Eugene Brennan is a writer and academic based in Paris.
Eric Hazan’s “A Walk Through Paris” is about, simply, a walk through Paris. But Paris being Paris, a walk through its streets is anything but simple — or ordinary. Here Hazan, who has spent his entire life in the City of Light, offers a perspective — “a radical exploration” — that is both personal and historical, drawing on his experiences as a student, surgeon, social critic and publisher of leftist books.
Hazan sets out from Ivry, in the southeast of the city, to Saint-Denis in the north. As he travels, memories rise “to the surface street by street, even very distant fragments of the past on the border of forgetfulness.” His journey sparks questions: For example, he wonders, why choose one route over another? At other moments, personal preferences lead him on more convoluted detours. Traversing the Ile de la Cité, he avoids the principal routes, as one would pass by the prefecture de police, “a sorry perspective,” and the other would proceed through the rue d’Arcole, lined with tourist shops full of “I Love Paris” T-shirts — a scene that’s “hardly more attractive.”
Still, what emerges from this book is a profound affection for the city, often expressed in endearingly idiosyncratic terms. On the rue Hautefeuille, where Charles Baudelaire was born, Hazan observes a hanging turret on the corner of a small cul-de-sac. Dating from the 16th century, this conical trunk is made of a knot-work series in decreasing diameter, “each ring bearing a different decoration — a masterpiece of masonry.” Hazan lists several other locations in the city where these turrets can be found, referring to the architectural structures as “friends of mine”; sometimes, he writes, he even makes a detour just for a chance to greet them [ . . . ]