The year is 1875, and we’re soon introduced to a young aristocrat, a “fair-haired, blue-eyed” 3-year-old who likes to sing — what else? — “Frere Jacques.” This is Roland de Cygne, whose name dates back to the horn-blowing hero of the great epic poem “Song of Roland.” According to the priest charged with tutoring the lad, God has great things in store for this noble toddler.
Meanwhile, the Devil is making plans of his own. A gaunt-faced, God-hating, radical shrew tells her own young child, Jacques Le Sourd, about the death of his father. One of the revolutionary Communards who briefly took over the French government in 1871, he was executed by a firing squad led by a typical aristocrat, the Vicomte de Cygne. The boy’s mission is clear: He must grow up to kill the aristocratic heir Roland.
With this bedrock plot locked in place, the novel follows the fates of several families over the course of French history. There’s the bourgeois merchant family headed by Jules Blanchard, who operates a department store named Josephine — nominally in honor of Napoleon’s mistress but actually in honor of his own. And there’s the working-class Gascon family, represented mainly by the strapping, handsome, hardworking Thomas and his rakish brother Luc. There is also the family represented by James Fox, an English lawyer living in France.
Like Billy Pilgrim, the readers of “Paris” quickly become unstuck in time, deposited chapter by chapter in some new French era where they witness the ancestors of some of these families dealing with the struggles of their age.
We meet the Renards in one century and the Foxes in another; along the way, we discover they are from the same clan: The Renards, faithful Protestants, escaped the Catholic Louis XIV in 1685 by moving to England and changing their name to Fox before moving back to their native country years later.
In 1462, Jean Le Sourd, a veritable king of thieves, meets his comeuppance when he tries to rob Guy de Cygne, an honest visitor to the corrupt, plague-infested city still recovering from the battle with England.
Later, during the French Revolution, the evil widow Le Sourd happily rats out the devout Christian aristocrats Etienne de Cygne and his wife to Robespierre, who promptly puts them in the Bastille; a kindly Dr. Blanchard intercedes to offer his help.
A picture emerges over the course of 800 pages: Not only does history repeat itself, but a man’s class is his destiny. History is the struggle between lazy, resentful slobs at the bottom trying to ruin the party for the cake eaters at the top.
The problem, though, isn’t Rutherfurd’s snobbery. It’s his storytelling.
He isn’t a novelist; he’s a docent, shoehorning facts into every scene and conversation. A passing painter describes what realism is. Monsieur Gustave Eiffel lectures young Thomas Gascon on the structural engineering of his new tower. The artist Marc Blanchard describes the history of Paris to an American friend: “So we have, for instance, the ancient Ile de la Cite, and the Montagne Sainte-Genevieve where the university is, which was once a Roman forum.” The characters may be French, but their native tongue is Wikipedia.
When Rutherfurd sets a historical scene, he invariably goes for the dull overview. Likewise, he has nothing new to say about real-life historical characters, as they make their periodic walk-ons. Josephine Baker “was a diva, welcomed as a star wherever she went.” Marcel Proust was “a show-off and a dilettante. . . . Who would have guessed he was hatching this work of genius in his head?” When the famous speak, they say what you’d expect. “I think I shall be painting these lilies for the rest of my life,” Monet accurately reveals. Or, as in the case of Hemingway, they don’t have to say a word: “From the way he carried himself, she guessed that he wrote fine, clean prose about where he’d been and what he’d done, and how it felt.”
Also, aside from the ongoing de Cygne-Le Sourd death match, characters throughout this history keep facing the same obstacles: the forbidden love of a Catholic and a Protestant, mainly, or children born out of wedlock or through adulterous liaisons.
Alas, all the set changes in the world can’t save this corny, repetitious chronicle from imploding. Paris, once again, has fallen into the wrong hands.
Welch is the book reviewer for the Free-Times in Columbia, S.C.