This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
National treasures are easily taken for granted. If they stick round long enough, people barely see them at all. For a Parisian, taking the Métro is a daily exercise little different from brushing one’s teeth. It’s a matter of routine, though arguably not a very hygienic one given the smells, the rats and the strikes. In appearance, there isn’t much poetic material here.
“It’s as if Parisians are spoilt by their Metro,” argues Andrew Martin in Metropolitain. Wherever French people see merde, there’s always someone over the Manche capable of appreciating a picturesque glitter. In his new book, Martin attempts that Baudelairean gesture in the form of an “ode” grounded in his irredeemable — I’m tempted to say helpless — love for the French capital and its “beauty perpetuated underground”.
Overlapping with much of Parisian life, the Métro has inspired many authors to use it for mapping history. In Metronome (2009), Lorànt Deutsch used station names to conduct a chronological survey of France. In contrast, Martin’s structure emphasises the cursory aspect of his writing, following the fluid contours of personal experience.
That seems ideal, for Martin confesses that he travelled in “optimal circumstances; that is, while on some kind of holiday, and usually travelling during the off-peak”. Indeed rose-tinted glasses easily encourage bursts of lyricism and, at times, long-winded comments about the perceived charm of each line. The lightness of Martin’s style rescues the book from giving in fully to the temptation of a coquettish tone.
Martin’s ode starts by mingling quirky historical facts with personal impressions acquired since the 1970s. Martin narrates, for example, the impression of “late-night conversations” of Parisians who “[shout] across the platforms”, or the effect of Guimard flowery lights like “seeing a nightclub in the daytime”.
Readers are then ushered towards two sections where the author reflects on the general history of the Métro, before alighting at a fourth chapter that explores further the underground’s aesthetics. The journey ends with a tour of all the subway’s lines.
This subterranean poesy is riddled with numerous references to cinema, literature and music that feature the Métropolitain. Alain Delon appears at regular intervals as Martin lauds the old trains’ door-opening system (which allows Jef, the assassin and main character in Le Samouraï, handily to escape his pursuers). Martin himself meets some of these legends around the Métro: he admits he “waved hopefully” to Jane Birkin when she was “filming near the pretty entrance to Lamarck-Caulaincourt station”. Unfortunately, she didn’t recognise him.
A man, on trains, with a high level of remarkably specific details? That might sound like a red flag for some. Yet the nerdy aspect of the whole enterprise sparks a kind-hearted joy. Roaming the bowels of Paris, Martin candidly embraces the arbitrariness of his intimate and fragmented travelogue. The rhythm and tone, at times hieratic and generally anecdotal, toy with the poetry of everyday life. His pen revives wonderful French words such as loqueteau, chuintement and carrossage.
The evocation of colours, shapes and poetic names wipes out the dark image associated with the Parisian underground nowadays. The “foreign shades” of the Métro are not simply those revealed to British eyes. On a more fundamental level, they are the layers of the past, excavated in intricate arrangements.
Parisians have waged revolutions for less than this
Martin is aware that he is sometimes playing with fire. After all, his journey opens with a reconfiguration of Paris’s geography, renaming the Right and Left banks into “North and South”. Parisians have waged revolutions for less than this. If one finds the courage to forgive him, there’s perhaps some logic there. Shaking Parisians’ perspective, like a Viking who would be rowing upstream, the anatomy of the Métro is rearranged to better explore it. In doing so, he invites fellow voyageurs to rethink their own preconceived ideas.
The book’s strength lies in revealing inherent contradictions at play in the French psyche. Somewhere between aristocratic caution against change and imperatives to embrace technological progress, the Métro’s development highlights existential tensions within modernity. For example, the criticisms made by Charles Garnier (designer of the 19th century Paris opéra) anticipate much postmodern discourse: “Paris must not be made into a factory, it must stay a museum.”
With restaurant addresses and tips for surviving amongst Parisians, Martin occasionally gives the impression that his explorations offer blueprints for readers in quest of novelty. Metropolitain, however, remains an evocation, a clattering clutter of facts and personal recollections as dazing as the rattle of trains leaving a jammed station, serenaded by accordéons.
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