Paul La Farge

Noise-Canceling Headphones

A Mole’s-Eye View of the Novel, Its Pleasures and Inconveniences

Discussed: Imperfect Sewage-Treatment Plans, A Handful of Insurgents, Urban Renewal, Time for Proust, Common Sense Surprised, Small Fry, A Faint Whistling Noise, City-Killers, A Mortal’s Heart, Spinster Sisters, A Post-Gothic Gothic Romance, An Assurance of Consequentiality, The Beast Who Stops to Listen

In 1852, Paris was more than two thousand years old, and it was a mess. The streets were too narrow for the traffic, there wasn’t much in the way of lighting, and the drinking water was bad, possibly because the sewer pipes emptied into the Seine, and people got their water from the Seine. There were regular cholera epidemics. From a national-security point of view, the capital was a nightmare, as two revolutions had shown: “A handful of insurgents behind a barricade could hold an entire regiment at bay,” Walter Benjamin noted happily in his Arcades Project.

In this context Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann became prefect of the Seine, the city’s chief administrator. Working with Napoleon III, a fairly authoritarian ruler, Haussmann implemented an ambitious plan of urban renewal: he redrew the map of Paris to make room for modern sewers, modern streetlights, and, above all, modern traffic. Boulevards were cut through the tissue of the medieval city, and the buildings that stood in their way were demolished. Before the old buildings came down, or, in some cases, as they came down, Haussmann’s administration made the curious decision to have them photographed. It may be that even he realized that he was demolishing structures that were, in themselves, not without charm; he surely had the bureaucrat’s self-destructive mania for documenting his own misdeeds. But he also hoped that the photographs would remind the citizens of Paris how much better off they were in the new city than they had been in the old, crowded, impossible one. Starting in 1862, the city hired a photographer named Charles Marville to take pictures of Old Paris. The irony of these photos is that they don’t capture the qualities that made the city unpleasant: Marville worked early in the morning, when the streets were empty, because his camera couldn’t photograph anything that moved; nor could it record the smell of the open sewers, the tanneries, the graveyards with their layers of shallowly buried dead. Marville’s photographs became objects of nostalgia and rallying talismans for Haussmann’s opponents, the people who wanted to keep Paris as it was, although in fact they showed Paris as it had never been: clean, sober, quiet, beautiful, and lost.

The novel today is in the situation of Paris in 1852. It is getting to be an old form, and like Old Paris it creaks under the strain of accommodating modern life. For a century or more we’ve been hearing calls for the novel to be replaced with something more up-to-date, to the point where even cataloging the demands for the novel’s demolition is becoming a quaint activity, like keeping pigeons, or spotting trains. For the time being, we still have novels, but their survival into the present is coming to seem so miraculous that I can’t help wondering what would happen if the form were finally demolished and something new took its place. Is there anything about the novel we would miss? Of course writing, unlike urban development, lets us go back; new literary forms won’t drive Balzac from the bookstore shelves, assuming that there are bookstores in the future, and that they have shelves. So maybe a better question is: is there, even now, some beauty, some usefulness, in the inconveniences of the novel?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Paul La Farge is the author of three novels and a book of imaginary dreams. His latest project is Luminous Airplanes, a large web-based fiction.

Above and on pages 4, 5, 6, and 7: photographs of Paris circa 1862 by Charles Marville
Images courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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