Though Paul Poissel’s Haussmann, or the Distinction took its title from the obstinate bureaucrat who ushered Paris into the modern age, the novel itself made only the briefest ripple in literature’s own modernist flood upon its first appearance in 1922, the year of Ulysses and The Waste Land. Poissel, a draftsman and dabbling poet who died two months before Haussmann‘s publication, had crafted an unfashionably antiquarian fairy tale that read as if it were cowritten by Dickens and Flaubert. It hinged on an abandoned child, bearing the heavy literary freight of the name Madeleine, who is both charmed and cursed. Snatched from the filthy river Bièvre as a baby by a keen-eyed lamplighter, young Madeleine lands in a convent, where she lives as purported aristocracy until the sudden appearance of her long-lost father, a tanner, reveals her humble origins, and she takes flight to Paris’s meanest streets.
Like his heroine, Paul Poissel isn’t quite what he seems, either—he’s not an author but a seamlessly executed Borgesian whim, courtesy of American novelist Paul LaFarge. Haussmann, or the Distinction is a fiction within a fiction, presented as a manuscript tucked away in the Bibliothèque Nationale for the better part of a century, until LaFarge discovered and translated it—a foundling like its heroine. Madeleine is rescued from homelessness by the “demolition man” de Fonce, who cadges resalable goods from the mass construction site that was Paris during Haussmann’s tenure. Prefect of the Seine from 1853 to 1869, Baron Haussmann ripped up the cobwebbed map of Paris—a city then plagued by cholera and drowning in its own sewage—and drew a new one of straight lines, concentric circles, and impossibly posh real estate. LaFarge’s Haussmann strikes up an unlikely friendship with the existentially inclined de Fonce, who all but gifts him with his adoptive daughter—the story’s Cinderella falls ill-fatedly into the arms of a married prince.
Like his first novel, The Artist of the Missing, Haussmann is a story about storytelling, in which LaFarge’s project of writing someone else’s book recasts the narrative urge in terms of hypothesis and serendipity: “what might have been and was not.” The air in Haussmann‘s Paris is heavy with bewildered remotion. LaFarge invokes muted plot elements of Greek tragedy, sewing Antigone whole-cloth into the book’s tapestry. The Prefect’s doomed scheme for a Great Cemetery of the North, to which Parisian dead would be transported on trains for burial, is funneled through Haussmann’s obsession with reputation and posterity. Madeleine is, perhaps too emphatically, an Electra figure (four fathers or father figures to choose from; she sleeps with two of them).
Judicious and empathic toward all his characters, even the infamously pompous philistine Haussmann, LaFarge also finds a fond cameo role for Poissel, as a lovestruck reveler at the “Ball of the Expropriated,” which seems equal parts hootenanny and masque: “A dozen-odd merrymakers who’d profited from the demolition of their homes saw fit to spend their gains on a great party . . . . At midnight the guests drank a toast to that fabled place, Paris As It Was. This was a new city that came into being sometime around 1865.” To a New Yorker a few months ago, LaFarge’s wake for the City of Light before Haussmannization drew parallels with pre-boom, pre-Giuliani New York: Crime and grime, squinted at from a distance, acquire the shimmer of romantic squalor, and that nostalgia mingles with a genuine sense of erosion and dismantlement, “something deep and intractable which [passes] itself off as fashionable discontent.”
Deep and intractable loss, of course, is another country now. John Russell has described Paris as a living memorial to its irrepressible Prefect, but it’s also a monument to the ruins beneath it—”The World Within the World,” to borrow a chapter heading from Haussmann. Madeleine searches for the river where she floated as a baby, but it has disappeared, papered over by a wide new street and absorbed into Haussmann’s state-of-the-art sewer system. De Fonce searches endless ruins, their interiors indecently exposed, for anything salvageable. His most precious find, of course, is the urchin Madeleine, whose world is overrun with phantoms in transit: At one point, she closes her eyes and sees a street scene of “the dead on their way to heaven.”
In both of his novels, LaFarge’s quarry is the afterlife—the dead and the hollowed-out souls they leave behind. In the desolate, unnamed urban landscape of The Artist of the Missing, lost-person posters cover row upon row of emptied buildings while the searchers crowd a beach at the city’s endpoint, trying to make out that fabled island in the distance where their loved ones supposedly go. With his dazzling gift for bringing irretrievable cities to life, LaFarge conjures sinuous, melancholic otherworlds that feel wholly tangible. LaFarge himself is an artist of the missing—he is, after all, Haussmann‘s ghostwriter.