Saturday, 2 July 2011

Le Passage de l'Opera

 I was seeking….to use the accepted novel-form as the basis for the production of a new kind of novel that would break all the traditional rules governing the writing of fiction, one that would be neither a narrative nor a character study, a novel that the critics would be obliged to approach empty headed, without any of the weapons which customarily help them exercise their stupid cruelty, because in this instance the rules of the game would all have been swept aside.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Louis Aragon 1969

Paris Peasant is a novel written by the French surrealist and communist Louis Aragon, published in 1926 it uses an aesthetic style of writing known as ‘le merveilleux quotidian’ (magic realism) to create images of the fantastical from everyday mundane situations. The first half of the book paints a vividly stylistic picture of the city’s once famous arcades - specifically Le Passage de l’Opera - just prior to their demolition by the Haussmanian civic planners.

Aragon's adventures within the arcade alternate between strange hallucinatory visions, which often drift into detailed minutia about the places of commerce and their patrons, through to scathing indictments of the city’s civic planners, bankers and political elite.

The following extract is a description of one of the shops in Le Passage de l’Opera:-

I finally walked out into the passage. By that time the lights had already been switched off. My attention was suddenly attracted by a sort of humming noise which seemed to be coming from the direction of the cane shop, and I was astonished to see that it’s window was bathed in a greenish, almost submarine light, the source of which remained invisible. It was the same kind of phosphorescence that, I remember, emanated from the fish I watched, as a child, from the jetty of Port Bail on the Contentin peninsula; but still, I had to admit to myself that even though the canes might conceivably possess the illuminating properties of creatures of the deep, a physical explanation would still scarcely account for this supernatural gleam and, above all, the noise whose low throbbing echoed back from the arched roof. I recognized the sound: it was the same voice of the seashells that has never ceased to amaze poets and film-stars. The whole ocean in the Passage de l’Opera. The canes floated gently like seaweed. I had still not recovered from my enchantment when I noticed that a human form was swimming among the various levels of the window display. Although not quite as tall as an average woman, she did not in the least give the impression of being a dwarf. Her smallness seemed, rather, to derive from distance, and yet the apparition was moving about just behind the windowpane. Her hair floated behind her, her fingers occasionally clutched at one of the canes. At first I thought I must be face to face with a siren in the most conventional sense of the term, for I certainly had the impression that the lower half of this charming spectre, who was naked down to a very low waistline, consisted of a sheath of steel or scales or possibly rose petals. But by dint of concentrating my attention on her gliding act among the weals of atmosphere, I suddenly recognised this person, despite her emaciated features and distraught appearance. It was under the dubious circumstances of the  insolent occupation of the Rhineland, and of an intoxicated delight in prostitution, that I had first met Lisel, by the banks of the river Saar. She had refused to join the rest of  her people in their flight from defeat, and all night long, as she paraded the Sofienstrasse, she sang songs she had learned from her father, a Rhine hunting captain. What on earth could she be doing here, among the canes?   

Although the book was written as a farewell letter by Aragon to his surrealist companions and so is rooted in the period and culture, it has in recent years enjoyed a renaissance and become recognised as an early blueprint for the movement  known as psychogeography (‘the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’) and as such has gained a cult following.

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