Once, in Paris, I had the idea of writing a book on the impact of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s ‘Plan of Paris’ on the literary world, which would have be done by means of detailed comparisons between the novels of Balzac and Zola.
For the characters in Balzac’s novels inhabit grimy, twisting alleys and work in streets which had gone by Zola’s time, when elegant boulevards had appeared (Balzac died in 1850; Haussmann was Prefect of the Seine from 1853-1870, during which time he transformed the city; Zola’s first novel appeared in 1867. The best short account of Haussmann’ work I know is that in Giedion’s book Space, Time and Architecture (1963). At that time, apart from Giedion, I must have read and possessed a dozen volumes of La Comedie Humaine and half of the twenty novels of the Les Rougon-Macquart sequence. I still treasure Cousine Bette (1846) and the more powerful Thérèse Raquin (1867, not in the Rougon-Macquart), more than the others, poor but attractive women who are in some ways Parisian Little Dorrits. But above all my favourite Balzac is Les Illusions Perdues (1837), with its sad but realistic portrait of the young provincial writer, Lucien, seeking to make his name in the Parisian literary world. Other pertinent portraits of Paris pre-Haussmann, with vivid descriptive passages, are Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) and Eugene Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (1842).
Zola's is a new world. He was always very precise in his use of Parisian streets. L’ Œuvre, for example, opens with the artist Claude Lantier walking past the Hôtel de Ville in the first sentence, and mentions three street names on the first page; on one page of the third chapter, there appear the names of two squares and six streets in the Latin Quarter in three of which are located hotels where I often used to stay (in Rue Jacob, Rue Bonaparte and Rue des Beaux-Arts). Reading his novels in situ was a much more powerful experience than those of other French authors - with the exception of Balzac. For while there are no boulevards in Balzac, in a novel like Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877) the following make an appearance: Boulevard de la Chapelle, Boulevard Rochechouart, Boulevard Magenta, Boulevard des Invalides and Boulevard Montmartre, and in chapter 13 Zola writes that “… les boulevards avaient pris leur paix du matin; les rentiers du voisinage se promenaient au soleil” (Ch.13), echoing the aspiration of Haussmann to create light after the dark alleys of Balzac.
Later in the novel, Lorilleux suggests “quelque chose de bien simple, une promenade sur les boulevards extèrieurs jusqu’au Père-Lachaise” (Ch.72), something that was impossible just a few years earlier - for the idea of “promenade” is one of something pleasant, relaxing and safe. In fact, one of the objectives of Haussmann’s Plan was to improve the health of Paris by demolishing the many “infected alleyways and centers of epidemics” and create large boulevards to facilitate the circulation of air and light - but also of troops. His success is apparent if we compare that pleasant stroll in the sun with this scene from Cousine Bette: “Les ténèbres, le silence, l'air glacial, la profondeur caverneuse du sol concourent à faire de ces maisons des espèces de cryptes , des tombeaux vivants. Lorsqu’on passe en cabriolet le long de ce demi-quartier mort, et que le regard s'engage dans la ruelle du Doyenné, l'âme a froid, l'on se demande qui peut demeurer là, ce qui doit s’y passer le soir, à l'heure où cette ruelle se change en coupe-gorge, et oia les vices de Paris, enveloppés du manteau de la nuit, se donnent pleine carrière. Ce problème, effrayant par lui-même, devient horrible quand on voit que ces prétendues maisons ont pour ceinture un marais du côté de la rue de Richelieu, un océan de pavés moutonnants du côté des Tuileries, de petits jardins, des baraques sinistres du côté des galeries, et des steppes de pierres de taille et de démolitions du côté du vieux Louvre.” The atmosphere is lugubrious at best. The four-hundred feet wide Avenue de l’Impératrice (now known as Avenue Foch), for which areas like this were demolished, led up to the new pleasure gardens of the Bois de Boulogne which belonged to another world.