#147: THE SHAME OF THE STREETS. Strange what you’ll run into: Bubu de Montparnasse, by Charles-Louis Philippe, which I discovered on the fiction shelves a few weeks ago at the Barn. I’d read it once decades ago in the original French, but here it was in an (uncredited) English translation, published in 1951 by Shakespeare House. From the ads in the back I gather that Shakespeare House gravitated to writers and titles just out at the far edge of respectability: Zola, de Maupassant, Pierre Louys, Housman, Lawrence, John O’Hara. The blurb line for this edition of Bubu says it is “the last unanswerable word on the shame of the streets.” The title page verso promises it is “Complete and Unexpurgated.” The whole tone of the fifties came back to me: the mixture of the attempt at boldness and the suggestion of smarm, carefully worded to keep it in the realm of the legally purchasable. You had to go through a lot for a very little bit of dirt in those days.
At this distance it would seem incredible that anyone would read Philippe for the purposes of smut. Philippe came from a genuinely poor family background—a beggar grandmother, a clogmaker father, the memory of having begged for food before he could work. To the end of his life (he died in his mid-thirties of meningitis) he identified with this class: “We have been walled up like the poor, and sometime when Life came knocking, it carried a big stick.” He thought himself “the first person from a race of the poor to enter the world of literature.” In Bubu his characters live in the daily shadow of poverty, and Philippe’s identification with his characters—that combination of the tough and the tender that we think of as being particularly French—would make any attempt to read his work for prurient reasons feel genuinely shameful, like some sour taste of voyeurism. He loves these characters because he knows them.
Bubu is a simple tale of a sexual triangle: Pierre, a provincial youth trying his hand at living in the big city (Paris, of course—is there another city?); Berthe, a young woman, who slips into prostitution; and Maurice, Berthe’s lover, who lives off her and the occasional bit of larceny—a tough, who has acquired the nickname of Bubu. Pierre becomes infatuated with Berthe; Berthe is torn between Pierre and Bubu; the story goes from there. It is told in the ripe prose of its time—the ragged end of the belle époque, among characters for whom things are not very belle. They are not the intellectual bohemians of Henri-Pierre Roche’s Jules and Jim, who have, for all their limited finances, the artistic energies of the period and the heady spirits of those who survived World War I; Berthe and Maurice are simply elements in the vast crowds and traffic of Paris, surviving just beyond the margins of proper society, knowing they’re nobodies but hoping to get a little pleasure (innocent or not) out of life. The shock of Bubu de Montparnasse for American readers is that Philippe hasn’t a moment of indignation at his protagonists’ lives, or a moment of what T.S. Eliot in his preface calls “religious or humanitarian zeal.” Philippe has no moment of illusion that the rich are going to cease existing at the expense of the poor, or that he will persuade them to do so. So while the book certainly operates at a fair distance from greatness, the raggedy pathos of Bubu de Montparnasse is like a story we hear of friends of friends on those evenings when everyone’s been drinking and is feeling, perhaps, a little vulnerable—convincing, discomfiting and stubbornly memorable.