The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Paris ed. by Anna-Louise Milne (review)
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The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Paris. Edited by Anna-Louise Milne. (Cambridge Companions to Literature and Classics.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xxiii + 259 pp.

Ten volumes of this size would be insufficient to exhaust what is almost certainly the most celebrated and hallowed literary city in the world, and Anna-Louise Milne and her team have done an admirable job in attempting the impossible. Milne’s opening invocation of Walter Benjamin, for whom ‘Paris is the city that can be “held” in one’s hand’ (p. 1), announces what might be described as the work’s guiding trope, that of the city — or, since this is Paris, the city —as palimpsestic text and Ur-locale of (however defined) modernity. From Joan DeJean’s evocation of the seventeenth-century Marais as ‘the world capital of romance and romantic intrigue’ (p. 26) right through to Michael Sheringham’s construction of a distinctly un-Haussmannian Paris characterized by ‘disappearance and the desire to efface one’s traces and start afresh’ (p. 231), the city appears as protean and multifaceted, through the evocation not only of ‘usual-suspects’ canonical literature (Owen Heathcote on Balzac, Brian Nelson on Zola) but also of libertine (Stéphane Van Damme), lesbian (Nicole G. Albert), and banlieue writing (Alec G. Hargreaves). Of particular interest to those (such as the present reviewer) with a fascination for cultural topography may well be Tom Stammers on the Faubourg Saint-Antoine (aka Bastille) and Nicholas Hewitt on Céline and Montmartre. There are omissions (it would have been a [End Page 423] good idea to name-check Villon at the very least), inaccuracies (Marcel Carné is rebaptized as Michel), and infelicities (the final paragraph of Jeremy Stubbs’s otherwise excellent chapter on the surrealists seems too compacted by half), but no more than might be expected from so diverse and wide-ranging a work. One danger perhaps inherent in an undertaking such as this is the memorialization of its object, nowhere more perilous than when dealing with a city often stigmatized as passéiste by its contemporary detractors. This compilation steers clear of such a risk, not only through its inclusion of the marginal and even taboo areas already instanced, but through its inscription of political tumult as a key theme throughout. The writing of place has, in large part thanks to francophonie, assumed considerable importance in recent times; Milne’s collection contributes significantly to suggesting ways in which the writing of Paris has changed and continues to change along with the city itself. Nor is its cultural inventory exhaustive, for Paris in the visual and performing arts and in the cinema remain ripe for a similar survey. À suivre?

Keith Reader
University of London Institute in Paris
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