by Ellen Frankman
Like crooked teeth, the cobblestones of Rue Mouffetard wedge themselves haphazardly against one another, struggling for space in the narrow passageway where overcrowding yields snaggles of rock and the occasional gap. Over time the street has been smoothed by a seemingly endless flow of pedestrians, but a sense of the unrefined still clings to this Parisian market street, long associated with the daily purchases and sales of the lower class. Despite the occasional tourist stall, self-suffocated with brassy Eiffel Towers and crudely sewn t-shirts, Rue Mouffetard in fact remains much unchanged. Chosen for this reason, l’air of Mouffetard is still largely defined by commodification in the simplest sense, set within storefronts of buildings that slouch overhead with age. Though the bells of meandering livestock for sale are no longer heard, creperies, fromageries, and boulangeries now perpetuate a trade environment and an openness of exchange, both commercial and personal.
Along with George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway perhaps most markedly beckoned Rue Mouffetard onto the stage of the expatriate Parisian literary scene in the early twentieth century. Hemingway lived with his wife Hadley just off Place Contrascarpe, the square at the top of the hill from which Mouffetard tumbles downward. The neighborhood at this time was below middle class, though Hemingway and his wife brought in enough income to allow for the vacations and dining that supplemented the plot of many of the author’s works. In The Sun Also Rises, Rue Mouffetard arises in a scene of a shared cab ride between Hemingway’s protagonist Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley. A transition from the smooth asphalt of St. Etienne du Mont to the ill-pieced cobbles of Mouffetard finds Barnes to be “jolted close together” with the woman who at once elevates and destroys Barnes’ masculinity, a point of serious thematic concern for Hemingway. The lights from late open shops shed a light upon both the cab, and figuratively upon the relationship of the two troubled friends, who exist at this moment and throughout the novel in a modern world propelled by the commodified exchange in which money can successfully purchase both experiences and relationships, as Jake’s money often does for the attentions of Brett. Rue Mouffetard more largely represents the environment into which countless expatriate writers are thrust, existing as a world that operates at a marginal distance from society and one which is fueled by a system of daily bartering and give and take between individuals. While it is, and always has been, a site of commercial exchange, it literarily serves as a setting for emotional relationships that drive expatriate novels. Jake and Brett find themselves thrust together in a moment that realizes the unbalance inherent in their relationship, in which Brett drains Jake emotionally and Jake fiscally supports these interactions so that they continually occur. The commodification of relationships appears in other expatriate works as well, including Andre Breton’s Nadja (between the narrator and Nadja) and Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight (between Sasha and the many men she encounters and permits to pay to continue her marginal existence). In this way Mouffetard functions as an ideal site of literal trade that also allows for a great deal of human interaction, as individuals stroll and browse and observe along the ancient street.
Constructed as an old Roman road, Rue Mouffetard historically derived its name from the mouffle or “stink” from the Bievre River that lay at the foot of the hill and served as a sewer system for the skinners, tanners, and butchers of the of the marketplace [Burke]. Under Paris’s period of Haussmanization, Mouffetard escaped any drastic changes owing to its lack of visibility relative to the rest of the city [Jordan, 172]. The street’s memory is therefore largely preserved in its present state, in which Parisians and tourists alike make their way to its lowest point at the Square Saint-Medard to visit the open-air market, while others simply take the time to flaneur down the hill in appreciation of the visible spectacle. An understanding of this sort of promenading is further supported by the street’s weekly closure to vehicles, allowing only foot traffic to pass through. Nevertheless, in an attempt to maintain the memory of the preserved, it is easily forgotten that Rue Mouffetard once warranted its name, and was not always considered a pleasant place to live. For many, Mouffetard was an inexpensive local for foreigners (including expatriate writers) to settle, though its fair share of tramps, vagabonds, and the French clochards passed through, leaving behind them a stench of “insalubrity” in which feeding one’s self hand to mouth was a priority over cleanliness. Little of this residual grime remains on Rue Mouffetard today however, as it’s historical nature has prompted a tourist boom encouraging overpriced crepes and gawking amateur photographers.
Jordan, David. Transforming Paris: the life and labors of Baron Haussmann
Burke, David. Writers in Paris