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The Place de la Bastille: The Story of a Quartier.

Keith Reader, The Place de la Bastille: The Story of a Quartier. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011. vi + 184 pp.

In the early hours of May 7, 2012, France's newly-elected socialist president arrived at the Place de la Bastille to address supporters, reaffirming the political and symbolic importance of this Parisian space. Imploring his audience to remember this moment, "trente-et-un ans apres, jour pour jour" Mitterrand's Bastille election gathering, Francois Hollande proclaimed "Portez loin le message, souvenez-vous toute votre vie de ce grand rassemblement de la Bastille" (1) Throughout his compelling study of this quartier, Keith Reader describes the Place de la Bastille's historic prominence as an "important rallying-point for the Left" (3). Of Mitterrand's 1981 election. Reader writes that "the Place de la Bastille was filled with a deliriously celebratory crowd for what remains--possibly forever--its last grand political moment" (124). The fact that France's second socialist president should stage his post-victory celebration in this symbolically-charged space underscores the importance of the quartier as an active political breeding ground in France's collective memory; it also demonstrates the relevance of Reader's study, which anticipated Hollande's election by one year.

In this richly intertexual book. Reader weaves together literature, film, and popular culture, social and political history and his own experience into what he calls a "defiantly eclectic [approach]" (18) to his "detailed cultural and historical survey" (I) of the Place de la Bastille. Covering the quartier s beginnings as the center of Paris's furniture industry through the 1989 construction of the Opera-Bastille, Reader's chapters highlight its central role throughout important moments of Parisian history: 1789, Haussmannisation and the Occupation, among others. Though the chapters are structured chronologically, the author does not limit himself to texts produced during the designated period. Rather, Reader widens his approach to include works about the period; in his chapter on the pre-Revolutionary quartier, for example, he mines both the writings of Louis-Sebastien Mercier and Jean Diwo's late-twentieth-century historical trilogy Les Dames da faubourg for material. Consequently, his reader gains a sense of the history that transpired in this space, and of the lingering resonance of those events in this Parisian lieu de memoire.

The principle narrative here shows the transformation Reader sees taking place in the quartier: from a working-class, tempestuous political space (he calls this Faubourg) to the gentrified, cultural bobo haven as it exists today (he calls this Bastille). Faubourg is the "largely sell-regulating community of skilled workers, often living in conditions of crowding and deprivation ... [which] can be seen, if not as a powder-keg, then certainly as a fuse ready to be lit" (30); it is Louis Chevalier's "classes dangereuses"; it is Gavroche (whom Reader calls "at home [...] in the Faubourg" [50]); it is, finally, the "revolutionary volcano that had erupted five times in less than a century" which, with few notable exceptions, became "dormant" after the Commune. Bastille is a "radical-chic residential and cultural centre" (5), where entertainment like movie houses and bals musettes became dominant during the Belle Epoque, where workers could no longer afford to live, and where the Opera-Bastille "unquestionably brought about the most dramatic changes in the area since the days of Hauss-mann" (136). Though Reader takes care to underscore the "enticing seediness" (103) of Bastille, as well as moments of political eruption there during the twentieth century (Mitterrand's 1981 election; 1936 demonstrations by the Front populaire), his study effectively argues that Bastille's "social and cultural composition had irreversibly changed" (140). The author maintains, however, that what is so crucial about this space is that its double mythology (center of revolutionary and cultural activity) co-exists in Parish collective memory: "the area [is] an architectural palimpsest in which different, often divergent tendencies in the evolution of Paris as a whole may be read" (2).

Reader grounds his methodological approach in both canonical and recent scholarship on Paris and urban studies. Specifically, he looks to "founding texts of flanerie," like Aragon's Pay son de Paris, Fargue's Le Pieton de Paris, and especially Benjamin's The Arcades Project, which offers him an exemplary model of writing, an "amalgam of order and aleatoriness" (10). (Reader has even included a flanerie in his text, a walking guide to contemporary Bastille). This purposefully meandering approach to the quart ier can at times leave the reader wishing for more order--digressions like a list of TV films depicting the Commune, which the author admits to not having accessed, seem distracting. Nevertheless, Reader's vast knowledge about this area makes The Place de la Bastille an engaging book for those interested in Parisian history and in French culture more generally.


(1.) "Hollande a la Bastille: 'Merci peuple de France ici rassenible.'" Le Monde 7 May 2012.8 July 2012

Anne O'Neil-Henry

Georgetown University
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Author:O'Neil-Henry, Anne
Publication:French Forum
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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