PARIS: The Biography of a City
By Colin Jones. Viking. 566 pp. $29.95
One can only be impressed by the gumption of a historian who takes on a subject as imposing as this one: Paris, the works, starting at the dawn of time and marching forward through the centuries to the coattails of the present. "I shall inevitably exclude more than I can include," declares Colin Jones, but the professor (a historian at Britain's Warwick University) is too modest.
Who might read such a book? Surely his publisher considered the question. If you know nothing of the history of Paris, this book is too dense to be a primer. If you know a great deal about Paris, any given page is sure to be too cursory. If you know a little bit about a few things and want to know more (my case), Paris: The Biography of a City is not really the place to probe for detail, nuance or color. If you seek a commanding historical narrative, or distinctive use of the English language, may I recommend Alistair Horne's recent Seven Ages of Paris?
Jones's book does work as a straightforward reference tool, though. And as an adopted resident of Paris and a selective reader in French history, I appreciated a few other things about it. Jones cares about the physical city itself, especially the context in which its seemingly eternal streets, buildings and monuments came to be. He unfolds Paris briskly before the reader, from the ancient Roman outpost of Lutetia to the festering young city -- Europe's largest -- of the Middle Ages, from Enlightenment squares and parks to the broad Haussmann-style boulevards that still dominate the city and to the architectural gems and monstrosities of the post-de Gaulle era. Jones's organic approach -- "the interaction between individuals and time, and between ecology and community," as he puts it -- helped me locate the evolutionary Paris on my mental map of the contemporary city.
To his credit, Jones is attentive to the symbolism of renaming streets, squares and buildings according to the fashion, edict or prejudice of the day. He also more than acknowledges the city that has always been in the shadow of the palaces, museums and triumphal vistas: the Paris of the poor, the Paris, as time went on, of the grimy eastern arrondissements, of the suburbs, of the immigrant, of the revolutionary, of the Left.
But Jones's book sinks under the sheer weight of its ambition. The decades whiz through the pages, but rather than a well-turned generalization or two, or an idiosyncratic aside, Jones is preoccupied -- as his introduction confesses -- with inclusion. Every page is littered with dates, lists, names, burdening the narrative and glazing the eye. His determination to move quickly through his material left me dizzy -- did we really finish with the Siege and Commune of 1870-71 in five pages? With World War I in four?
Compounding the problem, for me, is the most pedestrian and careless prose between covers I have encountered in a long time. Jones has a predilection for mushy, indeterminate adjectives and phrases. "The hospital was in pretty much permanent use between 1618 and 1636, when bubonic plague seemed quasi-endemic in the city." Pretty much? Seemed? Quasi-endemic? And might there not have been a better way to say "Economic difficulties, however, were not without social reactions"? Or "There was a good deal of standardization as regards the interiors as well as the exteriors of Haussmann-style buildings"? Jones also has a lazy habit of using the verb "to see" as an all-purpose descriptor: "The 1870s and 1880s had seen a national economic downturn." Three sentences later: "The years before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 saw a transformation in habits of consumption." Or: "The 1960s saw a spate of autoroute building out from Paris." We are treated to many (minor) "golden ages" -- of the private hôtel, the Catholic sermon, the horse, the bicycle. And sometimes Jones seems not to be thinking: Does he truly judge Napoleon "a statesman longer on talk than performance"?
In the context of this uninspiring narrative, one tries to find a foothold in his introduction. Here he pays homage to Georges Perec, the avant-garde writer who studied the life of Paris in the experience of a single site (the Place Saint-Sulpice) in one 24-hour period. But, as Jones is fond of noting, these introductory thoughts "flattered only to deceive." Having laid out an elaborately original approach for his book, he proceeds with a conventional narrative.
Oh, and what about the "biography of a city"? Except for an interesting paragraph about the moment, circa 1830, when Paris changed gender (from being a "she" to a "he"), I found no mention of this idea in the book. It must be just a subtitle.
Charles Trueheart, a former Washington Post correspondent, is a writer in Paris.