It's a tale as old as time—Paris as a city of stories. Not just because of the published literature flowing through it ceaselessly, but also the rues, boulevards, bridges, gardens, and buildings royal and ramshackle which contain stories of all those who have passed through them. Stories of history, of banality; stories of love and pain, and often of violence.
I started thinking about Paris as a book after a lecture on 'Epic Histories' at Columbia University. Going through Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project (1982), Professor Jenny Davidson pointed out how the station Breguet-Sabin on Metro line 5 had derived its name from the nearby rue Breguet and rue Saint-Sabin. Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823) had been a famous clockmaker, highly favoured by the French scientific, military, and diplomatic elite, and the first to invent the wristwatch in 1801. His grandson Louis-Charles Breguet (1880-1955) had been an aircraft manufacturer and a founder of Air France. Charles-Pierre Angelesme de Saint-Sabin, on the other hand, had been an alderman in 18th century Paris. Fusing these two identities, the metro station on the corner of these streets acquired the name Breguet-Sabin in 1906.
Such histories run abundant all over Paris. Some street names memorialise the trades previously practiced there, such as logging in Rue de la bûcherie, ironwork in rue de la Ferronnerie, or cutting-tool making in rue des Taillandiers. Others remember interesting local beliefs and incidents—in rue des Francs Bourgeois, meaning 'citizens exempt from tax', a nobleman named Mazurier allowed 48 of the poorest people to live in his mansion without paying taxes in 1415; in rue de Chat-qui-pêche, a fishing cat belonging to an alchemist was believed to be the devil's incarnation. Other places memorialise France's geopolitical relations, such as place des Etats-Unis or boulevard Franklin D. Roosevelt, or its historical milestones, such as boulevard du 25 aout 1944, the date on which the German garrison surrendered to France during World War II. Conjoined names like Breguet-Sabin remind us how completely different lives—such as inventors and local magistrates—intersected in one space, with the hyphen in the name placing the two identities on an equal pedestal. And then we have the Tour Eiffel, a single tower containing numerous stories about its conception, about the identity of its maker, its journey through France's past, the cultural and almost mythological influence it has exerted through the years, and even the countless marriage proposals it sees everyday today.
This past year studying book history has awakened me to the evolving definitions of a 'book'. A book is a story, a text, a message. A book is spoken, until someone else writes it down, copies it, and circulates it, like the religious texts of Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism. It is to be read, as instructed in the first word of the Quran (iqra); or not read, as with Chinese Buddhist sutras hidden away inside pagodas. It has competing histories, from the glory of Gutenberg in the West to the ancient knowledge of China in the East. It is decoration, worship, instruction, memory, and entertainment. It often has a name; sometimes it has chapters. Most importantly, a book is created out of a variety of materials, from wooden blocks to clay tablets to parchment to paper to metal devices that glow in the dark and imitate their predecessors today.
If a book is all of these things, then a city is certainly a book. It has a name. It has histories etched on its locations. Paris is interesting because it textualises these stories. By dividing its urban landscape into historically significant names, Paris turns its visitors and pedestrians into readers. One wants to stop and read the plaques plastered on the city's walls; one wonders where these titles came from and why the dates are significant.
I had initially meant to say that Paris is an old book. It has its smells and smudges, its crooked corners like the dog-eared pages of a folio. But such a comparison would overlook the industrial and urban developments around the Quartier Chinois on the 13th arrondissement, the Francois Mitterrand site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, or the industrial areas around La Defense, among several others. What I actually mean is that it is a used book. The very existence of stories in its corners gives it a lived-in quality. But by attracting people through the texts on its walls, by attracting tourists in flocks from the world over, the city ensures that its stories are read and reread endlessly.
But there is another quality that likens Paris to a used book—it is heavily marked. It is like finding a used copy in a library or a secondhand bookstore and realising that we can draw entire portraits of past readers, of their experience with the book, from the marginalia left behind in the pages. It happened to Harry Potter with Snape's Potions book in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (2005), as well as to the Harvard Depository when they decided to store the stubs and notes found in the books left behind in its reading rooms. Walking through Paris is a similar experience.
I noticed my first marginalia while walking through Boulevard St. Michel with a friend. The words “I love you to the cosmos and back” had been scribbled in tiny, black, barely-legible letters on a wall leading into a narrow alley. We have since noticed similar messages elsewhere —a cluster of hearts here, a quiet “je t'aime” there. As with all marginalia, it's impossible to know why these etchings were made or what the writer (reader?) might have been thinking, but it tells us that someone, at some point, had been in love in Paris and felt the need to record the sentiment on its walls. I say “had been” because the English language of these musings implies that they were tourists or expat artists, though it could also have been an English-speaking Parisian.
Two other etchings felt particularly resonant. The first, “Penser a réfléchir,” asks the reader to think to think. The other, “Meme les roses ont des épines”, warns her that even roses have thorns.
I first thought that these writings differed from the previous one in terms of intended readership. “Je t'aime” and “I love you to the cosmos and back” spoke to a specific “you” that the writer had known, while these seemed to address humanity in general. But then I realised that the “you” could have been every “you” passing through the streets. It could be me and every other passerby who had noticed the message hidden in a bustling tourist spot. Similarly, “penser à réfléchir” and “meme les roses ont des épines” seemed to include the reader in the writer's personal experiences by sharing his/her beliefs and wisdom.
How else can we add meaning to these anonymous annotations? Location could be a clue. Boulevard St. Michel is an idyllic tourist spot beside the river, home to historically romanticised landmarks like the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Shakespeare & Company bookstore. Being there could have inspired many an Anglophone to mark a nearby wall with messages of love. I found the others, including one saying “Seuls vous êtes le nuit, nous sommes le jour” (Only you are the night, we are the day), in more rundown neighbourhoods. These messages overlapped other furiously scribbled phrases, some hurling outrage at the police, others expressing general political zeal and freedom of thought. The environmental realities of these neighbourhoods could very possibly have influenced the tone of these writings.
I compare these etchings to marginalia because they share the elements of experience, reaction, and information. Just as a reader scribbles on the margins of a book in response to something in the text, influenced by the space of the text, these writings too reflect the writer's experience and emotions in that space. And just as one reader's marginalia becomes for another a part of the visual components of a used book, the marginalia in Paris's walls do the same for passersby. In contrast to the printed plaques officially denoting a space in the city, such as the name of a building, a street, or a boulevard, these handwritten notes highlight human experience. It is these textual relics that contain the more intricate, the unofficial, and thus the more elusive stories that have taken place in Paris.
Sarah Anjum Bari is a graduate of MA in History and Literature from Columbia University, Paris.