“I realized I could take either a regular train or the TGV to many of the historic places I wanted to see in France. Since the TGV travels at speeds over 200 miles per hour, I could reach all but one of the places I wanted to see in France in ninety minutes and most places in less than an hour, and be able to return to Paris the very same night. I could, much as readers of ‘Paris to the Past’ will be able to do, stay at my hotel or apartment in Paris and never have to pack or unpack. I could take a train from Paris, travel century by century, chronologically through time, and be back in Paris each night, usually in time for dinner. Unlike the time traveler in Michael Crichton’s book ‘Timeline,’ I didn’t need to be faxed to the Middle Ages, I could take the TGV from Paris.”
The reader should not be under the impression that this was a tightly scheduled itinerary in which one day’s travel followed hard upon the previous day’s. Though Caro does not give any specific timeline, it’s obvious that these two dozen journeys took place over several years and that many places were visited more than once. Caro could not have compiled the detailed architectural observations she records about, say, the Gothic Cathedral at Saint-Denis or the renaissance chateau at Blois, on visits of only a few hours. No doubt some incredibly intrepid tourist could do all of these tours in just over three weeks, but one shudders to think about the state of exhaustion in which such a venture would conclude.
Caro divides her book into five parts, the longest being the first: “The Middle Ages: Cathedrals and Fortresses.” The others are “The Renaissance: Cities and Castles,” “The Age of Louis XIV: Seventeenth-Century France,” “The Coming of the French Revolution: Paris in the Eighteenth Century” and “The Empire and Restoration: The Bourgeois Century.” She begins “by taking the Metro to the twelfth-century Basilica of Saint-Denis” and ends at the 19th-century chateau in Chantilly, which “is, I believe, one of the three most beautiful chateaux in France, the other two being sixteenth-century Chenonceau and seventeenth-century Vaux-le-Vicomte.” This gives her ample opportunity to write about buildings as well as the people who inspired, built and/or lived in them.
Thus she writes about the Abbot Suger, upon whom were bestowed the impressive titles “Father of the Gothic Cathedral and Father of the Monarchy,” because “the abbey church he built at Saint-Denis is the parent of all Gothic cathedrals” and “because in order to create the basilica he wanted, he realized he would have to create a powerful monarch.” In the 12th century the French monarchy was weak, but Suger decided that “if he could strengthen the power of the King of France, and at the same time make him the Church’s protector, the basilica would no longer have to be a fortress as well as a place of worship.” This he did by persuading Louis the Fat to “ally himself with tradesmen and merchants in towns throughout France” and “to protect merchants and towns . . . an ingenious move that spread the influence of the king far beyond the borders of his realm, binding the merchants and their communes to the king while at the same time weakening the power of local lords.”
She writes about the Chateau de Vincennes, “seven kilometers east of Notre-Dame, [at] the last stop on the Line 1 Metro.” She says: “If you board the Metro in central Paris, it will take you about fifteen minutes to travel back to fourteenth-century medieval France,” in a chateau that “evokes the grimness of the period in which it was built — a period of plague, hopelessness, and a seemingly endless war.” Caro really prefers to look on the sunny side, with the result that only at Vincennes and the Conciergerie in Paris (where Marie-Antoinette was brought in 1793 to await her execution) does she give us much more than a glimpse into the dark side of French history.
Instead she rhapsodizes about Rouen, with “a cathedral whose facade Monet painted thirty-one times, a perfect Rayonnant church, but also a superb Beaux-Arts museum”; about the chateau at Blois, “the ideal castle to see the transformation that took place in sixteenth-century France, when its king, no longer threatened by internal war, modernized his defensive fortress into a palace befitting a king”; about falling in “love at first sight when I arrived in La Rochelle”; about Versailles, “the perfect place to experience the height of absolutism in seventeenth-century France,” though too often her visits there were spoiled by mobs of the unwashed transported by “a phalanx of tour buses.”
There are plenty of people who love this sort of stuff, so doubtless plenty of people will love “Paris to the Past” just as, if one judges by on-line reviews, plenty of people love “The Road from the Past.” Alas, I am not among them. Caro’s enthusiasm for France is appealing, but too often the manner in which she expresses it is not: in gabby, gushy prose that is riddled with narcissism. “Paris to the Past” teems with the first-person singular. On a single page “I” appears two dozen times, and on another page the following sentence, chosen at random, is all too typical: “Although I was taught in grammar school not to hate historical figures like Charles, I just couldn’t forgive him for not rescuing Joan of Arc from the English.” What purpose is served by the interjection of this bit of utterly irrelevant personal history into the narrative is unclear, but it happens over and over again.
So when Caro dines at a restaurant near Versailles, we are told that “we had a marvelous dinner,” the “only flaw being the restaurant’s air-conditioning, which stopped working during our meal.” A few pages later we get a detailed recitation about her difficulties in hiring a taxi from the train station to the castle at Maintenon, including being ignored by “a rather harried-looking woman at the ticket window, who was busy doing nothing.” A bit later, apparently determined to tell us everything about herself no matter how irrelevant, she announces that “I have always had a lot of trouble staying awake when reading about war and destruction.”
To which the only thing to be said is: Who cares? Yes, the author’s presence is inevitable in travel writing and in the right author’s hand can be invaluable. That is not the case in “Paris to the Past,” which not merely natters and babbles but also sees the French past — all too much of which is violent, bloody and autocratic — through rose-tinted glasses.
Jonathan Yardley’s “Second Readings: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited” is newly published. The contents first appeared as a series of essays in The Washington Post.