Paris Vagabond by Jean-Paul Clébert

Tank _summer 16_books _95

Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
Paperback, 352 pages
Publisher: New York Review Books Classics (April 2016)
ISBN: 9781590179574
Languages: English, French
Selected by Tank

French resistance fighter Jean-Paul Clébert wrote Paris Vagabond as an “aleatory novel”, a series of seemingly disconnected musings on the post-war Paris of opium dens and hobos, bag ladies and hawkers, pickpockets and ragpickers. This extraordinary, chunky novel of the empty-bellied flâneuris accompanied by Patrice Molinard’s beautiful photographs. A twofer like no other. 

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Tank _summer 16_books _96Left and right, photographs by Patrice Molinard, 1954

The Old Gaffer possessed the finest collection of erotica that I have ever seen, filling his attic room to the rafters and including books, manuscripts, statuettes, engravings, and notably, an enormous ledger from the Department of Administrative Revenue containing meticulous pen-and-ink reproductions of graffiti copied with great skill from urinals and like places set aside for solitary tasks; some of them were in foreign languages, making it impossible for me to experience all their charm, but most were in slang. The book as a whole clearly represented dozens of years of conscientious work at an incredible number of standing or sitting facilities in what are called rest rooms. There was also a pile of large cardboard boxes filled with exotic prints, somewhat banal in content in my view, considering the surprisingly similar appearance of the genitals of men and women throughout the universe, but remarkable by virtue of their sheer quantity, and let me congratulate the owner here for his vintage photographs from the heroic age, yellow and faded but still vivid, showing gents wearing sock suspenders and curled-up moustaches performing imaginative acts in the most dignified manner upon various parts of the anatomy of nymphs with hairdos like pastry cooks’ hats. The old guy poured me a glass of sweet wine (an aphrodisiac?) from a phallic carafe whose sheath-like top slid back delicately, then unpacked all his boxes, filched most likely from somewhere in the depths of his ministry, and proceeded to point his finger at all kinds of details that it would have been hypocritical of me to find uninteresting. But despite the obviously contagious heat generated by these collections, the fact was that he had no stove in his room, and in any case my partner was growing impatient outside on the stairs.

And then there was the Polyglot, whom I discovered one evening at the very top of a twisting, exhausting and dangerous staircase which reminded me of the steps up the Eiffel Tower. He was rinsing a meagre lettuce at the common tap on the landing; his digs were a dull-green two-room flat smelling of something hard to define, a gas lamp casting a feeble, diffuse light on a grubby interior dominated by an immense table covered with felt like a billiard table and piled high with papers and publications, including a large Russian dictionary which served to initiate a seated conversation washed down with a litre of white wine. My hospitable host was an old man who, though decrepit, had preserved a distinct nobility and the kind of serenity of face that only long celibacy can bestow. I lost no time before asking him, naturally giving spurious reasons for my curiosity, why he had such an astonishing number of dictionaries, manuals, guidebooks, and lexicons that they were causing the floorboards of his nook to give way and politely nudging his packets of pasta and rice aside. According to him, he was a former intelligence-service man with a perfect knowledge of 37 languages, European as well as American and Asian, and he claimed in addition that he was able to communicate easily with natives of variously located regions in both hemispheres. Unfortunately, he could not speak the language of the Eskimos, and had not yet found a Greenlander conversation manual at a reasonable price. This was, so to speak, the great disappointment of his old age.

Apart from his unused interpretive skills, however, the man’s conversation was rather mundane, and after visiting him two or three times I left him, despite his burgeoning claustrophobia, pawing through his dictionaries.

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Patrice Molinard, a photographer and director, accompanied Jean-Paul Clébert around Paris to retrace his steps and recapture the landscape of poverty that Clébert had written in this novel ten years before.