The following is a draft excerpt from my novel in progress, Housebreaking the Muse. The novel is haunted by the character of Jacques Rigaut, the French dadaist, gigolo, drug addict, dandy, and suicide. It is also narrated, in part, by a reformed Père Ubu. In this fragment, Ubu introduces the setting for much of the Dada Paris portion of the novel: the Passage de l’Opéra.
Ducking in and out of times and places effervescent with the flesh-and-bloods who most strike my fancy–as has been my wont, my passion, my obsession, my wicked indulgence, my half gainer into the pleasures vicariousness–the time and place to which I most often return is the Paris of the last years of the tatty passages–those subdued arcades–that had once flanked the Opéra Le Peletier, a grand showplace long lost to flame. That Paris was a Paris eliding an obstinate nostalgia and the ineluctable march of the modern, the latter of which goosestepped to the bang and clack of the humble wrecking crews employed by the Blvd. Haussman Building Co. For decades the Blvd. Haussman Building Co. had been hard at work achieving what years of German aggression could not: ruin Paris! But of course when it comes to verbs like “ruin,” one must temper one’s argument and accept that “ruin” is largely a matter of point of view. And while decades of Haussman obliterated whole districts once throbbing under the darkest cloak of medieval disorder, cobbled warrens through which wound streets just wide enough for three flesh-and-bloods to walk abreast and in which the stranger would soon enough find himself lost, even though the Haussman effaced all the charm and vice and liveliness of these places, it did so much to open Paris to the sky, to orient the uninitiated, to provide a most magnificent parade ground for future invaders. And liberators. And, of course, flocks of automobiles. By the time it neared the passages abutting the site of the long-gone Opéra, its work was almost done. And, as it neared this place, the last of the displaced poor, the shopkeepers and restauranteurs and publicans and madams and tradesmen and landlords all raised holy hell in the face of Haussman Co. compensations of mere centimes on the franc. These doomed souls found themselves handcuffed by circumstance even after a lifetime watching the Blvd. Haussman creep closer and closer like a dry, hostile tide. These citizens of condemned Paris, voices cracked by years of complaint, carried on in bitterness and adapted their minds to the role of refugee.
And so, perhaps, this was the ideal stage for the Dadas of Paris who, even as they wove brooms with which to make their clean sweep, nevertheless wanted it both ways: out with the old, yes; but in with the–what? They put little faith in the new and seemed hopelessly entranced with the wreckage of the old. Which is why I love them so. And so, too, the Passage de l’Opéra off Boulevard des Italiens near the ghost of that vanished showplace for which these arcades were named. How apt the certainty that a couple more years would bring the demolition crews to erase the Galerie du Thermomètre, the Galerie du Baromètre, and that with their passing so would pass Café Certa, that humble sanctuary in which the Dadas were free to plot and bicker. Those board meetings of Dada Corp. would fall into a legend erected on artifacts so flimsy one could in good conscience deny they had ever taken place. Except for the fact they had.