Paris Vagabond

By Jean-Paul Clebert. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Available from New York Review Books

Jean-Paul Clébert was a boy from a respectable middle-class family who ran away from school, joined the French Resistance, and never looked back. Making his way to Paris at the end of World War II, Clébert took to living on the streets, and in Paris Vagabond, a so-called “aleatory novel” assembled out of sketches he jotted down at the time, he tells what it was like. His “gallery of faces and cityscapes on the road to extinction” is an astonishing depiction of a world apart—a Paris, long since vanished, of the poor, the criminal, and the outcast—and a no less astonishing feat of literary improvisation: Its long looping breathless sentences, streetwise, profane, lyrical, incantatory, are an adventure in their own right. Praised on publication by the great novelist and poet Blaise Cendrars and embraced by the young Situationists as a kind of manual for living off the grid, Paris Vagabond—here published with the starkly striking photographs of Clébert’s friend Patrice Molinard—is a raw and celebratory evocation of the life of a city and the underside of life.

Jean-Paul Clébert (1926–2011) ran away from his Jesuit boarding school at the age of seventeen to join the French Re­sistance, serving undercover in a Montmartre brothel to gather intelligence on the patrons who were German soldiers. After the liberation of Paris he wandered through a catalog of odd jobs including boat painter, cook, newspaper seller, funeral director’s mute, and café proprietor. For many months he lived with the city’s down-and-outs, though without losing touch with some of Paris’s literary figures, notably Blaise Cendrars, and gathered the raw material for this book, first published in 1952 as Paris insolite. In 1956 he moved to Provence, where he remained for the rest of his life, writing many books, including a classic firsthand study of Gypsy life, originally published in 1961 and translated by Charles Duff as The Gypsies; and the encyclopedic Dictionnaire du Surréalisme (1996).

Donald Nicholson-Smith was born in Manchester, England and is a longtime resident of New York City. He came across Clébert’s Paris insolite as a teenager and has long wished to bring it to an Anglophone audience. Among his many translations are works by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Henri Lefebvre, Raoul Vaneigem, Antonin Artaud, Jean Laplanche, Guillaume Apollinaire, Guy Debord, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Thierry Jonquet, and (with Alyson Waters) Yasmina Khadra.  For NYRB Classics he has translated Manchette’s Fatale and The Mad and the Bad, which won the 28th Annual Translation Prize of the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation for fiction.