Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Jean de Ballard’s Paris After Dark

In the 1960s McFadden books published their After Dark series, a whole series of non-fiction sex and sin exposés focusing on the raunchy erotic night-life of various European cities. It included Jean de Ballard’s Paris After Dark, published in 1966.

There is of course no way of knowing how much of these books had some basis in fact and how much was wild journalistic exaggeration, wishful thinking or even pure fiction.

I’ve only read one other book in this series, Hamburg After Dark, but I think I’ve got the formula pretty well mapped out. The author purports to be a man of the world with an intimate knowledge of the erotic nightlife of the city in question. He gives the impression that he’s going to offer us a kind of documentary tour but what we mostly get are lots of personal anecdotes most of which are fairly obviously pure fantasy. Hamburg After Dark does give the impression that the author has at least done some background research whereas I suspect that Paris After Dark is about 95 percent pure fiction.

Each chapter deals with a different aspect of the erotic life of Paris. We get a chapter on what we are told is a new feature of Paris’s nightlife - Les Call Girls. We’re told that this is an imported American fashion. We also get the lowdown on the endless orgies taking place all over the city (or at least taking place in the author’s overheated imagination).

There are chapters dealing with the gay bars, and with the drug scene. The reader is assured that the drug scene in Paris is almost non-existent, being mostly confined to intellectuals and beatniks. Other chapters tackles subjects such as sex amongst university students, part-time prostitutes, mistresses, artists’ models, strip clubs, naughty books and blue movies. Every chapter quickly becomes a series of personal reminiscences (or perhaps personal fantasies).

This was 1966, a time when teasing and titillation were still the order of the day, and there’s plenty of titillation here. There is a certain amusing and charming innocent naughtiness to this, just as there is with the erotic movies of that era.

There’s also plenty of emphasis on vicarious enjoyment of Swinging 60s jet-set glamour. Sex and sin in exotic locales seem a lot more alluring than sex and sin in your own backyard.

At times one gets the impression that this is not the Paris of 1966 but the Paris of a few years earlier. In fact at times the author offers us lengthy digressions on the Paris of Hemingway or on the careers of famous artists, writers and models of the interwar years. He has an obsession with Kiki of Montparnasse and while she was indeed a fascinating woman her heyday was the 20s and 30s and she died in 1953.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with an historical overview of Parisian erotic life but a reader expecting a handy field guide to the sensual delights of Paris in 1966 might have been a little perplexed. And one does wonder just how accurate the author’s historical asides might be.

While this book probably does not present anything approaching an accurate account of the Parisian sexual scene in 1966 it is interesting in giving us a glimpse of the popular conception of what that scene was like, and of the sexy sinful delights on offer. The Swinging 60s were never quite as swinging as the media would have led one to believe. For most people the erotic indulgences of the period were mostly experienced vicariously. Experienced vicariously by reading books such as this. So in its own way it’s still a fascinating time capsule even if it’s a time capsule from a world that was partly imaginary.

The supposedly non-fiction exposé was a sub-category of sleaze literature which reached its peak of popularity in the 60s and 70s. The After Dark series fit neatly into this category. Paris After Dark isn’t great but it has some amusement and entertainment value.

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