Friday, May 29, 2009

The Crimes of Paris (A Review)

"Montmartre is the dwelling-place of the most curious collection of poets, painters, sculptors, bar-keepers, vagabonds, girls of the street, models, apaches, scoundrels in the world - the most gifted and the most degraded (and there is not always a very sharp line dividing them). Montmartre is the most remarkable mixture of gaiety, strenuous work, poetry and mockery, artistic sense and irreligion." - a 1913 Englishman on a notorious neighborhood in Paris

The publisher's description makes it sound as though Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler's The Crimes of Paris focuses solely on the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre on August 21, 1911. That singular instance of blasphemy against high art is indeed a major part of the Hooblers' book. But it is also only one aspect of a well-researched and highly entertaining portrayal of the city that truly defined the modernist spirit during its glorious Belle Époque ("Beautiful Era"). One critic aptly describes The Crimes of Paris as "part fast-paced thriller and part social history," and although I certainly agree, I would define it more as "surrealist history." Far from being a dry recitation of facts, The Crimes of Paris is a strikingly atmospheric work that straddles the line between non-fiction and pure storytelling, as it skillfully evokes a world of blatant immorality, heartbreaking beauty, dangerous politics, and, above all, a love of sensation.

Disclaimer: I knew I'd enjoy this book before I even read it. I adore this time period (roughly 1890-1930), especially the radical art that broke with centuries of tradition and, later on, the poignant literature that flowered in the disillusionment of the Great War (think Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," and the ash heaps and razzle-dazzle of The Great Gatsby.) Just in terms of art, the Modernist era was, in the words of one my professors, the greatest burst of human creativity since the Renaissance. And it was Paris that was the epicenter of this incredible shift in Western thought, as advances science and technology were felt in all aspects of society and the arts (for example, Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which posits that all time exists simultaneously, or the automobile and speed and personal mobility). The basic premise of The Crimes of Paris is that crime also evolved rapidly during the Belle Époque and criminal investigation was forced to keep up. Now today we're all used to seeing car chases in movies, the Hooblers remind us, but in 1911, "no one had yet conceived the idea of escaping a robbery via automobile." But even in a world that often sympathized with the devil (in French culture, thieves and murderers have long been celebrated as anti-heroes), brilliant detectives such as Eugène François Vidocq and Alphonse Bertillon still gained public respect thanks in no small part to their prominent place in the sensational exploits of Paris's villains.

It also comes as no surprise that Bertillon's philosophy, written on the wall of his classroom, could have come from the mind of any Modernist painter or photographer: "The eye sees in each thing only what it is looking for, and it looks for what is already an idea in the mind." (Refer to my last post, about Alfred Stieglitz.)

While the mystery of the missing Mona Lisa and the other crime narratives made for fun reading, what I enjoyed most about The Crimes of Paris was the portrait painted of a city at the height of its artistic, scientific, literary, and intellectual powers, even as it deliberately broke the boundaries of good taste in places like Montmartre's Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, beloved of the Parisian intelligentsia, that "brought incredible realism to grotesque special effects, regaling audiences with stabbings, ax murders, gouged-out eyes, torture, acid throwing, amputations, mutilation, and rape." You have the avant-garde underworld, anarchists, various murderers and miscreants, and, above all, the efforts of the oft-despised law enforcement agencies to bring order in a society were "all that is solid melts in the air." The grand result is a weird juxtaposition of the most contradictory elements, from the respectable bourgeoisie to the bomb-throwers to the most outrageous painters and poets. Paris in the Belle Époque was a weird and wonderful place and I wonder if we'll ever see anything like it again (or maybe we did at the height of the sixties in places like San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood). But by 1914, World War I had broken out and the Belle Époque had come to an end amidst the worst carnage in history (up to that point). Anyone who has seen the musical Chicago, however, knows that celebrity-criminals are hardly unique to France; nor have they ever faded into the mists of history. The Crimes of Paris is an excellent book for both the scholar and the casual reader, and the latter is sure to learn quite a bit about art, intellectual, and social history.

Note: a prominent "character" in The Crimes of Paris is a ne'er-do-well anarchist named Victor Serge. Although the Hooblers did an excellent job covering his infamous life in France, they nevertheless do not tell you his full story. By the mid-forties, World War II and the excesses of Stalinism had left Serge thoroughly disenchanted with "revolution" and political violence. By then he was living in exile in Mexico, where he was continuously hounded by Stalinist agents. It was during this time, shortly before his death, that he penned an astonishing and powerful novel called Unforgiving Years, which I couldn't recommend strongly enough. Read it.


Frances said...

What a great review! As you know, I also really enjoyed this book for many of the same reasons you offer. Especially agree with your use of the word "atmospheric." One really feels enveloped into the Belle Epoque world. The book really informed my current reading of Proust as well. Happy reading!

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