The Wrong Side of Paris, the final novel in Balzac's The Human Comedy, is the compelling story of Godefroid, an abject failure at thirty, who seeks refuge from materialism by moving into a monastery-like lodging house in the shadows of Notre-Dame. Presided over by Madame de La Chanterie, a noblewoman with a tragic past, the house is inhabited by a remarkable band of men-all scarred by the tumultuous aftermath of the French Revolution-who have devoted their lives to performing anonymous acts of charity.
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December 31, 2003
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Excerpt from The Wrong Side of Paris by Sarah Orne Jewett
One fine September evening in the year 1836, a man of about thirty stood hunched over the parapet of a quay by the Seine. Facing upstream, he could survey the riverbanks from the Jardin des Plantes to Notre-Dame; downstream, his gaze followed the water ' s majestic course all the way to the Louvre. There is not another such prospect in all the Capital of Ideas. Standing here on the ' le de la Cit ' , one imagines oneself in the stern of some sea vessel grown to colossal proportions. The view summons up dreams of Paris, the Paris of the Romans and the Franks, of the Normans and the Burgundians; the Paris of the Middle Ages, the Valois, Henri IV and Louis XIV, Napoleon and Louis-Philippe. Each of these regimes has left some mark or monument hereabouts, insistently recalling its creators to the observer ' s mind. Sainte Genevi ' ve watches over the Latin Quarter, spread out beneath her dome. Behind you rises the magnificent apse of the cathedral. The H ' tel de Ville speaks to you of Paris ' s many upheavals, the H ' tel-Dieu of her many miseries. From here you can glimpse the splendors of the Louvre; now take two steps and you will have before you that wretched huddle of houses between the Quai de la Tournelle and the H ' tel-Dieu, toward whose disappearance the city fathers are working even now.
Another edifying sight graced that wondrous tableau in those days: between the cathedral and the Parisian at his parapet, the Terrain, for such was the name of that deserted plot of land in times past, was still strewn with the ruins of the archbishop ' s palace. Standing where the Parisian now stood, contemplating this inspiring prospect, with Paris ' s past and present laid out together before your admiring gaze, you might think that Religion had chosen to settle on this island in order to reach out toward the sorrows of both banks of the Seine, from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine to the Faubourg Saint-Marceau. We can only hope that a setting so sublimely harmonious will one day be made complete by the construction of an episcopal palace in pure Gothic style, replacing the drab hovels now enclosed by the Terrain, the Rue d ' Arcole, the cathedral, and the Quai de la Cit '