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[761] Seven Ages of Paris – Alistair Horne


“A great city is…a work of art. It is a collective and complex art, it is true, but this makes it an even higher form of art.” -Guillaume Chastenet

Before I headed to Paris this summer for an in-depth visit, I wanted to peruse its history, Horne’s book just serves the purpose. He has written extensively about France’s history, especially its wars, but Seven Ages of Paris is a story of Paris. Keeping primarily within the confine of political and social history, he covers nine centuries, from the battle of Bouvines in 1284 to the barricades of 1968. Like many cities, Paris has its up and down. It has evolved over time and escaped unscathed from wars. Paris is the symbol of chic and style, and Horne makes plain that while Paris may be many things, it is never boring.

Unlike How Paris Became Paris, which I read also in preparation for the trip, Horne’s is more than an analysis of urban design, of architectural shifts, of the court’s removal from the Louvre to Versailles, and of Haussmann’s massive re-design of the city at the expenses of demolition. To this monumental task of describing what he calls the seven ages that encompass a thousand years, Horne underscores the tenacity of the medieval French kings as they transformed a small, vulnerable town into the capital of a growing centralizing state.

The focus of each age is the king, the villains and the heroes. Philippe Auguste (1180-1222) is recognized as the first true adorer and lover of Paris. The Capetian king who at the battle of Bouvines saw off the Plantaganet English established the security of France by ensuring a French lineage of kings. The equally adroit Henri IV, who solved the religious quarrels (War of Religions) of the 16th century by a cynical conversion to Catholicism, is credited with both intelligence and a grand vision of how to embellish and to develop Paris, an ambition whose most eloquent testament were Pont Neuf and the Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges). Sully and Richelieu, both ministers of different ages, come across favorably for their achievement in building Paris and enhancing the purity of French language, respectively.

Horne’s assessment of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who spent most of his time at Versailles, is mixed. He rid of redundant government administrations and achieved solidarity of power. His court removal was a long-term disaster for the monarchy as it established a distance both geographical and political between itself and the city of Paris. Horne’s distaste for the French Revolution is such that he skips it, even though the Paris of those turbulent, tragic years deserves to be discussed. He does acknowledge Paris always rebounces with greater depth in humanity—in the form of arts, literature, and theater. Horne emphasizes the city’s growth under the two Napoleons, contrasting its glitter with the misery of the underclass. The Commune year and Great War also receive special attention. The critical victory at the battle of Marne in 1914, and the humiliation of occupied Paris in World War Two also inspire excellent pages. This book is very dense and thorough in research. It is a work of inspiration and love for Paris.

458 pp. Vintage Books/Random House. Trade Paperback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Shakespeare & Company in Paris


Although Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore is no longer on Rue de l’Odeon at its original location from the 1920s, the bookstore has really picked up the literary torch. The reincarnation is still on the Left Bank directly across from Notre Dame. It’s a reincarnation of the original store started by Sylvia Beach, an American with a passion for free thinking and writing. Her store then was famous as a meeting place for Paris’ expatriate literary elite. Ernest Hemingway, who then couldn’t afford to buy anything there, borrowed books from it regularly. James Joyce struggled to find a publisher for Ulysses—until Sylvia Beach published it. George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound also got their English fix at her shop.

Today, the bookstore carries on that literary tradition. This store on Rue de la Bucherie was founded in 1951 by the grandson of American poet Walt Whitman. Struggling writers are given free accommodations in tiny rooms with views of Notre Dame. The upstairs has a few seats, two cots, antique typewriters, and the residence cat perching cozily on a sofa. I make frequent trips to visit the cat and sit with him for a while while reading a book. Used and new books are all downstairs. There’s a green water fountain in front of the bookstore, one of the many in Paris donated by the English philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace. The hooks below the caryatids once hel metal mugsfor drinking the water.

Off to France


Tout arrive en France! I’m off to Paris and Normandy, the blog will not be updated on a regular basis.

Reading “Seven Ages of Paris”


How Paris Became Paris chronicles the major architectural and changes in Paris rendered by Henry IV and Louis XIV in the 17th century. Now I’m ready to tackle something grander, more epic and covering a wider period of time—Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne. From the rise of Pjilippe Auguste through the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XIV; Napoleon’s rise and fall, Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris; the Belle Epoque and the Great War that brought it to an end; the Nazi Occupation, the Liberation—Horne brings the city’s highs and lows, savagery and sophistication, to life.

Paris has undergone woe after woe for centuries—without ever being budged from its position as the most beloved city in the world. For all its violence, greed, inequality and double-dealing, Paris is most impressive, Horne thinks, for its ability to recover from collapse “and live again as if little had happened.” After Waterloo, after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, after the carnage of World War I, Paris did not merely survive; it saw ”an extraordinary blossoming in the gentler and more enduring works of humanity.” A trip to Paris should focus on Paris and its history. Except the Rick Steves’ guide, this book is the only book I’ll bring with me to Paris next week.

[759] How Paris Became Paris – Joan DeJean


” All through the 17th century, everytime its cityscape was redesigned in an important way, Paris benefited from what would now be called a rebranding campaign. In a continuous stream of publications and images, writers and artists publicized the city’s transformation from urban ruin to urban wonder and advertized the city as a destination, the epitome of a sophisticated, cosmopolitan place. ” (Introduction: Capital of the Universe, p.5)

Today, books, films, and digital media define Paris as one of the most beautiful and romantic cities. Paris’ spell is rooted in its uniformity of architectural façade, the parks and gardens made for quiet stroll, and the views of the Seine. In fact, as DeJean nimbly demonstrates, Paris’ charm owes much to the vision of two savvy monarchs: Henri IV and his grandson, Louis XIV, the Sun King. How Paris Became Paris, wittily and quite thoroughly researched, presents the city’s role as a significant precursor urban modernity in 17th century, a decisive period of change for the city as it emerged scathed from the War of Religions. The book examines how many of Paris’ quintessential landmarks began as royal visions and benefited from royal support but carried out on a for-profit basis by financiers and real-estate developers. The most notable consequence of these public works is to give Parisians, regardless of social standing, places to go and sights to see, and thus broaden social trajectories and business opportunities.

The opening of Pont Neuf is a milestone in the emergence of an urban culture. Not only is it suited for heavy traffic and served as the first artery linking the two banks, the New Bridge was the first Parisian bridge built without houses, affording view of the Seine from the deck. Most important, it was not just utilitarian, it was treated as a place for urban civility and social exchange, a space for entertainment and commerce. It was a social leveler. The Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges) became a ground-breaking model for the city square devoted to recreation. Île Saint-Louis, built from two undeveloped islets on the Seine, changes Paris’ skyline with the unprecedented white stone construction. As city walls were demolished, streets widened to become boulevards, street lighting implemented, and public transportation introduced, Paris is leaving its medieval identity behind.

But the book is not exclusively about urban development. DeJean covers Le Fronde, the period of revolt against the monarchy (1649-1653) as Parisians, unified in their cause against the corrupted minister to the king, set up barricades and shut down Paris. The book also touches on the noveau riches who bankrolled on the king’s battles, and how these new riches bought fraudulent papers feign aristocratic standing. The result is an end to old aristocracy as one’s social status can be elevated by means of wealth. Rags-to-riches bring the demand for luxury goods, evolutions in fashion, and, a new social class that pursues money in unscrupulous means, otherwise known as gold-diggers.

The richness of subject matter is the strength and fun of this book, although the writing sometimes can be at risk of becoming subsumed in the delivery of facts that cover a vast period. DeJean is at pains to imply no greater city has existed until the reinventing of Paris. She succeeds in demonstrating the making of a very sophisticated Paris. She does an excellent job putting political, economic, and social events of 17th century in context, and showing how they are inter-related.

306 pp. Bloomsbury. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading “How Paris Became Paris”


By 1645, three visionary urban works—the Pont Neuf, the Place Royale, and the Île Notre-Dame—had become the foundation of Paris’ new image, as a city remarkable not only for its size but for its exciting and innovative constructions. The city at large, however, was as yet untouched by large-scale transformation. And this process was suspended for nearly a decade when civil war broke out in 1649. (Chapter 3)

How Paris Became Paris explores the key infrastructure and public works that made Paris the modern city. Joan Dejean delivers just the right amount of history and background relevant to these landmarks for reader to understand Paris’ transformation. Do you know that sidewalk separating pedestrians from vehicles was first seen on Pont Neuf? Do you know the first stone bridge spanning the Seine in a single span has sparkled urban life in an unprecedented way? Do you know Place des Vosages is the first communal square that is neither political nor religious in its purpose? Do you know the waters beneath and nearby Pont Neuf became the first nude beach?

Travel is to learn a place’s history.

Note to Self: Destination Paris


Literary Paris often brings travelers to Hemingway’s apartment, Les Deux Margots, Cafe de Flore, the Shakespeare & Company, which are all landmark literary sites, but there are off-the-beaten-path literary locales I wish to explore.

Bibliotheque Nationale de France tops my list in the upcoming trip to France. It’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. It is the repository of all that is published in France. Les Editeurs is a combination of cafe, bar, restaurant and library with more than 5,000 books. Le Cafe-Livre is a cafe-bookshop where one can enjoy a drink or browse through the thousands of books displayed on walled-in shelves.

The one book that will see me through the flight over the pond will be Bricktop’s Paris, which explores the lives of black women who sought freedom an artistic expression in Paris between the two World Wars. How Paris Became Paris, my current read, describes Paris’ emergence from the Dark Ages into the world’s grandest city. La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life explains how seduction has long been used in all aspects of French life, from small villages to the halls of government, providing a surprisingly helpful cultural primer.

Growth of Paris


This is a gem of a book. A history of Paris through the development of its streets, urban space, and infrastructure. Construction of Pont Nouf, for example, became one of those rare public works that actually shape urban life. On the New Bridge, Parisians rich and poor came out of their houses and began to enjoy themselves in the public again after decades of religious violence in 1734. The Pont Nouf became the first truly communal entertainment space in the city. This book demonstrates that the Parisien model for urban space was in fact invented two centuries earlier than the times when most people associate the signature characteristics of Paris.

[733] The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris – John Baxter


” Well, this is [Parisians’] habitat, their quartier, as familiar to them as their own living room. Because that’s how Parisians regard the city—as an extension of their homes. The concept of public space doesn’t exist here. ” (Ch.1, p.4)

This whole book itself is an irony—Baxter advocates following a guide while he himself is one. The book is a mash-up of a memoir, history, and armchair travel guide. Baxter, having lived in Paris over two decades and married to a French woman, found his witting entry into the very profitable business of tour guide when a friend running week-long literary seminars persuades him to tag along on one of the event’s organized walks with some academic. Baxter finds this academic personality very dry, dessicated and painfully pretentious. That’s what inspires him to not become a tour guide stereotype.

He urges visitors to embrace the art of a flâneur, someone who passionately walks for pleasure of it and allows the whims to guide him, with no set itinerary. Paris, after all, is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone, for only the peace of strolling can take in all the rich, if muted, detail.

Whereas most Americans associate Paris with the lost generation of 1920s epitomized by famous expats like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, Baxter does not limit to presenting Paris in the eyes of these celebrities. The transplanted Australian seems to feel a particular kinship with Hemingway, but equally making lively cameo are Henry Miller, Jean Cocteau, and the entourage of French painters who made Paris the legendary art capital.

But the best part of the book is when Baxter steers away from mainstream attractions—the quintessential cafes and bistros, and delves into the off-the-beaten-path, seedy Paris. The alleys, he notes, do not connote squalor and danger, but are respectively rich in history. Who would have imagined the wide, beautiful expanse of Luxembourg Garden was the roaming ground of a social killer who murdered women for their money? And there’s the uninviting building in the Cour du Commerce where the guillotine was born. The catacombs underlay large areas Paris with expansive rabbit warrens of skulls, femurs, and tibias.

With a casual familiarity, Baxter makes Paris approachable to anyone willing to explore on foot. It’s a gem of a book that reminds me of A Moveable Feast, with small chapters exploring some engaging facets of Parisian culture and history.

298 pp. Harper Perennial. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Baldwin’s Paris

Most literature of Paris delivers a nostalgia of the lost generation of which Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were a part. Writers (more like writer-wannabes) think there’s something in Paris that confers on writing a special gleam. One literary figure often overlooked is James Baldwin.

Baldwin was only 24 when he arrived in Paris, with just $40 in his pocket. Virtually unpublished, he had left New York to escape American racism—an escape that be believed literally saved his life and made it possible for him to write.

Baldwin was introduced to me in college American literature class. Since then he has maintained a grip on my imagination. Set in 1950s Paris, Giovanni’s Room (one of my all-time favorite novels) the novel tells the story of an ill-fated love affair between the narrator, David, a young American ex-soldier, and a darkly handsome Italian barman named Giovanni. I was inspired in equal parts by the depth and style of Baldwin’s prose, and the fact that he, a gay black man had written so boldly and lived so openly at a time when there was such deep social hatred and opposition aimed at those of us who shared either Baldwin’s race or sexual identity, let alone both. What’s more, the fact that he had found a way to live and write freely in Paris made the city feel like an essential destination for me.

I usually have no agenda going in Paris, rather want to allow the city to appeal to my whim. Why not go on a little Baldwin trail this time, starting at the famous Café de Flore, the place where Baldwin had spent endless hours on the second floor, drinking coffee and Cognac to keep warm while working on his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain?