François Caradec, Jean-Robert Masson and Maurice Magre lead this weirdo into the underworld
French Weird has been a little quiet this last year. The last update was almost exactly twelve months ago. That doesn’t mean, however, that France has got any less weird in the meantime. It does mean, though, that life and work has ever so gently slowed down progress on the project. That said, progress is indeed being made and I thought it about time for a dispatch.
This particular French weirdo has been thinking hard in recent months about the guidebooks and grimoires that will orient his progress. There are, of course, numerous books that promise to unveil a “secret”, “forgotten” or somehow overlooked France and Paris. Of these, François Caradec and Jean-Robert Masson’s easily-overlooked 1985 Guide de Paris Mystérieux, a staple of second-hand shops (and part of a series of “guides mystérieuses”) is a fascinating starting point. At 750 pages, it’s too cumbersome to be a guide book any real sense of the word, but it is filled with eccentric, shocking and little-known snippets drawn from Parisian history. Readers are invited to explore a series of itineraries, one exploring the prehistoric presence of mammoths in the hills of Belleville in the north-east of the city, another exploring the literary traces of the Comte de Lautréamont’s Maldoror in central Paris. Other entries are grouped thematically: Pagan Monuments, Sects and Secret Societies, Fantastic Animals, Tragedies and Strange Happenings. In the last category, I’ve discovered that the old train station around the corner on Boulevard Poniatowski at the Porte Dorée here in the sleepy XII arrondissement, was the site of one of the most celebrated, and still unsolved, murders of 1937: a train pulled into the station, bearing but one passenger - the body of a young woman with a 10cm blade plunged to the hilt in her neck. The book is rich with such mysteries and grisly horrors. Intriguingly, contributors include familiar literary names: Louis Doucet, Robert Giraud, art historian Georges Poisson and - most excitingly - legendary crime writer Léo Malet.
As interesting as the Guide de Paris Mystérieux might be, I’m most looking forward to following the pathways suggested by a much earlier book, La Magie à Paris by a certain René Thimmy, first published in 1934. While long out of print, this book appears to have been something of a runaway success in the French publishing world: the book was reviewed extensively in the national press and my version proudly claims to be the 22nd edition. René Thimmy, presented in the book as an investigative journalist is actually a pseudonym for Maurice Magre, novelist, essayist, spiritual quester and, apparently, a “debauched opium addict” (according to Bertrand Matot in his Paris Occulte). Magre’s book takes a, no doubt suspicious, reader deep into a an underground Paris of the 1930s. We meet a sect of old men performing nighttime rituals in the Bois de Boulogne with the aim of discovering everlasting life, we meet Héliodore Fortin - the “ressurrector of Paris”, we witness what is described as a “voodoo” ceremony come tantalising close to human sacrifice. Somewhat less sulfurously we follow our intrepid journalist to a rendez-vous with a chiropractor. Most dramatically, Magre’s narrator leads us inside a Satanic ceremony in a disused building “near the Jardin des Plantes” where we hide. According to Magre there were “thousands” of devil worshippers in Paris in the 1930s. It is tempting to dismiss much of this as fiction, as many contemporary press reviews did indeed do. Yet much of Magre’s work does seem at least anchored in the real in some way. A long chapter detailing Thimmy’s encouters with the Russian practioner of “sex magick” Vera de Petrouchka in Montparnasse cafes, seems more than a little inspired by the very real occultist Maria de Naglowska, a fixture of La Rotonde in the 1930s and founder of the Confrérie de la Flèche d'Or group.
So, I’m planning on heading along some of the paths outlined by François Caradec; Jean-Robert Masson and Maurice Magre. I also have a copy of Guy Breton’s Les Nuits Secrètes de Paris here on my desk, but that one will have to wait for now. I will say, however, that the opening chapter reports on a Parisian sect committed to the veneration of the onion: wish me luck.