Edmund White at The New York Times:
Clébert writes of a place where you bought three Gauloises out of a pack, where beggars who’d been lucky stood their mates for a round and sang old ballads, then gathered a few butts “by way of provision for the night.” He visits the huts along the Seine where the corpses of suicides are fished out of the river. And he spends time in pitiful flea markets like the ones I saw in Montreuil in the ’90s, where vendors sell “unmatched pairs of boots, ragged jackets and trousers, garments at a hundred francs, surplus pieces of leather, printed papers much stained but still readable . . . bundles of postcards, bits of scrap metal, bags of bent and rusty nails, broken or defective concierge’s knickknacks, and so on. Unmatched, stained, bent, rusty, broken, defective — just like these poor devils, their faces plaster masks of no-more-hope.” Clébert is a master of the long, cascading list-sentence, trippingly rendered into English by Donald Nicholson-Smith. His descriptions are mirrored by (not illustrated by) the bleak photographs of Patrice Molinard.
A connoisseur of chaos, Clébert is the poet of the lumpenproletariat and of a forgotten city: “Between the two bridges, mainly on the Left Bank, one’s sense of smell is overstimulated by a succession of odors, as follows (read slowly): cheese, very violent, then, by turns, gas welding, fresh periwinkles and new rust.” He has a very precise sensorium.
Luc Sante, who has written the informative introduction to this volume, has recently offered his own look at the city, “The Other Paris,” a brilliantly researched narrative that touches on everything from the Paris Commune to dime novels. Here he tells us that Clébert’s book was inspired by Henry Miller and Blaise Cendrars.