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  • City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris by Aimée Boutin
  • Richard Hobbs
City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris. By Aimée Boutin. (Studies in Sensory History.) Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 208 pp., ill.

Noise is Aimée Boutin’s topic; sound is her field of enquiry. Her book uses the sound-scapes of nineteenth-century Paris to construct a new and sensory account of social reactions to urban transformation centred in Haussmannization. In Napoleonic times, the city streets abounded in invasive noise, typically cris de Paris, a tradition from medieval times: the voices of hawkers and pedlars. With modernization this noise decreases, leading even to nostalgia for its loss. Evidence for such soundscapes must necessarily be indirect, since the very notion of recording sound began only in the 1870s. Verbal accounts of sounds are therefore essential material, as are visual representations by caricaturists and lithographers of pedlars and other perpetrators of street noise. Boutin calls this approach ‘word–image–sound relations’ (p. 194), a multi-sensory investigation in which sound is elevated to primary status and not relegated in any hierarchy of the senses. In marshalling such evidence of soundscapes Boutin identifies a crucial and central type of listening witness: the aural flâneur. She rightly finds reticence and ambivalence regarding sound in [End Page 613] Walter Benjamin’s classic accounts of the flâneur and sets out to redress the balance in favour of aural witnesses. These aural flâneurs encompass a wide range, from casual travellers to the producers of guidebooks, and from specialists in flânerie, notably Victor Fournel, to flâneurs-poètes. Concerning the last of these, Boutin judiciously identifies as a key text Baudelaire’s ‘Le Mauvais Vitrier’ from Le Spleen de Paris, since it encapsulates the citizen’s complex encounter with street noise and puts the reader on the path to being a ‘reader-flâneur’ (p. 113). Baudelaire’s glazier is contrasted in particular with Arsène Houssaye’s inferior treatment of the same topic, and more generally with sentimentalized city soundscapes, such as those of François Coppée. Boutin then traces a development of the Baudelairean model through to Charles Cros, Jean Richepin, Jules Laforgue, J.-K. Huysmans in his Croquis parisiens, Jean-François Raffaëlli’s Les Types de Paris, and a glimpse of fin-de-siècle avant-gardism with Georges Lorin. We have passed from les cris de Paris to Les Types de Paris in which Mallarmé’s Chansons bas provide a fitting end-point of this journey through soundscapes. The central thread of the street pedlar gives a specificity to Boutin’s work that is constantly revealing and persuasive, but the scope and interest of her argument go much wider. Although Balzac is included, the novel in general is not, suggesting opportunities for other itineraries through city soundscapes, and Boutin’s copious end-matter of notes and bibliography points in such directions. Her book is the fourth in a series entitled Studies in Sensory History, edited by Mark M. Smith—an instance of a renewed and expanding interest in foregrounding the sensory in accounts of both history and the arts. This book is exploratory and rich in its investigation of multi-sensory critical methods as well as in its pursuit of the aural flâneur.

Richard Hobbs
University of Bristol


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pp. 613-614
Launched on MUSE
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