Andrew Hussey OBE is a cultural historian and biographer. He has published multiple books, focusing primarily on 20th century French history and biography. Hussey joined the University of London in Paris in 2006, where he is now Professor of French and Comparative Literature.
Out of print since 1968, Nairn’s Paris is a unique guidebook from the late, great architectural writer, Ian Nairn. Illustrated with the author’s black and white snaps of the city, Nairn gives his readers an idiosyncratic and unpretentious portrait of the ‘collective masterpiece’ that is Paris.
1. What is unique about Ian Nairn’s guide book to Paris?
Pretty much everything Ian Nairn ever wrote was unique and extraordinary. He had an incredible eye for detail combined with a determinedly poetic should of what architecture can and should do. This made him that very rare thing: a visionary critic. The pairing of Nairn and Paris is perfect. Above all he understands the importance of street furniture and its relation to the layout of this city. This is how, in his guide to Paris, he is able to convey so effectively the most elusive feature of Paris — its atmosphere.
2. Have the recommendations in this book taken you to somewhere new in Paris?
I’ve lived in Paris for nearly twenty years and there is always something new to discover, or something changing. I think that Ian Nairn is actually a very good teacher — diffident about the extent of learning but always able to make you curious and think again about places that you already knew. I love his account of the church of Notre Dame de Travail, which is near where I live in ‘the back-end of Montparnasse’, which I pass by most days. Nairn explains something I never knew: how the church breaks with the 19th century fancy for Gothic imitations, and in fact anticipates the modernity of the coming new century (it was built in 1902).
3. Why has Nairn acquired cult status?
Partly because he has such an eccentric, opinionated, eloquent literary style: he really is a master of prose, endlessly entertaining. And partly much of what he has said, from his earliest pieces onwards, has come true. Architecture has all too often lost its way and cities and towns have been blighted by arrogance, ideology or sheer stupidity. To this extent, he is not just a writer but a prophet.
4. Do you see any similarities with Nairn in the way you portray Paris in your book, Paris: The Secret History?
I’ve never been coy about the influences on Paris: The Secret History — Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair, Guy Debord, but until I was invited to write the preface the Nairn’s Paris I never had the chance to celebrate him as an influence as fully as I should have. But, yes, he was both influence and inpiration on my book, especially with his gift for enjoying the city at street level, enjoying the streets themselves and their complicated often occluded lives. To this extent, he was the father of what we now call ‘psychogeography’, a term which was coined by Guy Debord, but belongs just as much to Ian Nairn.
5. Are you currently working on anything that you wish to share with your readers?
I’ve just published the first biography in any language of Isidore Isou, the Franco-Romanian poet, founder of the Lettrist movement, who survived the Holocaust and who came to Paris in 1945 to lead a revolution. He also thought he was the Jewish Messiah. Its called Speaking East: The Strange and Enchanted Life of Isidore Isou, and is really part of whole body of work centred on the marginal, sometimes, magical figures who have made Paris what it is. Now, I’ve started a new book called France In Fragment, a zigzag journey through France which attempts to do for the whole Hexagon what Paris: The Secret History did for the capital. It might not seem so but all of my work is connected in some way that even I don’t fully understand.
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