A Flâneur’s Guide: Paris, the Left Bank

Left Bank Lore

February 17, 2021By Heidi EllisonBooks
Graffiti from the house of the late Serge Gainsbourg on the Rue Verneuil, now a pilgrimage site for fans of the bad-boy singer.
Graffiti from the house of the late Serge Gainsbourg on Rue Verneuil, now a pilgrimage site for fans of the bad-boy French troubadour.

Flâneurs who enjoyed last week’s article about the pleasures of wandering aimlessly through the streets of Paris will be happy to hear that there is a new book, A Flaneur’s Guide: Paris, the Left Bank, by the mysterious “richardb,” designed just for them (when visiting the south side of the Seine, at least). Since travel is pretty much out of the question and so many places are closed, for the moment it is more of an armchair travel book than a guidebook, with plenty of to give readers something to dream about.

Richardb is an excellent insider guide to the Left Bank, which he obviously knows and loves well. This charmingly witty and idiosyncratic book consists of alphabetically ordered entries, but not on such familiar topics as Notre Dame or the Église Saint-Germain. Instead, you’ll find both vital and quirky information. For example, you will learn how Parisian students increase their luck before taking an exam (in the entry “Montaigne, Michel de”) by paying a visit to the statue of the philosopher on the Square Paul Painlevé: “The traditional ritual dictates that you approach the statue, rub the shoe and exclaim, ‘Salut, Montaigne!’” This explains why the tip of the shoe on the bronze sculpture is so shiny.

The book contains a multitude of tidbits like this, as well as the kind of historical and linguistic information Francophiles love. One example is a rundown of the various explanations for why Paris’s nickname is “Paname” and how to use it in a sentence to impress the locals: when asked if you are enjoying your stay, you can say, “Mais oui, bien sûr, j’adore Paname.”

Richardb also knows his Left Bank restaurants and especially bars and is happy to tell you all about a number of atmospheric holes-in-the-wall a tourist might have difficulty finding, like the funky Comptoir des Canettes, better known to habitués as Chez Georges, whose clientele still captures “the essence of the Left Bank.”

Great advice for flâneurs can be found in the entry “Varda, Agnès,” about the beloved filmmaker with two-tone hair, who recently died at the age of 90. The book recommends seeing her movies (notably Daguerréotypes) and taking a walk down the market street Rue Daguerre, where the diminutive director had lived since the 1950s.

The author has not forgotten such fabled Left Bank denizens as Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and the artists of Montparnasse and the now-famed cafés they frequented, among them La Coupole and Le Select.

There is also room for mystery here. The entry “Elstir” (the name of the painter modeled on Monet in Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu) describes a curious shop of that name, which the author knows only “from many hours of peeking through the plate-glass windows and velvet curtains.” He requests input from readers who are able to garner more information.

I have only one quibble with the book: too many typographical errors, but apparently, a clean new edition is already being prepared.

The Flaneur’s Guide is a delight to be dipped into at random or read cover-to-cover when you need to be steeped in Left Bank lore to feed your dreams of Paris or just to learn new things about the city you love or live in.

Full disclosure: I know “richardb” (although I am not at liberty to reveal his name), who credits me with taking him to his first bar in Paris (an occasion that is lost in the foggy fumes of memory), and there is even an entry on Paris Update in his book. The author is obviously a man of good taste.

A Flaneur’s Guide: Paris, the Left Bank can be ordered online here. Special offer for Paris Update readers: 20% off the already reasonable (€11.95) cover price. Just type in the promotional code PU2021 when checking out to get the 20% reduction. The code is good until April 1, 2021.

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