cover image Paris Vagabond

Paris Vagabond

Jean-Paul Clébert, trans. from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York Review Books, $18.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-59017-957-4

In this genre-less book (originally published in French in 1952), Clébert 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,” Clébert 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,” Clébert 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, Clébert’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.” Clébert was both. 115 b&w photos. (Apr.)