Friday, December 21, 2012

'Paris Peasant' by Louis Aragon

Louis’ Aragon’s anti-novel Paris Peasant [Paysan de Paris, 1926] is one of the earliest Surrealist texts. To my mind, it’s superior to Breton’s Nadja, though the latter is better known and more widely read now, perhaps because it has a recognisable plot of sorts (that of the author’s romance with the titular heroine), whereas the structure of Paris Peasant is determined only by Aragon’s perambulations around a soon-to-be-demolished shopping arcade (the longest part of the book is a tour of all the shops it contains) and the Buttes-Chaumont park. Throughout, Aragon pays particular attention to places where the distinction between public and private is in abeyance, as indeed it is in arcades and parks in general, but even more so in public lavatories, bathhouses, hairdressers, brothels, and the more secluded corners of Buttes-Chaumont after dark.

The walk around the park put me in mind of several photographers: Atget, who in fact took several photographs in Buttes-Chaumont (Google tells me they were of trees, but perhaps he also photographed the statuary, as was his wont), Brassai, whose Paris After Dark contains several images of locked park entrances (Aragon and friends are surprised to discover Buttes-Chaumont open when they arrive there by taxi at night); and, most of all, several infrared images shot by Weegee of lovers in New York parks. Like Weegee's, Aragon’s nocturnal stroll is also surrounded by partially-visible canoodling couples, but he leaves them in semi-obscurity, which is more inspirational for his surrealist purposes.

If I have understood Weegee's technique correctly (it is rarely explained), he used a flash with an infrared filter to expose the film: the filter suppressed the light source from the point-of-view of his subjects, but allowed infrared wavelengths through to provide enough light to expose the film. He shot several famous images in darkened cinemas and on the Coney Island beaches using the same technique. The results are far from seductive, since infrared light exaggerates bone shadows on the face, and highlights skin imperfections, especially male stubble. But they are revealing. Nonetheless, it seems a mean-spirited – not to mention voyeuristic – pursuit, and I can’t imagine anyone replicating it now without being prosecuted. I’m glad the photographs exist, but Aragon’s descriptions are both more suggestive and more tactful: desire generalised and mythologised, like the gouged outlines of hearts and genitals that Brassai photographed for his graffiti project.

One of the most inspired aspects of Paris Peasant is Aragon's inclusion of transcriptions of ephemera - newspaper cuttings, price lists, product advertisements, shop signs - which give a fascinating insight into the history of the everyday in 20s Paris, and (in the form of inscriptions on a column in the park and a disquistion on statues) into the relationship between the ephemeral and the historical. These transcripts are not photographic reproductions of the originals, at least in my English translation (Sebald's work occasionally includes such photographs of ephemera, but Aragon was the pioneer here). The texts are instead displayed in a variety of layouts that attempt to mimic the designs of the originals. This has a strange effect: a strictly mimetic intention (which is, moreover, concerned with written texts that do not aspire to innovation) results in highly original typography in the context of a book.

I wish (I wish!) I had had the foresight to retain receipts from Venice in 2004 (the setting and time for much of Reciprocity Failure), and to take related notes on signs and prices, so as to follow Aragon's example.

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