A fittingly illuminating history of la ville lumière and of the great men and women who have passed beneath the gates of the French capital.
English historian and biographer Horne (A Bundle from Britain, 1994, etc.) obviously prefers Paris—which, in a well-worn turn, he conceives of as being “fundamentally a woman”—to his native “dear, sedate old London town,” and this portrait bears all the marks of his affection for the cold, rainy, and notoriously snooty metropolis. Horne opens with a view of Paris as it was in its early days as the Roman colony of Lutetia, then confined to an island in the middle of the Seine, whose water, the emperor Julian wrote, “is pleasant to drink, for it is very pure and agreeable to the eye”; rough-and-tumble in Roman times, it was scarcely more civilized when the Merovingian king Clovis, having murdered most of his family—“they were not gentle or nice people,” Horne writes understatedly, “these Frankish forebears of the modern-day Parisian”—founded his capital there fifteen hundred years ago. Few of the characters in Horne’s narrative qualify as gentle or nice, and his pages are full of bloody episodes that illustrate the city of light’s darker side: the slaughter of its Jews in the 14th century, and again in the 20th; the deaths of some 25,000 Parisians during the 1871 Commune, “larger by far . . . than the bloodletting of the Terror of 1793”; episodes of ethnic turmoil today. Still, Horne’s take on Paris past and present is as much celebratory as cautionary. Altogether, his approach is a tad on the old-fashioned side, preferring to highlight the mighty deeds of the noble and highborn to the daily life of the masses, fodder for generations of annalistes. That said, Horne does a commendable job of distilling an impressive amount of material in an eminently readable narrative that shows just how important Paris is to the history of the West, and indeed the world.
A lively primer of Parisian history, just the right companion for travelers to the city seeking a deeper understanding of the view before them.