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[761] Seven Ages of Paris – Alistair Horne

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“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]

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Reading “Seven Ages of Paris”

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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.