Saturday, August 13, 2011

Seven Ages of Paris

Seven Ages of Paris
© 2002, 2004 Alistair Horne
458 pages

An entire city, built with pomp, seems to have arisen miraculously from an old ditch. - Corneille, Le Menteur, 1643

Paris is one of the most celebrated cities in the world, and predominates the heart of France to a degree unrivaled by other capitals. There is no 'second city' which can rival it. Occupied since Roman times, Paris has survived centuries filled with war, plague, famine, and boundless prosperity -- and Seven Ages of Paris is its irrepressible history, which entices the reader but which does not quite live up to its potential.

Last year I read Horne's La Belle France and loved it despite the author's old-fashioned "great men" approach to history. He uses the same style here, though it is more forgivable considering the sharp focus on Paris and the fact that the city's fates were tied to the ambitions, hubris, and failings of various kings for most of its history. Following a brief introduction ("From Caesar to Abélard),  Horne tells the story of Paris in seven acts: Philippe August, Henri IV, Louis XIV, Napoleon, the Commune, the Treaty of Versailles, and de Gaulle. The table of contents reveals France's history as an absolute monarchy which briefly and nobly struggled to institute a parliamentary democracy before reverting to a more traditional presidential strongman. Horne does not follow France into the Fifth Republic, coming to  a close after the deaths of de Gaulle and Edith Piaf.

Although I'd expected the history of France through the eyes of Paris, Horne's focus pushes the background of French history to the periphery. Readers who dive in without knowing much about French history may flounder, as Horne connects his chapters on building programs and local culture with a colorful but threadbare narrative. While this is justifiable in some cases, I believe a history of Paris will attract a more varied readership (tourists, for instance) than students of French history. I suspect the shallow background is the result of Horne writing for a European audience which would be better versed in its history than other readers: the same is true of his giddy use of French phrases, which are is often integral to the text and not just included for a little flavor. I've studied Spanish and German, not French, and so had to break my reading experience while I looked up his reference -- this was somewhat bothersome.

Although Seven Ages of Paris flows as smoothly as Horne's other work,   it added virtually nothing to what I'd already learned from La Belle France, and even repeated that work -- sentence for sentence -- in some sections, most noticeably when he covers the Commune. It's a fair work and I enjoyed reading it, but I'm unable to drum up any enthusiasm for promoting it.

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