Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Place de Clichy, Paris

Place de Clichy, around 1930

I first heard the name of the Place de Clichy, or simply the Place Clichy, in Louis-Ferdinand Céline's celebrated novel of 1932, Journey to the End of the Night, which begins on the square in 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War.

Ferdinand Bardamu, the novel's hero, is sitting in a café with fellow medical student, Arthur, discussing President Poincaré, who is due to inaugurate a dog show. (The French presidency in the Third Republic was almost entirely ceremonial.) Arthur calls Ferdinand an anarchist, and Ferdinand responds by reciting a poem he has written, 'a kind of prayer of social vengeance'. They discuss the unsuspecting war slowly creeping up on them, and Arthur declares that if his country asks him to shed his blood then his is ready to do so. Ferdinand is less enthusiastic, but when a regiment comes marching past rounding up recruits, it is Ferdinand and not Arthur that joins the procession. They march on to the cheers of the crowds bombarding them with flowers. Ferdinand has never seen so many patriots in all his life! But then it starts to rain, and the patriots begin one by one to drift away. Ferdinand wants to drift away, too, but has left it too late. They reach the barracks, the gate is shut behind them, and he's trapped - like a rat!

The square is a hub and a meeting point of Boulevard des Batignolles, Avenue de Clichy, Rue Caulaincourt, Rue de Clichy, Rue d'Amsterdam and Rue de Saint-Petersbourg. At its centre stands the statue of Marshall Moncey (1754-1842). On 8 January 1814 Moncey was made Major General of the Paris National Guard, and on 30 March 1814 fought heroically at the Clichy gates in the defence of Paris against the Allies. For an entire day, although ten times outnumbered, he fought back the assaults made by Russian forces. While many other of Napoleon's marshals betrayed their emperor during this period leading up to Napoleon's first abdication, Moncey remained loyal throughout, and indeed was the last to fight at the Clichy barrier.

In 1899 nearby Rue Caulaincourt became the location of the Gaumont Palace cinema, which could seat 6,000 spectators and was billed as the largest cinema in the world. It was an attraction until 1973 by which time it had seen its day and was demolished. Also nearby is Parc Monceau, one of the most beautiful parks in Europe. And the Place Clichy is now the home of many hotels and restaurants, as well as being one of the liveliest intersections of La Ville-Lumière, the City of Light.

La Place Clichy by Eugène Galien-Laloue

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