An NYRB Classic Original
Jean-Paul Clébert was a boy from a respectable middle-class family who ran away from school, joined the French Resistance, and never looked back. Making his way to Paris at the end of World War II, Clébert took to living on the streets, and in Paris Vagabond, a so-called “aleatory novel” assembled out of sketches he jotted down at the time, he tells what it was like. His “gallery of faces and cityscapes on the road to extinction” is an astonishing depiction of a world apart—a Paris, long since vanished, of the poor, the criminal, and the outcast—and a no less astonishing feat of literary improvisation: Its long looping breathless sentences, streetwise, profane, lyrical, incantatory, are an adventure in their own right. Praised on publication by the great novelist and poet Blaise Cendrars and embraced by the young Situationists as a kind of manual for living off the grid, Paris Vagabond—here published with the starkly striking photographs of Clébert’s friend Patrice Molinard—is a raw and celebratory evocation of the life of a city and the underside of life.
In this genre-less book (originally published in French in 1952), Cl bert insists "this is not supposed to be a Baedeker or some tourist guide." Yet on one level, it is a catalogue of a geographic Paris, of "streets, sidewalks, houses, lampposts, shady nooks, trees, urinals." From Boulevard Poniatowski to the Saint-Ouen flea market, from the red light district of Rue Quincampoix to Place de la Contrescarpe, "the most beautiful little plaza in Paris," Cl bert enumerates more streets and landmarks than a Lonely Planet travel book. Yet, on another level, this is a memoir: "I first discovered Paris at the age of seventeen, and lost my virginity as I did so," Cl bert writes, and the book takes us from his first job measuring rooms with a folding ruler to his stint as a vagabond, warming his hands by a fire on Rue Sauvage, and, eventually, to his life as a writer with "fifty francs in hand," heading off to work in a bistro. It is also a manual for the down and out: how to live on bouillon and bread, how to sleep in a Paris cemetery, how to remove a tattoo with the back of a red hot spoon, and how to take a clochard's bath in the freezing Seine. Interspersed with the gritty and complimentary photographs by Patrice Molinard, Cl bert's sprawling work is held together by the vividness of his language. Nicholson-Smith's translation conveys effectively the simultaneously vulgar and eloquent prose that inspired later writers, including Henry Miller. Appearing in English for the first time, this volume brings a unique city to life, where "to master it one must indeed be either a vagabond poet or a poet vagabond." Cl bert was both. 115 b&w photos.