Paris Out of Hand: A Review of the Surrealist Guidebook to the Capital

Last Updated on April 14, 2020

…& Some Thoughts on the Power of “Imaginary Cities”, in Print & in Dreams

The subtitle of the handsomely bound, compact red volume should have tipped me off from the first glance: “{a wayward guide}”, it announced in lower-cased and bracketed letters. The upside-down Eiffel Tower that graced the cover might have offered an additional, screaming clue.

Paris Out of Hand, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, 1996. Image: Courtney Traub
Paris Out of Hand, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, 1996. Image: Courtney Traub

Yet, having inhaled far too many volumes of Anais Nin’s diaries and their florid accounts of a Paris exclusively populated by avant garde artists, glamorous literary salon owners and femmes fatales wearing smeared red lipstick and shabby blue velvet stoles, I didn’t even consider that the book I was about to peruse might be a work of fiction. It held the promise of a fascinating city–the city– I’d long wanted to see, and even vowed to take up residence in, someday.

An Imagined and Fantastic City

Still a teenager who naively lapped up corny, Romantic accounts of pre-war Europe (as one tends to), I feverishly flipped through the book, presented to me as a 19th birthday gift by my savvy uncle and aunt.

I used the attached red ribbon to bookmark places that especially grabbed my attention, and that I yearned to explore myself. This all added significant fuel to my already outlandish fantasy of Paris, of course.

A city in which every neighborhood had a restaurant such as the “Cafe Nada”– sister to the nearby Cafe Dada, of course– where publishers and other members of the Parisian literati gathered for lunch, and servers weren’t hired “without a solid foundation in Rabelais, Verlaine, Robbe-Grillet, [and] Queneau”.

A Paris in which tourists, dizzied by the flurry of urban activity and casual glamour of the Grands Boulevards, can gather themselves at the “bureau des bouleversements” (office of overwhelm). (Side note: who could guess that 20 years later, “Paris syndrome” would be considered a semi-valid psychological condition? )

A Paris in which university math professors-cum-poets took time to seriously pontificate on the “ideal croissant”, likening its buttery, slightly chewy yet crumbly structure to the flesh of perfectly cooked crab. Incidentally, I found this description so imaginative and delightful that it probably helped set me on a path to occasionally writing about food.


The book, read in brief bursts in my college dorm room at UC Santa Cruz, partly motivated me to get through advanced French classes, buoyed by the prospect of a year abroad.

Of course, that year abroad (in Lyon, and not Paris), eventually led me to leave California for Paris, and essentially never look back. I packed the portable little red book with me– not having looked at it much since I first received it, but excited at the prospect of staking out some of the places recommended within its ornate pages.

It was only once I had settled in the capital that it finally, absurdly dawned on me: this was a surrealist and largely invented account of the city, whose layout, illustrations and quaint, often obnoxiously affected language are partly inspired by 19th-century travel books. It was a clever “wayward guide” that lovingly satirized both well-known and little-known places in Paris. I would not be using it to explore its streets, after all.

Or would I?

Rather than feeling mortified at my cluelessness, I laughed when I finally got the (painfully obvious) joke. I thought my naive ability to be swept up by the author’s inverted, “out-of-hand” Paris fascinating.

After all, cities are places with physical, social, and political realities that can’t be denied (and shouldn’t be, especially in our dangerous “post-truth” moment). But they’re also the passionate object of books, films, paintings and dreams– media whose imagined spaces are arguably as worthy of contemplation as “objective ones”.

Dreamscapes & Free Associations

Dreams, as most of us know, invariably take real places, people and things and riff on them, build on them, scramble their realities or personalities. I know for a fact that I have imagined fictional Parisian streets or even whole neighborhoods in my dream life.

What’s even stranger is that I’ve often returned to these imaginary versions of the city I love and know best. And they have an undeniable reality to them, a vibrant place in my subconscious mind, even though they don’t objectively exist. Dreams matter, and shape our experience in ways that are difficult to measure– as surrealists and film directors like David Lynch have tried to painstakingly capture in their art.

A page from Paris Out of Hand takes Bunuel’s surrealist masterpiece, “Le Chien Andalou”, and imagines a Parisian park with a punny name alluding to the film. 

This is, for me, part of the quiet and comic genius behind Paris Out of Hand. In ways that remind me a bit of Italo Calvino’s breathtaking Venetian dreamscapes in Invisible CitiesGordon’s satirical, but tender, travelogue takes recognizable places and features of Paris, then reconfigures the elements, as one does in dreams.

Fictional & Real Collide

The book, written by an author who has penned experimental short stories and an absurdist grammar handbook for vampires, betrays a deep knowledge and understanding of the French capital. This probably explains why a love for the city is evident behind the lampooning.

Structured like a “traditional” travel guide, you can peruse the volume according to your whims, shuttling between surrealist hotels named after aardvarks and moles, cafes where service is only carried out when and if at least 100 women show up, real and imagined nightlife spots (the Folies Bergere is one of the real places referenced, while the nearby “Folies Berbere”, a club featuring North African music and dance performances, is not), or cinemas (La Pagode, one of my favorite defunct theatres, features in the book).

So does “L’ange des sables“, an imaginary theatre where only movies filmed in deserts are screened. Here, audiences are encouraged to relieve their subsequent dehydration by jumping in the Seine and swimming to a sister cinema suspended over the Pont-Neuf.

The hotel guide at the front of the book makes humorous use of icons and their descriptions: especially handy-seeming are those Parisian lodgings that offer bidets in the middle of the room, and a concierge who “never misses a thing”. In some rooms, your neighbors can hear you, but not the inverse; in others, the opposite is true.

One of the most interesting things about re-reading the book more carefully after several years of living in the city was that I was able to pick out the “true” places fairly easily this time.

Throughout, Gordon toggles and teases between real and imagined destinations; the result being that for anyone who doesn’t know Paris very well, the book presents an amusing exercise in trying to distinguish fabricated from real.

The Petit Hotel du Moyen Age, fashioned after the true-to-life Musee Cluny, is imagined as a place where “medieval would-bes and have-beens rub shoulders, although it gets a bit clanky with the coats of mail”, and where guests, fitted with armoured headpieces, can opt to stay in the dungeon, or oubliette.

Read related: Embark on a Self-Guided Walking Tour of Medieval Paris 

The Rue des Mauvais-Garçons Manqués (Tomboy Street) is a street in the Marais adjacent to the Rue des Mauvais Garçons (Bad Boys Street). Are one, or both of these, places grounded in any reality? Only someone who lives in Paris is likely to know without consulting a map.

Even some of the more outlandish places, including the Patte a la Main, a restaurant serving owners and their dogs gourmet cuisine, and a swingers’ club called the Cafe Conjugal where Dadaist art meets libertinism, seem less improbable when you consider that Paris now counts several cat cafes, a BHV department store branch devoted to high-end pet paraphernalia, and clubs known openly as places for  prominent “echangistes” (swingers) to meet. 

The Rue du chat qui pêche (street of the cat who fishes), that absurdly adorable-sounding street? It’s a real one, in the Latin Quarter– and Paris’ narrowest.

Meanwhile, imagined metro stations such as Marquis de Sade and Mondrian are transparently cute and jokey, but the attention to small design elements adds charm to the thing.

My Verdict

While the book suffers a bit from an overly affected literariness and a highbrow tone, this is very likely part of the joke. It’s probably a volume that admittedly won’t get much love beyond your typical New Yorker audience, armed as they are with the requisite cultural references.

But most readers with a love for Parisian history, art and culture will likely appreciate the savvviness beneath the satire. I still enjoy leafing through my slightly worn copy, especially in the rare moments where I become blasé about Paris. It’s a swift corrective for that sort of momentary disenchantment.

Paris Out of Hand: A Wayward Guide, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon (1996) in collaboration with Barbara Hodgson and Nick Bantock, is published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco. The hardcover edition, while a bit expensive, is a lovely and durable volume that makes an excellent gift for Parisphiles of all persuasions.

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