For most of my life, people have called me a bookworm, and I've seen no reason to argue. Like one of those perhaps mythical worms, I feel nourished by books. I love the physical presence of printed pages so much that I often bury my nose into them, savoring the smell. ….Well, there isn’t one uniform smell, of course, and I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur of the different varieties. As I rode the Metro today, reading and appreciating the occasional whiff of my book, I found myself thinking of the French equivalent of “bookworm”, rat de bibliothèque – “library rat.”
Maybe it’s because I prefer mammals to insects, or maybe it’s because the term seems to evoke a charming story (doesn’t “library rat” conjure up images of a delightful children’s book – or a time when libraries and bookstores were riddled with rodents?), but I love this term. If I had to create one universal language, I would have rat de bibliothèque in the lexicon, no questions asked.
A few years ago there was a big poster ad in many stations of the Paris Metro for a book called Firmin. The reason the ad caught my eye wasn’t because a large advertisement for literature is a rarity in the Metro; rather, it was the fun illustration of a kind-but-battered looking cartoon rat sitting atop a stack of books.
A rat de bibliothèque, right there in the Metro!
Normally, the only rodents I see in the Metro are the mice that occasionally scurry among the tracks. They resemble the stones that are around the rails, so it’s not easy to spot them, but when I do, I always marvel at how they’ve learned to live in such a strange environment.
Once I did see a rat in Paris, at a perfectly wonderful time. My boyfriend and I had just left a movie theater, where we’d seen “Ratatouille.” On our long stroll to the bus, we came across a large rat who was picking at one of the public garbage bags on a ring that spot the city streets. It was like our hero come to life! Speaking of “Ratatouille,” which is a really fun film I highly recommend, the shop window with its hideous display of dead rats really does exist. You can find it a few dozen paces from one of the Châtelet Metro exits.
I’ve seen other Parisian exterminators who like to display such “trophies”. For many victims of pest infestation, this is very convincing proof of their skill. To me, it’s horrible. I don’t believe any living thing, no matter how scary or inconvenient to have in your home, should be cruelly murdered if there's another way to solve the problem. There are many friendly ways to get rid of them, including no-kill traps. But these exterminators are old-school.
Funny that there’s no appreciation for rats anymore; during the Siege of Paris in 1870, and, a few months later, the Paris Commune, when the city’s inhabitants were suffering from a lack of meat, many turned to killing these rodents and passing them off as something else – except for a few irreverent restaurants, who joked about the elegant preparation and accompaniments of their servings of rats. Parisians claimed that rat wasn’t the worst meat, and they would know, since they also slaughtered most of the animals at the zoo in the Jardin des Plantes. That prey was served in fine restaurants or sold at butcher shops fresh or canned, at a high price. The only animals that were spared were the pigeons (At this time, Parisians were apparently obsessed with pigeons – sometimes called “winged rats” by us Anglophones! – because some were messenger pigeons, one of the few ways to communicate with the outside world. In reality, few of these birds made it back to Paris, but it was forbidden to shoot any pigeon, just in case.). Some of the big cats also survived (too difficult to kill without human casualties), and the apes and monkeys were left alone, since they were considered too “human-like” to slay and eat.
Another kind of Parisian rat that became famous in the 19th century were the petits rats de l'Opéra, the young girls who were trained as ballerinas at the Paris Opera. Unfortunately, cute as the name is, they were often forced into prostiution, and most did not go on to have careers as professional dancers or opera singers: Famous children’s book character Angelina Ballerina is not an actual rat de l'Opéra, but the girl depicted in Degas' sculpture Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer) is.
Despite the fitting image of a rat with books, Firmin’s titular hero is not a rat de bibliothèque, but a bookshop rat (close, but no cigar, especially as far as book smells go). And despite the rat’s prevalence in Parisian culture, the book is actually an American novel by Sam Savage. The full English title is: Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife.
I don’t know how well the book sold here in France, but I found the poster irresistible, and immediately went home and ordered the original English edition, and loved it. The book tells the story of Firmin’s life, and also the story of the decaying Boston neighborhood in which he lives. Firmin eats book pages the way I smell them, and then his relationship with them evolves.
I don’t know of a French story about Parisian rat, told from the rat’s perspective. I’m sure there is one, but all of the major literary rats I can think of generally come from Anglophone culture – like Templeton in Charlotte’s Web. No, the rats of Paris seem to have burrowed more into the city herself than into the literature and art that’s come from her.
Tomorrow, I’ll spend my lunch break as I often do, being a rat de bibliothèque in a dark, low-ceilinged library near the Pantheon. When I walk home, I’ll pass the site of a small street once called the rue des Rats (Rat Street). On Thursday, I’ll be working near a building whose ground floor was once a famous 19th century café called the Rat Mort (The Dead Rat).
Interestingly enough, these places are never far from another creature who might be invoked to keep them in line: the erstwhile rue des Rats is a short stroll from the rue du Chat qui Peche (Fishing Cat Street), and the Rat Mort used to be located near the legendary Chat Noir (Black Cat) cabaret.
Still, despite these cats, the rats' spirit remains, running free. For me, the rats of Paris are those of us living secret lives, hiding away in libraries with our noses in books. Or those who change billboards and advertising posters before dawn, so that each week a part of the cityscape is altered. Rats are sanitation workers in their own right, and like the rats themselves, their human colleagues aren’t usually as appreciated or valued as they should be. Rats are survival, the desperate last resort of the starving – or, in true Parisian fashion, the need for meat to slather in a delicious sauce (peu importe the Siege and political strife – dinner must be balanced!).
Even this post is a bit like a rat, scurrying quickly from one place to another…..
Vive les rats de Paris!