PRINT February 1994


Adrian Rifkin's Street Noises

Adrian Rifkin, Street Noises: Parisian Pleasure 1900-40 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993), 221 pages. Illustrations.

When I was a child my father took me up to the viewing platform above the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Pointing south he said “Look. There’s the top of the Eiffel Tower.” And there it was, barely visible, on the far horizon. Many years later I was up on the same platform once more, with a friend. “Look,” I said, “there’s the top of the Eiffel Tower.” “Don’t be so daft,” said my friend, “that’s the Crystal Palace radio transmitter for south London!” And of course it was.

Adrian Rifkin first glimpsed Paris in anecdotes of visits his grandmother made there in the ’20s. His Paris, then, is a city initially imagined from the perspective of a child from a Jewish Alexandrian family, growing up in a Manchester that for Rifkin “even today, on a wet November evening . . . in the little streets behind the Arndale Centre, is more apt to evoke a certain form of the urban poetic than any quartier of modern Paris.” Rifkin is bracingly uninterested in the familiar Paris-as-Modernity narratives that lead us, for example, from Baudelaire to André Breton to Antonin Artaud, or from Courbet to Pablo Picasso to Chaim Soutine. He prefers his own genealogies, which are primarily concerned with the sounds of street life, the songs people sing to themselves at bus stops, the entertainers who provide the materials by which we remember our histories as Londoners, New Yorkers, or Parisians. In his own words, this involves “the typological archive of entertainment,” as disclosed in such metropolitan faits divers as fan clubs, small ads, popular crime-magazines, and so on.

Street Noises thus consists largely of a reading of the leading social types who populate early-20th-century French popular culture, from detective fiction to dance music—the matelot, the legionnaire, the homosexual, the prostitute, and so on. Rifkin is especially good at interpreting the changing public personae of such singers as Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf, whom he reads as exemplary products of the new technologies of radio, cinema, and recording. Unfortunately the reader’s sense of this history is frequently confused by a parallel narrative, of how writers such as Colette and Pierre Mac Orlan moved out from turn-of-the-century literary bohemia and into the new world of the emergent mass media and its institutions. In this respect, Rifkin’s montagelike style does not serve him or his material very well. There are too many things going on at once: a fascinating chapter on the policing of homosexuality, for example, seems to me to have little sense of the limited social choices available to French homosexuals, and of the obliterative force of French high-cultural homophobia (as obvious in episodes ranging from the loathsome sexual “dialogues” of the Surrealists to the dismal lives of André Gide, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, et al.). Rifkin is also oddly selective, or am I alone in thinking Charles Trenet’s “Ménilmontant,” “Revoir Paris,” and “La romance de Paris” as emblematic as the songs of any other French singer?

Rifkin’s greatest gift is for the exposition of lyrics, and of the transitions of performers’ careers from “le Music-Hall” to national and international celebrity. His analyses of the figures of the sailor and the legionnaire are especially rich, and the sexuality of the flâneur has never before been interrogated as it is here. On cinema Rifkin is less convincing; his conclusions on Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis are surprisingly vague, and his overall choice of films to discuss is limited and arbitrary. What, for example, does it mean to say of Les Enfants that it “was not so much a historical film as one that slipped behind the present and reconstituted its conventions of historical distance,” or that “its crucial images are not of change but of exchange, of regression rather than progress, of circularity and loss”? Yet if Rifkin’s Paris seems ephemeral, this is for the perfectly good reason that he trusts the evidence of “ephemera.” He helps us understand how the Paris Commune of 1871 can live on, over a hundred years later, in the name of a successful Manhattan restaurant and a (briefly) successful British pop group.

Simon Watney