Seasoned historian Dallas (1945: The War That Never Ended, 2005, etc.) serves up exquisite slices of Parisian lore.
Twelve Métro stops in the city of lights come blazing to life in this unusual tome. “There are many histories of Paris,” the author writes, “but they won’t fit in a pocket or a traveling sack.” Instead he gives us “little vignettes drawn from Paris’s rich two-thousand year history.” Such a wide-ranging project might fail in lesser writers’ hands, but London-born Dallas, a longtime resident of France, infectiously conveys his love and deep knowledge. From Métro stop No. 1, Denfert-Rochereau, the visitor to Paris can stroll in an area “once called Hell,” considered in the 1800s “the most frightening, deserted part of Paris” (Dallas explains why). From there, he moves on to the Gare du Nord, Métro stop No. 2, and the “charitable mysticism of Saint Vincent de Paul,” who in the 17th century established a group of homes for foundlings that was soon transformed by politicians into “a veritable industry of abandoned children.” Métro stop No. 3, the Trocadéro, was the stomping grounds of Dr. Otto Rank, “one of the great heretics of the psychoanalytic movement,” a disciple and later a critic of Freud, and the lover of Anaïs Nin. Métro stop No. 7, Châtelet-Les Halles, is a place frozen in the late 19th century for any reader of Émile Zola’s novel Le Ventre de Paris. Claude Debussy’s scandalous life and his friendship with Marcel Proust are interwoven with a riveting history of the Paris Opéra (Métro stop No. 9). The final stop is Père Lachaise, the largest of the city’s cemeteries, where Dallas intertwines the last years of Oscar Wilde and the imprisonment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the subject of France’s most notorious miscarriage of justice. A recommended reading list rounds out this gripping guide for the intellectual tourist.
Bravely drawn popular history: thoroughly researched, muscular with details and rendered in enchanting prose.