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Monday, January 27, 2014

“Seven Ages of Paris”, by Alistair Horne

476 pages, Vintage, ISBN-13: 978-1400034468

One of the most beautiful cities in the world has finally found a worthy biographer in Alistair Horne. Paris has always held a fascination for most, being a center of not only political and commercial interest, but also home to the art and culture known throughout the world. Horne’s book describes the history of the city, with particular interest on the architectural changes, by highlighting seven different time periods, beginning with an introduction of the early beginnings of the city culminating in the late 1960’s riots which shook Paris. Wonderfully written, with snippets of information hard to find elsewhere. For example, I often wondered why St. Genevieve was the patron saint of the city; Horne supplies that information that very early during the history of the city an attack was feared from the invaders of the west and as the city prepared to flee, young Genevieve had a vision that the attack would not take place and halted the evacuation. Its little pieces of information such as this, which made the book an exceptionally fun as well as educating read.

Special attention is also paid to other significant historical events, especially those after the 1600’s. What really strikes the reader is one thing: the number of uprisings (the French Revolution of 1789 was only one in a series) that had struck the city, most of them organized on a grass roots level. This also helps explains why the cobblestones of the streets have now been cemented into place: they make very good missiles for those fed up with the weak administration of the city. That is another point that the author stresses: sanitation and city planning came very late to Paris, and this led to unimaginable squalor in various quarters of the city.

The reader is also introduced to some of the great figures of French history, particularly Henri IV (famous for his “Paris is well worth a mass”) and Emperor Napoleon III (who fled the country immediately following the defeat of the French in the Franco-Prussian war). Other notables include Haussmann who reinvented the look of the city we now see.

This is a superbly written history of Paris, as well as of France. It is at once well researched and scholarly, and highly readable and entertaining. While the history is focused on Paris, Horne skillfully weaves in the history of France as well. One thing that makes this such a good book is that Horne not only provides the reader with the political history, but weaves in descriptions of social issues, how the average Parisian lived, descriptions of the different social classes, information on the arts and culture, entertaining anecdotes, interesting portrayals of the important persons in the history of Paris and France, etc. In essence, he provides the reader with a full, comprehensive portrayal of Paris and France in a highly engaging writing style. My only very minor criticisms of the book are that maps of Paris should have been included, and not all of the very limited use of French was translated. Nevertheless, this is a must read for anyone interested in Paris and France.

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