This mesmerising photo has been doing the rounds on Twitter recently. Captioned ‘library books floating down a street during the Great Flood of Paris, 1910′, I was immediately struck by its eeriness, and wanted to know more. Where was it taken? Where did all those books come from?
Or, indeed, the water? Well, Wikipedia informs me that the Great Flood hit Paris in January 1910, and lasted over a week. At its highest, the water measured 8.62 metres (over 28 feet) deep, before beginning to recede. Hundred of Parisians were evacuated – whilst no-one died as a result of the flood, it caused millions of francs worth of damage. Those who remained in the city were only able to navigate it along a network of wooden platforms and pathways, hastily constructed by the army.
You can see two of these temporary walkways in the photograph above. There are people standing on them, staring towards the camera; on the right hand side there’s a ghostly smudge where someone has walked across the frame – someone with more important business than waiting to be photographed. The water only reaches the top of the kerb, so this photo must have been taken when it was receding, when it was presumably much safer to do so. Heaven knows what the street – the Rue Jacob – must have looked like with the flood at its height.
Rue Jacob remains one of the main routes through the 6th arrondissement and the area known as St. Germain. This is a part of Paris that has long been associated with the arts. The Musee d’Orsay is just a short walk along the Seine, whilst between the river and Rue Jacob stands the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, one of the country’s most influential art schools. In the opposite direction stands the Institut de France, home to the Academie francaise – that august body which acts as the official authority on (and sometime bodyguard to) the French language.
Given this context, it’s not surprising to learn that Rue Jacob had strong literary ties. From 1909 up until the 1960s, number 20 was home to American writer Natalie Clifford Barney. Barney hosted a regular Friday salon; the guest list included many significant names in 20th century literature, including T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, W. Somerset Maugham and James Joyce.
That building isn’t there any more but those at the other end of the Rue Jacob, the ones we can see in the photograph, do still stand. Opposite the balcony on the right, the one with two figures standing underneath it, is the Librairie Alain Brieux, a specialist scientific and medical bookshop, and one reminder of this street’s literary history. On the left, two buildings down from the archway is the Hotel d’Angleterre, named as a reminder that the building used to house the British Embassy.
In 1783 the Treaty of Paris was agreed here, ending the American War of Independence. But it was signed elsewhere, Benjamin Franklin refusing to do so ‘on British soil’. More recently, the hotel hosted Ernest Hemingway on his first night in Paris. Hemingway later said of the city ‘if you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.‘ Not surprising given its history, and the countless numbers of streets with stories as rich as that of the Rue Jacob.