Luc Sante established his reputation in 1991 with Low Life, an atmospheric portrait of 19th-century Manhattan’s seamy side, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This October, FSG will release The Other Paris, Sante’s equally atmospheric stroll through the City of Light’s darker streets. It seems like such a natural follow-up to Low Life—especially for a Belgian-born writer who lived in Paris and spoke French before he spoke English—that the first question I ask Sante is, why the 24-year gap?
“I did not come up with this idea myself,” Sante explains. “My editor, Jonathan Galassi, and my agent, Joy Harris, together proposed that I write a book about Paris. I spent years trying to figure out how to write something that wouldn’t be the same as every other book about Paris; there are so many published every year. I finally realized, after far too long, that a book that wasn’t like those, the book that wasn’t being written, was also the book I was best equipped to write.” Which for Sante is a book that emulated Low Life’s embrace of the rough people and places omitted from more sedate histories.
Like Low Life, The Other Paris recaptures “the actual mess and stink of the past,” Sante says, showing readers a city that a century ago was more brutal and dangerous, but also more intimate. “I caught little bits of the old Paris myself when I was young,” he recalls. “I spent four months there as a student in 1974, and in ’83 I hung out with these friends of friends who were anarchists and professional thieves.”
Sante drank with Parisians in backroom bars and visited cafes where 100-year-old popular songs were still being crooned. “I remember one 14th of July, we went to the Place de la Bastille and up rue de la Roquette; there were musette orchestras [working-class dance-hall bands] in the street, people were grabbing us and getting us to dance, all but pouring drinks down our gullets,” he says. “It was a real neighborhood, with a kind of generosity and hospitality that is now merchandised.”
As The Other Paris bluntly notes, “improving” a city usually means cordoning off its poor people and limiting their control over their neighborhoods and lives. “Look at the American equivalent: urban renewal,” Sante remarks. “In theory it was supposed to make life cleaner and more manageable, but in many cities it also knocked out historically black neighborhoods and their networks of mutual aid; they were never the same again, and suddenly people were living in these barracks.”
Sante has the firm opinions of a professional critic—his essays on music, painting, photography, and poetry are collected in Kill All Your Darlings (Yeti, 2007)—but they’re delivered quietly, with a scholar’s air of detachment. He is in fact a visiting professor at Bard College, near his home in Kingston, N.Y. He moved there in 2000, the year after his son, Raphael, was born. One hot summer day this past summer, he took a bus to Manhattan to talk about The Other Paris with me in his publisher’s offices.
Relocating upstate was not Sante’s idea. “We had a house in the country and an apartment in Brooklyn, and I was really happy with that, but my then-wife [writer Melissa Holbrook Pierson] decided we had to consolidate,” he says. “I took that decision badly, and winter in the country didn’t do me any good either, so after we split up I moved into town, which was marginally better. I couldn’t move back to the city because of my son.”
Sante’s take on city living is that “you may not know your next-door neighbor, but you know the grocer and the guy who runs the bodega; there’s some kind of interaction on the street.” He adds: “In Kingston, everybody drives and stays home; everything is behind closed doors. I have this wonderful house, but after eight years I only know the names of two neighbors. My partner [writer Mimi Lipson] is not crazy about being there; she’s much more social than I am and needs people on the block to exchange neighborhood gossip with. When Raphael goes to college I might move. We’ve been talking about the Bronx; I’ve always aspired to live in a nice ‘prewar seven’ apartment!”
As recounted in his 1998 memoir, The Factory of Facts, Sante had a restless childhood, shuttling with his parents between his birthplace in Verviers, Belgium, and various locations in and around New York City. “Unassimilable in two cultures,” he felt more at home in books and in the worlds they revealed to him. “I took cover in nostalgia... for times and places that were not my own,” he writes in what is also a fair description of the way historians immerse themselves in pasts not their own. Reclaiming his own family’s past in the memoir was an important step for him, Sante says, though he now finds the book flawed. “One of my ambitions in life is to get back the rights to The Factory of Facts and cut the bejesus out of it; it’s very overwritten and has way too many facts.”
The memoir does indeed display Sante’s love of lists, a love that is under control but still evident in The Other Paris, which evokes an entire working-class culture in its catalogues of pothouses and the drinks they served, the names of popular dances, the varieties of entertainers who amused crowds along the city’s fabled Boulevard of Crime. “I guess the lists come from my background as a poet,” he remarks. “The New York School of Poets, who were my teachers, were really big on lists.” Teenage poet Luc Sante was accomplished enough to be admitted to Kenneth Koch’s poetry writing seminar as a Columbia University freshman. “I thought, whoa, I’ve made it! Then the following year I took his class on prosody, and it was like math. I thought, okay, I’m not a poet after all, and immediately turned to writing prose—things happen very quickly when you’re 19.”
Now 61, Sante will be investigating the more recent past in his next book, a biography of Lou Reed for Penguin Press. “I never thought I’d write a biography; it’s a genre that’s always eluded me, but this has two big attractions,” he says. “One is I always like a project that involves ambivalence from the get-go, and with Lou I really, really, really admire his early career with the Velvet Underground, but then the music becomes more erratic and he as a person becomes more difficult. What happened? Was it inevitable, inscribed in his character? I’m trying to figure this out, the trajectory of a human personality. Part two is he lived through so many scenes: the Factory, obviously, but also the worlds of minimalist composers, Long Island rock and roll, the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. There are so many, and they’re all so interesting. I’m especially fascinated by New York bohemia in the mid-1960s, which is a largely unexplored world. I think of this as a life and times book.”
Sante in conversation is generally measured and low-key, but as he ticks off the different scenes he’ll be exploring, most of them in lower Manhattan, he becomes positively animated, and a third attraction of the Reed biography becomes apparent: he’ll be spending a lot of his time researching it in New York City.