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Thursday, February 19, 2015

“Paris: The Biography of a City”, by Colin Jones



592 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670033935

Paris: The Biography of a City is the literary equivalent of bubble-gum pop, or a shoot-em-up action flick, or that stupid TV show (you know the one) that you can’t admit to watching but do so, religiously. While it can be infantile and annoying (as you’ll see below), it is also enjoyable and a good, light read. As Parisian history is so very varied, rich, and long the best Jones can do is give us the cliff-notes history of Paris – that’s 487 pages long (indeed, Jones admits in the preface that he’s had to work really hard to focus his information just on Paris itself, eliminating anything that doesn’t relate directly to the city and the changes that it and its people have gone through over time). The result is that Jones has to completely ignore anything that didn’t happen in Paris, meaning that great swathes of French history are skipped, especially the reigns of Louis XIV-to-Louis-XVI, as the monarchy was based in Versailles at the time. The Revolution doesn’t even get a whole chapter, the Romans are basically a footnote, and we go from Henri of Navarre to the Sun King in ten pages.

Throughout all of this, Jones sprinkles the book with annoyingly tantalizing bits of stories that he doesn’t have the time to go into, like this: “In the mid-to-late 1880’s, however, this moment of relative calm in Parisian politics was overturned by a political shooting star, General Boulanger, a kind of intellectually challenged Napoleon. His call for constitutional revision and a war of revenge against the German empire won a good deal of electoral support among working as well as middle-class Parisians. By 1891, however, the general had shot his bolt (and indeed himself, on his mistress’s tomb) but the 1890’s would see the emergence of new sources of political instability.” Wait a minute, go back! He shot himself on his mistress’s tomb? I want to read more about that…But you can’t, because that’s the first and last that we hear about General Boulanger, and before you can say “slow your roll, Jones” we’re moving on to the Dreyfus Affair – all lone paragraph of it.

The book does have some good things going for it: first, Jones devotes an impressive amount of space (especially considering how quickly he has to go through all his information) to discussing the emergence and growth of the banlieues, the Parisian suburbs that have, by this point, become larger than Paris itself. It was nice that he didn’t just focus his story on the tourist idea of Paris, but acknowledged the less-picturesque aspects of it. Don’t worry, though; those famous landmarks get a showing, too: Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, the Centre Pompidou, and the Louvre, controversial glass pyramid and all. While some of these landmarks were much maligned in the beginning, Parisians soon embraced them, and as Jones shows, Paris would not be Paris without them. Paris also would not be Paris without the Seine, as Jones consistently reminds us. One of my favorite sections came towards the end of the book, when Jones discusses the Algerian fight for independence and how the residents of Paris reacted to the conflict. Did you know that there was a massive pro-Algeria demonstration in Paris in 1961, and the police killed almost 200 protestors, either by beating them to death or drowning them in the Seine? Did you know that the French government didn’t even acknowledge that this had happened until 1999? I didn’t, and it was mind-blowing.

This book is a confusing array of dates, arrondissement numbers, and street names. To get the most out of it, one must either be intimately familiar with Paris or have a good map to consult. Jones provides several maps at the back of the book that chronicle Paris at various time periods, but they are only moderately helpful. A glossary, illustrations, an extensive bibliography, notes, and a list of characteristic buildings with their construction dates are all included to give a more thorough examination of Paris. Jones also includes special highlighted sections in each chapter that detail people, places, and things that helped shape Parisian culture. These sections break up the continuity of the chapters, and are probably best saved for reading after the chapter is completed. For any lover of history, or any lover of the City of Light, Paris: The Biography is a City it is an essential book. While it cannot possibly cover absolutely everything in Paris’s two-thousand year history, it is a valiant effort.

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