One would suppose from Jacques Barzun’s introductory essay to this selection that this project, which Restif originally imagined as 1,001 Parisian Nights, was conceived as a sort of documentary experiment. An exhaustive catalogue of the seamy nocturnal underworld of Paris in the late 18th century, Restif’s extended rambles and the salacious tableaux he witnessed (and more often than not inserted himself into as a sort of immaculate and irreproachable moral authority – a pretty damn good joke in its own right) were allegedly duly reported to “the Marquise”, a mysterious noblewoman with an apparently bottomless desire to assist the poor, the disadvantaged, and the unavoidably debauched. Barely 30 pages into this selection – itself a portion of a much larger work – we’ve already met con artists, brothel keepers, grave robbers, pickpockets, juvenile delinquents, murderers, pedophiles, gay-baiters, child prostitutes, and “effeminate men”.
Restif (the “de la Bretonne” was an affectation) was a tireless scribbler who, when he wasn’t on the prowl for a suitable orifice, was consumed with writing about what he found when he got there, and keeping precise records that, if we can trust him as an erotic memoirist, rival those of his near contemporary, Giacomo Casanova. On his own terms, this short, fat, balding and swarthy fellow was a bit of a libertine, or as we might more accurately describe his sort these days, a serial rapist. In these pages, however, the idealized Monsieur Restif is much more interested in returning seduced young maidens back into the arms of their worried parents than one would suspect from what we know of his autobiographical portrayal in other works.
The dust jacket of my 1962 edition shows an amusingly clean drawing of Paris in broad daylight that belies the dark and disturbing portrait of the nocturnal metropolis that Restif is trying to convey. Reading the selections, I like to imagine what a delightfully dark series of graphic storybooks this could make under the pencil of a suitably talented illustrator (think of something akin to Dore’s illustrations of London as a city of dreadful night).
We must assume that there is a kernel of reality in the vision that Restif is attempting to portray, but I am less inclined than Mr. Barzun to see Restif as a social reformer (although he did, in fairness, support reformation – although certainly not elimination – of prostitution in Paris) than as an exploitative storyteller trading on and embellishing to lurid effect the dangers and degeneracies of the lost and hopeless habitués of the dark city. This is neither Henry Mayhew’s London nor Jacob Riis’s New York, but rather an entertainment based on the debased sufferings of the lower depths, in which the Marquise is the conscious stand-in for the titillated reader. It is, for all that, quite entertaining, particularly when taken in small doses.