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from the April 2004 issue

Le Marais

In Things I've Seen, Victor Hugo acts as witness to a good many uprisings in Paris scattered through the reign of Louis Philippe (1830-48). And so he describes the insurrection of May 12, 1839 (triggered by Barbès, Banqui, and the typographer Martin-Bernard), as well as the unrest in the streets linked to the Revolution of 1848.

Sunday, May 12, 1839

I return to the Marais. On Vieille-rue-du-Temple, the terrified housewives chatter on the doorsteps. Here are the details. At around three o'clock the uprising went straight through the neighborhood. With few weapons, two or three hundred youths suddenly attacked the town hall in the seventh arrondissement, disarmed the guard post and took the guns. From there they ran to the City Hall and repeated their escapade.

At the same time, barricades are thrown up on rue des Quatre-Fils. On the corner of every little street--Bretagne, Poitou, Touraine, etc.--groups stand listening. A grenadier of the National Guard goes by in uniform, rifle on his back, looking around uneasily.

It is seven o'clock; I am on my balcony on Place Royale; rifle shots are heard.

February 23, 1848

Midnight strikes just then. There are twelve canons mounted on Place des Grèves. The Marais has an ominous look: I took a walk and I am on my way home. The street lamps are shattered and extinguished along the boulevard rightly called the dark boulevard. No stores opened night except on the rue Saint-Antoine. The Beaumarchais Theater closed. Place Royale is guarded like a parade ground. Troops are hidden under the arcades. On rue Saint-Louis a batallion stands silent, backed against the high walls in the darkness.

A few minutes ago, when the hour struck, we got up and went on the balcony saying: "It's the tocsin!"

The night of March 13-14, 1848

Rue Saint-Anastase. In front of a midnight guard post a group of men and women, fiddler in the lead, skipped and danced with all kinds of joyous shrieks. A street urchin was yelling: "Hoorah for landlords who give tenants three months free!"

He broke off and said: "Damn it to hell, my throat's dry!"

That night four men carried a black flag through the faubourg Saint-Antoine inscribed: "War on the rich."

[. . .] Yesterday March 20, under the arcades of Place Royale, a yellow poster announced the reappearance of Père Duchesne. Be terrifying, that's fine, but be original. What! Always the same old red rag! Always the same pike! Oh you who copy fearsome things! Respect those things, for they were great. Do not make them ridiculous by repeating them. You are Panurge's sheep, and so much those sheep that you become tigers!

A Dark Street, Quiet People

In Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, drawn by the peacefulness of the Marais, comes there to live out the last days of his life.

Scarcely had Jean Valjean turned onto rue de l'Homme-Armé than his anxiety lightened and, by degrees, disappeared. There are soothing places that seem to act on the mind mechanically. A dark street, quiet people--Jean Valjean felt some indefinable contagion of peace in this alleyway of the old Paris, so narrow it is barred against coaches by a wooden beam laid across two poles, mute and deaf in the middle of the city and, you might say, incapable of emotion between its two rows of high century-old houses that keep their own counsel like the old men they are.

Les Misérables, Lacroix, 1862.

Where Is She Going?

Alphonse Daudet lived in the Marais for many years, and he understood how to evoke the atmosphere of the streets in the second half of the nineteenth century.

There she is in the street. Where is she going? It is completely deserted already. So lively during the day, these neighborhoods grow quiet early at night. People work too hard there not to fall asleep quickly. While the Paris of the boulevards, still full of life, sends the rosy reflection of a distant blaze to hover over the whole city, here the great doors are closed, shutters are put up across shop fronts and windows. From time to time, a belated hammer, a policeman on his rounds, a drunkard's monologue interrupted by his erratic gait, disturbs the silence, or else a sudden gust of wind from the nearby quays rattles the glass of a street lamp, the worn rope of a pulley gives way at a street corner, and with a screech is caught under an ill-fitting doorway.

The streets of the Marais--dark, narrow, where a gas lamp flickers now and then--intersect, intertwine, and at every moment of this frantic search she retraces her steps.

Froment jeune et Risier a—né, Charpentier, 1874.

Jagged Landscape

Jacques Prévert sang of Paris in his poems, the banks of the Seine, the streets, the people strolling along, the small shops . . . as he does here in a walk through the streets of the Marais.

Once more the early morning tugboat has cried out And once more, the sun rises [ . . . ] And here it is in the Fourth1 now that's a part of town it loves a place it beams on and how the sun grieved when the yellow star of mindless human cruelty cast its inhuman-looking shadow on the loveliest rose of the Street of Rose Trees Her name was Sarah or Rachel and her father was a cap maker or a furrier and he really liked salt herring and all we know of her is that the king of Sicily loved her When he whistled through his fingers the window opened up there where she lived but never again will she open the window the door of a sealed train shut her in for good And the sun tries to forget those things but it's no use and it goes on its way drawn once more to the Seine

But it pauses a moment at rue de Jouy to smile softly at rue François-Miron close by where there's a tawdry shop with secondhand clothes and then a hairdresser's shop and an Algerian restaurant and then on the other side ruins of torn-down buildings, broken bricks and rubble And from his doorstep the hairdresser gazes dumbfounded at that jagged landscape and he glances hopelessly toward rue Geoffroy-l'Asnier that seems intact in the sunlight and brand new with its houses from a time long past because hundreds of years ago the sun was on the best of terms with Geoffroy l'Asnier You're a friend it said, and I will never let you down And that is why the happy sunlit shadow the shadow of Geoffroy l'Asnier who loved the sun and whom the sun loved goes off each day winter and summer alike along rue du Grenier-sur-l'Eau and along rue des Barres as far as the Seine

1Paris is divided into twenty administrative districts, or arrondissements; the fourth is the Marais.

Street names in the poem

▪ Street of Rose Trees: la rue des Rosiers. Known as early as 1225. The night watchman made his rounds along this street. In recent times it became the central street of the Jewish Quarter of Paris. During the German occupation of France (1939-45) it was subject to intensive roundups of Jews who were then dispatched to concentration camps in sealed trains.

▪ Rue Roi de Sicile: Line 17 "and all we know of her is that the king of Sicily loved her." An allusion to Rue Roi de Sicile in the Marais. Charles d'Anjou, brother to Saint Louis, built a house on this street and so named it to commemorate his crowning in Rome in 1266 as king of Naples and Sicily

▪ Rue de Jouy: In 1296 the Abby de Jouy-le-Chatel (in the Seine-Marne area of France) acquired a house on this street that bore its name, which became official in 1932.

▪ Rue de François Miron: Miron (1560-1609), a judge who intervened to prevent cuts in unearned income, interest, pensions, etc, and so was called "Father of the People."

▪ Rue Geoffroy-l'Asnier: According to Bernard Stéphane, Dictionnaire des noms des Rues [Editions Mengès: Paris, 1984] there was no such person of this name. But there was a bourgeois named Forgier l'Asnier who owned and lived in house on this street in 1285. As time passed the name evolved and since 1445 has been known by its present name.

▪ Rue Grenier-sur-l'Eau: Grenier means granary. While there was never a granary on this street, a man named Garnier lived there in a house along the Seine around 1240. Over time his name was transformed into "Grenier," and since 1390 the street has been known as Grenier-sur-l'Eau (Grenier-on-the-Water).

▪ Rue des Barres: Barres is an abbreviation for the word "barrières" (barriers). The street was so named because of the barriers erected along the Seine around 1152.

"Encore une fois sure le fleuve" [Along the river once more], from Histoires, et d'Autres Histoires, Gallimard, 1946. By arrangement with Fatras / Succession Jacques Prévert. All rights reserved.

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