A young William Carlos Williams and his mother translated a surrealist novel about a stalker, a prostitute, a murderer, and a gangster who haunt the streets of Paris. Referenced in the beginning of Book 5 of Paterson
, Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris
is not as racy as it sounds. Perhaps it is only a surrealist who can take the source material for a typical thriller and evacuate it of all thrill, returning the action to everyday. It is cold in tone, evocative of the ennui of city wandering that denizens of the night experience. Were I argue its conceptual strengths, however, I would hide the fact that, for me, the book did not have much going for it except its connection to Paterson
. The publishers even tacitly admit this exterior source of literary value by printing the pertinent section of Paterson
not once, but twice—as the book’s only blurb and as its epigraph. It may have been an important inpirational source of Williams’ own exploration of intractable urban mystery (here the city is a woman, not a man as Williams would have it). Nevertheless, while there is much promise in a story that starts with a narrator, a dog, a sailor and a prostitute wandering randomly together at 3 in the morning, it was a chore to glimpse the “inviolable secret of Paris” that their journeys turned up.
Of greater interest to me is Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant
(at least the first two parts of it I have so far read), more cryptically referenced in this section of Paterson
's Book 5. I was introduced to the book by Holly Tavel
who was using it for a summer-term psychogeography course; as she described Paris Peasant
, she started to flip through it a few times, a sort of perfunctory gesture of “showing me the book.” What jumped to my eye was the following section, from which Williams seems to have pulled his "la realite! la realite! la rea, la rea, la realite!"(207) Williams is much more tortured (and in the end, impressed) by “the real,” while Aragon is clearly more contemptuous (if only because Williams' “reality” is almost Lacanian in its paradoxical unknowability, whereas for Aragon it is more synonymous with custom, albeit still paradoxical):
FABLEOnce upon a time there was a realityWith her own flock of sheep in real woolAnd as the king’s son came passing byThe sheep bleated Baaah! How pretty she isThe re the re the realityOnce upon a time there was a realityWho never could get to sleep at nightAnd so her fairy godmotherReally took her by the handThe re the re the realityOnce upon a time there was an old kingWho got very bored as he sat on his throneHis cloak slipped off into the eveningSo then they gave him for a queenThe re the re the realityCODA: Ity ity the rea Ity ity the reality The rea the rea Ty ty The rea Li Ty The reality Once upon a time there was THE REALITY
Aragon’s book is a much more fanciful and detailed exploration of the mysteries of public life in the city than is Soupault’s, and is in more in line with Williams’ aesthetic (menus, news articles, playlets, and street signs are pasted directly into the prose). His subject is the passages—“human aquariums” cut into the shadowy corners of the streets—which threatened to disappear under the impending Haussmannization
of Paris. Or rather, the passages frame his various subjects—which include reflections on “blondness,” an accordionist with P-E-S-S-I-M-I-S-M written on the folds of his bellows, bathhouses, shoeblacks, cocktails, and postage stamps.
Labels: Book V, Holly Tavel, Jacques Lacan, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, psychogeography, surrealism, the real