and watch, and listen to — as much else about Paris as I possibly can, constructing as intricately as possible a Paris of the mind, fated to collide with the genuine article. No other Western city has tempted me to do this, though I suspect Shanghai would reward similar efforts. But more practically speaking, where to stay when I get there? Surely a room in 37 rue André Antoine has turned Airbnb by now.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His current projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.