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Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City

Author: Jacques Yonnet

Translator: Christine Donougher  

Fleeing from the Nazis in wartime, Paris Yonnet's story reveals the underbelly of the left bank - the ordinary souls, whores, exiles, drunks and conmen he meets while involved in covert resistance operations and soul searching. In a confiding and lucid tone Yonnet unveils a complex,thrilling and unusual heart of the city.

Kelly Salter in The Big Issue

In Paris Noir, Yonnet tells is about some of the darker quarters of Paris's Left Bank, centred on the place Mauberge and the rue Mouffetard, as he experienced it.It is mainly written during the 1940s, under the occupation and in the immediate post-war period; there is a certain amount dealing with the resistance, but the main thrust of the book is a Paris that existed between the wars - and is well known from the film noir -but has since disappeared. It concentrates on the people, rather than places, a mixture of ordinary workers, tradesmen, artists, con-men and criminals.It invests the area with a sense of mystery including occasional supernatural events; its style is remarkable and Yonnet often draws on language of the inhabitants of the area. It is the perfect counterfoil for J.K.Huysmans' Parisian Sketches which was published back in 2004 and a beautiful snapshot of one of the world's most beautiful cities.

GM in The Crack

Concentrating on the seedy area around Rue Mouffetard, which becomes "La Mouffe" in a typically Parisian abbreviation, Yonnet reveals the dark side of the City of Light in the 1940s in this "secret history of a city".The street life of the Left Bank ticks on much as normal during the Occupation, though Léopoldie the tart stops turning tricks because "the green German uniform does not suit her complexion". Keep- on-Dancin', the killer with a fondness for history, rules the roost. Though describing himself as "sceptical, disillusioned, cynical", Yonnet casually dispatches a traitor in the Resistance. This is film noir in book form.

Christopher Hirst in The Independent

As he hid out in the dark labyrinthine streets of Paris from the Nazis and the odious collaborators of his own government, ducking the hourly patrols where 'the asphalt answers ''turd'' to every resounding step', the young Yonnet maintained his spirits by recording what went on in these dark times. While the Resistance features in this account, it is secondary to Yonnet's wonderfully woven tales of the French capital's inhabitants.

The Herald

In 1940 young Jacques Yonnet, escaping the Nazis took refuge in Paris, his destination the part of the city that few knew intimately, the dark underbelly of the Left Bank where tramps, artists, criminals and con men lived in close and colourful proximity. Focusing both on the city's history between the wars and on the years under occupation, his atmospheric, bewitching account is an evocative slice of non-fiction that defies easy categorization: a beguiling narrative where mystery seeps through every page.

The Good Book Guide

Our author spends the 1940s slinking around the dark background places in Paris, on the run from the Nazis, whose attempts at capture he has outwitted. Here he meets the characters who populate this book with the stories they tell him from the golden era between the wars, and from darker, even stranger eras long before them.
And what stories they are, in character, much like the dirty lamp-lit streets Yonnet traverses. Obscure, mysterious, occasionally glimmering and, for the most part, fascinatingly concerned with the occult. Time goes backwards. Men become voodoo dolls. Truly, it’s breathtaking stuff. Like Poe, but, apparently, true.
Perhaps the book’s great coup, though, is Jacques Yonnet himself. What a great and wise man it is that immerses himself in such degradation with such open ears for the outcasts he finds there, and with such intrepid devotion to their tales. Without him – and his heart beats on every page- we would be without this brilliant and unique account.

Ian Beetlestone in The Leeds Guide

There continue to appear so many books on the 'secret history' of Paris, often by authors with only a tenuous link to the city, that it is hard to believe that the Old Tart has anything left to reveal. It is, therefore, a great relief to at last see, after more than 50 years, an English version of Jacques Yonnet's Rue Des Malefices, an extraordinary psychogeographical account of the Left Bank.

Yonnet evokes a wonderful and frightening world that lurks in the dark interstices of the City of Light: beggars, whores and poets, people who are quick to draw a knife or cast a spell, and are completely foreign to notions of 'responsible' drinking and sexual behaviour. The Old Man Who Appears After Midnight, Tricksy-Pierrot, the Watchmaker of Backward-Running Time and many others haunt a warren of streets and stews where supernatural events are frequent: a vicious one-eyed ginger tom is reincarnated as a murderous lover; a gypsy curse putrefies a hostile hostelry.

What makes Yonnet's memoir so special is the way the real and fantastic meet. After all, it is set during the Occupation, and the author was a Resistance hero. The secrets of Paris play a role in the struggle against the Germans and their collaborators. Thus, the occultist spiv Keep-on-Dancin' initiates Yonnet to a "psychic circuit" that enables him to unmask a Gestapo informer in "the room where only the truth can be told".

Yonnet portrays Paris as a character in her own right: the city is "edgy", the Seine "sulks". The geography determines the behaviour of its inhabitants, and will live on after their deaths. Certain névralgique points in the city incite Parisians to raise barricades, be it during revolutions or the Liberation of 1944. But, like François Villon and Charles Baudelaire, Yonnet conveys the fragility of things. The yarns drunkenly spun in dive bars strive to conjure away a fundamental loneliness: "men are so isolated, prisoners of their own wretched selves, that they can be unbelievably sociable".

Today, the area around "Witchcraft Street" is a tourist trap where no authentic Parisian would deign to tread. The form of a city does change more quickly than the heart of a mortal. If you can't prop up the bar at Pignolette's, or procure the services of Dora-the-Slow-Burner, take this volume to your freezing garret, stretch out on the straw mattress with a crate of rough red wine, and read your way to "the delinquent dawn of a bad day".

Gavin Bond in Scotland on Sunday

Taking the reader on a guided walk through the delightful streets of early 20th century Paris. However it doesn’t just dwell on the pleasantries that lie in Paris’ heart, it takes you down avenues rarely explored, avenues that contain witchcraft, ghosts and bohemians. Occasionally it wanders down paths that annoy, but bear with it and there’s some extraordinary tales lurking. Not to mention some offbeat poetic beauty.

LD in Buzz Magazine

Paris Noir explores the darker side of the City of Lights in this marvellous semi-autobiographical novel. Written by resistance hero and poet, the late Jacques Yonnet, it tells of the mistrust, intrigue and secrecy during the 1940s when Paris was under the Occupation immediately after the war. The book was originally published in French in1954 to huge acclaim, and has now been excellently translated for an English-speaking audience by Christine Donougher. Yonnet’s account centres around the seemy area around the Place Mauberge, but in fact the book concentrates more on people than places. Depicting a frightening world of conmen, whores, beggars, artists and traders with a few supernatural events thrown in for good measure. Yonnet conjures up a Paris straight out of a film noir.

RC in The French Magazine ****

This is Paris Noir, the underside of Paris during the occupation - the Paris of back street bars, shady hotels and marginal characters scraping a living by whatever means available. Outrageous? Yes. The stories told are outrageous, realistic, fantastic, absurd and supernatural. Paris Noir is more in keeping with the fictional styles of Celine, Cendrars and de Maupassant, that is, digressive and elliptical. The whole has more than a resemblance to the Surreal novels of Aragon's Paris Peasant and Breton's Nadja. It is a very unusual book, in fact, a unique gem. And if this book was funded by the Arts Council then what a wonderful use of their funds. More of the same please.

Andrew Barr on Amazon

Originally published in France in 1954 and in English in this fluent translation in 2006, Paris Noir is a curiously singular book, a diverting mixture of guide book and memoir which perfectly fits into that particularly French tradition of vagabondage writing, other exponents of which include Francois Villon and Jean Genet and , perhaps, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine.
Captured by the Germans in1940, after making good his escape, Yonnet returns to his native Paris- about which he was clearly obsessed. He collected stories, most especially stories about those inhabitants of the city who dabbled in the occult. Many of the tales Yonnet strings like pearls on his narrative thread could have been contrived by masters of the macabre such as Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen or E.F. Benson – but we are led to believe that these disturbing events did take place.
Yonnet’s sinister stories are set against the background of wartime Paris and a milieu which marries the criminal with the sexually louche, the sexually outrageous. Here are characters like Pepe the Pansy – ‘A poof like you wouldn’t have thought possible. He had the audacity to solicit at the entrance of the hotel opposite. On crutches, toothless, outrageously made-up, he sometimes wears a filthy wig and a skirt, with his single trouser leg and his wooden leg with the naked end of the stump showing, extending below it…’ Other denizens of this eccentric world include Dolly-the-Slow-Burner, Keep-on-Dancin’, Mina the Cat and Al-by-Myself.
Paris Noir is a fascinating excursion into a world, somewhat familiar – but long faded into memory. Vivid and memorable.

Peter Burton in 80Sixty News

This fabulous and unique book - the adjectives seem perfectly apt here - was originally published in 1954 as Enchantements sur Paris, and then reissued in line with the author's wishes as Rue des Maléfices (Witchcraft Street). Apart from being a rare and quite terrific read, the sort of dark, gruesome page-turner that any one who enjoys the narratives of, say, David Goodis, Charles Willeford or 'Derek Raymond', would surely savour, this is a real one-off, a truly original, grotesque chronicle of lowlife as it was actually lived during several dark and dreadful years.

A work very much of its own peculiarly grim time (written for the most part during World War Two), today it seems extra-curious yet amazingly timeless. How to describe it? Well for starters it's an intimate Forties memoir by an incredibly brave but diffident and modest Resistance hero. The 25-year-old Jacques Yonnet was then a fugitive, a man escaped, a POW on the run from the Nazis in the beloved native city he knew intimately. He chose to go into hiding on the Left Bank, generally keeping to the 5th arrondissement, in whose bars and dives he would hide out and hang out along with an extraordinary motley crew. His friends, acquaintances, enemies and Resistance colleagues included petty crooks, beggars, madmen, starving artists, conmen, whores, black market skivers, drunks, exorcists, visionaries, informers, defrocked priests, mercenaries, psychics, gypsies, and every variety of exotic or threadbare night creature. Occupied Paris, or at least this small, lovingly detailed corner of it, harboured a veritable rogues' gallery; here indeed was a tricky, dangerous underworld that boasted a metropolitan wild bunch worthy of Villon and Céline at their most vituperative and cynical.

Yonnet addressed his readers towards the end of this weird and wonderful saga thus: "What you need to know is this: in certain areas of Paris, the supernatural is part of everyday life." He substantiates that observation quite frequently throughout this exciting book: it's full of odd facts, coincidences, mysteries and marvels. Although Paris Noir is not exactly fortean nor 'psychogeographical', it is exceedingly odd. Anyone interested in the uncanny and the occult will doubtless find much to ponder, since this mysterious genre-bending work is fascinatingly informative as well as thrilling: in its pages can be found curses, betrayals, torture, murder and even cannibalism - all the day-by-day extreme experiences of a crowd of mainly doomed, tragicomical derelicts, surviving as best they can in the direst circumstances, wandering ghosts indeed.

Translator Christine Donougher has done an excellent (and difficult) job rendering the argot of that very special era and place readable and accessible, and she helpfully provides an Introduction and useful Notes. Yonnet's amazing activities and adventures resulted in a dark, unclassifiable gem, and Dedalus are to be congratulated for introducing it to an Anglophone readership.

Alekis Lykiard in

Translated into English for the first time since its release in 1954, Yonnet’s only published book is a macabre, savage account of life on Paris’s Nazi-occupied Left Bank. Like Christopher Isherwood'’ 1939 novel ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, this book sidelines conventional history in favour of anecdotal, autobiographical and brilliantly subjective snapshots of the city’s marginalised ’human detritus’ in a series of cinematic vignettes that straddle the real, the absurd and the supernatural. Yonnet was active in the Resistance, liaising with London to coordinate Allied bombings, and he was hunted by the Germans. It is therefore unsurprising that a taut paranoia pervades the diary-like descriptions. Yonnet refuses to name his players and collaborationists (‘ my beloved bohemians’), gifting each a surrealist codename: Pepe the Pansy(‘ a poof like you wouldn’t have thought possible’); Leopoldie, a whore turned flower seller; junk dealer Bizinque,(he’d find you a gramophone in the desert’); and Mina the Cat, whose one-eyed ginger tom escapes and returns as murderous lover Goupil. The suspenseful story is fractured throughout appropriately perhaps for the times (and for a narrator whose most enduring friendship is with a knife-pulling ear-slicing killer he calls Keep-on-Dancin’).The roving Proustian prose is at times hard to navigate but this is ultimately a unique panoramic memoir; an admiring but never sentimental love letter to the French capital destined to be loved in its turn by fans of film noir.

Alex Barlow in Time Out *****

RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 280

Publication date: 31.12.2006

ISBN numbers:
978 1 903517 48 2
978 1 907650 36 9

World English