One of my favourite characters on my “Notre Dame and the Ile Saint-Louis” walking tour is the self-described “perverted peasant” Nicolas Edmé Restif de la Bretonne, the most prolific writer of the 18th century. The secluded quays of the Ile Saint-Louis in those years were popular places for lovers’ trysts. But they were not as alone they thought, thanks to Monsieur Nicolas. Every night this obsessive nightwalker (an owl was his emblem) would cross from his lodgings in the Latin Quarter, spy on the doings of couples, scratch coded notes on the walls, and continue his rounds. The next day he would come back and copy his notes for use in his chronicles Le Paysan perverti and Les Nuits de Paris. But the scratches are gone, erased over the centuries by prudes and the elements.
Monsieur Nicolas was the first writer to see ordinary Parisians as worthy subjects for literature, launching a genre. Les Nuits de Paris, his vibrant, accurately observed multi-volume chronicle of his prowls in pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary Paris, was wildly successful. But forced into retirement by ill health, he ended in poverty. All the same, two thousand admirers, from streetwalkers to duchesses, followed the “perverted peasant” to the cemetery after his death on February 3, 1806.