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Aubervilliers: Portrait of a Working-Class Suburb

The republication of an early-20th‑century realist novel set in the northern Paris suburb of Aubervilliers brings the industrial towns of the pre-war era back to life—their smells, their health risks, but above all the lives of their inhabitants—offering today’s readers a veritable ethnographic immersion into this working-class town.
Reviewed: Léon Bonneff, Aubervilliers, Talence, L’Arbre Vengeur, “L’Arbuste Véhément” series, 2018

Although today largely forgotten, except by historians of the working classes, Léon Bonneff was a major figure of social investigation in the early 20th century. He was born into a family of modest means from the region around Besançon, in eastern France, and arrived in Paris at the age of 16, where he was soon joined by his younger brother, Maurice. They became journalists in the socialist and trade-union press, writing for publications such as L’Humanité (a socialist and then communist newspaper founded by Jean Jaurès), the journal La Vie ouvrière (founded by Pierre Monatte), and La Bataille syndicaliste, the daily newspaper of the CGT trade union. The Bonneff brothers wrote many activist articles together on the situation of manual workers and conducted pioneering investigations into occupational diseases and workplace accidents (Les Métiers qui tuent [“Professions That Kill”] in 1905 and La Vie tragique des travailleurs [“The Tragic Lives of Workers”] in 1908) or focusing on the damage caused by alcoholism in working-class environments (Marchands de folie [“Merchants of Madness”], 1912). By contrast, the subject of this review, Aubervilliers—written by Léon Bonneff alone—stands out for its somewhat different format, as it is a novel. It was also published posthumously, as both Bonneff brothers were killed in the First World War. Following its original publication in serial form in the magazine Floréal in 1922 and as a book, prefaced by libertarian writer Henry Poulaille, in 1949 this text was republished by Éditions de l’Arbre Vengeur in 2015, initially in hardcover format, and now (since 2018) in paperback format.

Aubervilliers is therefore a novel, but shares many characteristics with social investigation work, such is the level of documentation involved. It comprises a cast of characters whom we follow in their daily lives. This seemingly banal time frame forms the structure of the narrative, without a specific plot being necessary. From morning to evening and from Monday to Sunday, Aubervilliers tells the stories of Michel, a foreman who is made redundant from the fertilizer factory and has no choice but to take on a whole series of precarious jobs; his daughter Marie, who doesn’t manage to obtain the certificat d’études primaires (a national diploma awarded at the end of compulsory education, between ages 11 and 13 at the time) and moves from the sausage-casing industry to the far more distinguished perfume industry; and the family of Roussi, a worker who has eight children and is mocked by his neighbors for his very un‑Malthusian approach to family life. The book’s secondary characters are just as sharply defined, such as Jean-Marie Le Louël, an immigrant from Brittany who has difficulty adapting to life in the capital, or Le Père Barje (“Old Man Barje”) who was disfigured by an accident in the workplace. But, beyond these slices of life, it is the town of Aubervilliers—captured in the heat of industrialization at the dawn of the 20th century—that remains the novel’s main character, as indicated by the title.

A town specialized in unsanitary and hazardous industries

The opening words of the novel makes clear the separation between the two different sides of Aubervilliers that coexisted at the time within the municipal boundaries: on the one hand, “Aubervilliers-la-poudrette” (“Dusty Aubervilliers”), the industrial part of the town; on the other, “Aubervilliers-la-fleurie” (“Flowery Aubervilliers”), a more rural area specialized in market gardening since before the French Revolution. However, it is clearly industrial Aubervilliers that fascinated Léon Bonneff, and it is this side of town that he would put into words. Aubervilliers experienced rapid industrialization in the second half of the 19th century, owing to the availability of land on which to build large factories and its good connections by road, waterways (the Saint-Denis Canal) and rail (the Chemin de Fer Industriel de la Plaine Saint-Denis et d’Aubervilliers, an “industrial railroad” serving the plain between Aubervilliers and its western neighbor, Saint-Denis). The central role of manual workers in the novel reflects their prominence within the town: they represented 75.8% of Aubervilliers’ economically active population in 1885.

What strikes the reader first and foremost in this text is the prominence of unpleasant materials, whose odors and very physical nature permeate the text just as they sully the workers themselves: animal guts confer upon the women employed to clean them a “smell of death,” while at the rendering plant the cooking of animal blood gives off a fine dust that sticks to the workers’ skin. At the end of the 19th century, Aubervilliers became specialized in the processing and recycling of what might be termed Paris’s “urban excreta,” and in particular organic waste that became the raw materials of new industries. Animal bones were cooked to be transformed into fertilizer (bone char), the streets of Paris were cleared of dog mess by women employed as dung collectors for the leather-tanning industry, and Parisian cesspits were emptied by firms based in the town; as a result, “Aubervilliers received all of Paris’s excrement” (p. 96). The capital even consigned its dead to this corner of the inner suburbs, specifically the cemetery in neighboring Pantin (immediately to the east of Aubervilliers), where “from dawn till dusk, Paris dispatched its burials” (p. 130). This cemetery was in fact owned by the city of Paris, which opened it in 1886 (along with several other large cemeteries in the inner suburbs between 1860 and 1929) to alleviate saturation in the city’s existing cemeteries. The unbreathable atmosphere in Aubervilliers was also due to the presence of the many chemical industries—which were especially polluting—in the town, which Léon Bonneff describes meticulously. Depending on the direction of the wind, the yellow smoke from the chemicals factory enveloped the areas where workers live, “asphyxiating animals and killing plants” (p. 50). At the fertilizer factory, the pits where phosphate was mixed with sulfuric acid gave off vapors that burn workers’ lungs, while a perpetual risk of explosion hung over the fireworks factory.

The work in each of these industries is described with great precision. The influence of the social investigations conducted by the Bonneff brothers is very much in evidence here, along with the author’s activist engagement. The novel sheds light on the lack of job security affecting workers, who were at the mercy of employers and at constant risk of the sack, redundancy, or a change of management. He also condemns accidents in the workplace, the arduousness of the tasks performed, the toll they take on the body, and the development of occupational diseases, both physical and mental, such as the depression experienced by Le Louël, the character from Brittany, which another worker diagnoses as “homesickness.”

Living and working in Aubervilliers

Léon Bonneff does, however, offer a dynamic vision of the possible trajectories in working-class circles. He depicts with a certain pathos the decline of some, such as Old Man Barje, who is too infirm to work and ends up taking his own life in the hospice. Without falling into miserabilism, the novel also sets out other possible futures, such as the upward social mobility of foreman Michel and his family, who ultimately sets up his own business opening a laundry. The author is also attentive to the diversity of the urban working classes. Aubervilliers describes the lives of workers, of course, but also those of market gardeners and local traders: an employee in a high-end pâtisserie watches old ladies gorge themselveson Sundays, while the French-fry vendor sets up her mobile kiosk in the neighbourhood square.

Beyond the focus on work, the novel is also a vivid description of the town of Aubervilliers. The workers who lived there were mostly housed in “barracks” containing about 120 dwellings, where life was communal in every sense of the word, since the thin walls made it almost impossible for households to have any sort of private life. Marital disagreements, sexuality, and illness were exposed to the eyes—and ears—of neighbors. Léon Bonneff is particularly attentive to gender relations among the working classes: a particularly finely observed section of the book describes cohabitation, adultery, the emerging stigmatization of families with too many children, the importance of married women’s reputations as “good housewives,” and even conjugal violence, which in some cases went as far as murder. The author’s knowledge of the economic mechanisms of consumerism is also surprising: he very accurately describes purchases made on credit from Magasins Dufayel (a department store in the nearby 18th arrondissement of Paris) or the way pieces of furniture are used as security deposits by their owners, with a wealth of details not provided by classic sources of information regarding such questions.

Finally, the main community facilities on which the town relies—the retirement home, the cemetery, Claude Bernard hospital for infectious diseases, the hospice (or workhouse) in the western suburb of Nanterre—are all mentioned. The paving of the streets, the installation of gas lamps, the trees planted on the roadway… nothing escapes the inquiring gaze of the author, who uses these details to set the scenes in which his characters evolve. Finally, particular mention should be made of a masterful few pages on the Bal des Quatre-Chemins (a public dance held in the Quatre-Chemins neighborhood, on the boundary between Aubervilliers and Pantin; pp. 130—140), in which the author’s effervescent style suddenly brings to life the conversations, the dancers’ bodies, the games of seduction, and the tensions that run through the energetic crowd. This novel truly offers the reader an ethnographic immersion into working-class Aubervilliers, with literary talent to boot.

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To cite this article:

Anaïs Albert & translated by Oliver Waine, “Aubervilliers: Portrait of a Working-Class Suburb”, Metropolitics, 21 February 2020. URL :

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