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Book review: 'Paris Under Water' by Jeffrey Jackson

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, January 31, 2010; B08

PARIS UNDER WATER

How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910

By Jeffrey H. Jackson

Palgrave Macmillan. 262 pp. $27

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T he Seine is not among the world's greatest or mightiest rivers -- by comparison with the Amazon, the Mississippi or the Nile, it is a stream -- but it certainly is among the most treasured and celebrated. "Over the centuries," Jeffrey H. Jackson writes, "as the primary conduit for goods and people throughout the entire region, the Seine turned Paris into a bustling commercial center. It supplied the city's residents with food, water, military defense, industry, shipping, tourism, and art. The story of Paris is inseparable from the story of the river that forms its most basic reference point, dividing the city into Right Bank and Left Bank."

Central though it is to Parisian life, the Seine tends to be viewed by residents and visitors alike as a civic adornment rather than the powerful and at times unpredictable force of nature that it actually is. Paintings and photographs of its bridges adorn walls all around the world, songs in innumerable languages evoke its beauty and romance, Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance at its edge. All of which is lovely, but it glosses over the reality that cities built next to water -- as most of the world's great cities were -- are at the water's mercy, as New Orleans so recently reminded us.

It has been exactly a century since Paris last got a taste of what the Seine can do in a mischievous mood, and it says something that the story of this calamity now seems to be almost completely forgotten. Most travelers know that Venice is frequently flooded during the high-water season in winter -- when my wife and I were there several Novembers ago, the Piazza San Marco was negotiable only by way of elevated wooden walkways -- but few who go to Paris understand that the Seine is capable of putting much of the city under water, as it did in late January 1910.

Its waters had risen many times before that, but during the 19th century science and technology had done much to protect the city against flooding, and there was widespread confidence -- if not complacency -- about mankind's new power to control nature. Thus nobody paid much attention when "a low-pressure system began to move eastward across the English Channel toward Paris, adding more rain to the soil of northern France and the Low Countries, already saturated from several weeks of unusually high amounts of winter rainfall." Tributaries of the Seine began to rise, pouring water into it and intensifying the flow of what is normally a slow-moving river. On Jan. 21 a "terrifying landslide" was set off in a small town 50 miles southeast of Paris, but "downriver in the capital, Parisians had been going about their daily business, largely unconcerned by reports of flooding in the towns and villages upriver."

But the "massive volume of water that had ravaged Troyes and Lorroy earlier that day had reached Paris" by the same night. The Seine "jumped to nearly ten feet above its normal level," and suddenly Paris was in for it. The water kept rising, the flow of the river grew ever faster, the weather remained dreadful:

"Snow fell from a gray sky, turning to rain and then back to snow again, adding to people's misery. The barometric pressure began falling, a promise of even worse weather conditions to come. On January 24, the entire infrastructure of the city was shutting down. As Le Matin reported, 'Factories are stopping, electricity and gas are going out, two thousand telephone customers are out of communication.' Water covered the train tracks that ran alongside the river, and stations started closing. The rail companies rerouted their passengers and cargo to less vulnerable stations where possible. Telegraphs stopped clicking, and businesses throughout the city locked their doors. Little by little, whole portions of Paris were cut off from the rest of France and the world."

The world was watching, just as it did when Katrina hit the United States. Expressions of concern and offers of assistance came from many foreign countries, and inside France itself people rallied strongly behind their capital. The damage, however, was scarcely limited to Paris. Though what happened there was on the largest scale, smaller places along the Seine were heavily affected and often isolated. Things were especially bad in some of Paris's closest suburbs, which -- then as now -- were dumping grounds for people who could not afford to live in the historic and in many cases grand neighborhoods of the City of Light; "the flood soon began to reveal the basic inequalities between the many working-class suburbs and the wealthier city," as aid efforts were concentrated on the latter.

There was deep and wholly justifiable concern, though, that Paris might be at the edge of extinction. A British journalist wrote: "Can the heart of Paris die like this in one night? It did seem dead. . . . Would it not sink altogether? It very well might -- all of it might crumble into a heap, not of dust . . . but of liquid mud, oozing over fallen stone and bricks. . . . Perhaps the whole of Paris really was doomed; perhaps it really was to be the end of Paris, which means the end of the world for Parisians." That may seem a trifle overwrought, but one must bear in mind that what this man had seen was a city in which the sewage system had effectively burst, filling the air with a dreadful stench, in which electricity had been knocked out, in which people's furniture was carried away by the river, in which criminals grew ever bolder.

All this was happening in the city where only a few years later the surrealist movement would be born, and "surreal" is the right word for how Paris looked then. A writer for the newspaper Le Gaulois painted this picture of activity at the Pont de Solferino:

"Men with huge hooked poles are on the watch for wreckage. . . . Lo! . . . a cask of wine. Precious, delicious beverage! Ready there with the pole! The chance of a lifetime! Gaily sails that cask [in] the angry stream, a burden of joy on the bosom of all this rage. Bump! The cask has collided with the glorious architecture of the Solferino. Ah, bah! The wretch with that hooked pole has missed! The cask goes bumping along beneath the bridge. Freed on the other arch, it bowls defiantly down the Seine. Off with you, precious thing, amid the cheers of enthusiastic Parisians! Bear your burden of delight to other shores, other gullets. An arm chair is next, then a bedspread, then . . . a grand piano!"

As Jackson says, "The rising Seine was shocking but thrilling, too," and for some Parisians it provided a splendid show, but there was nothing amusing about what it did to the city. The Louvre came within a whisker of being flooded and much of its collection damaged if not destroyed. The city, when the sun came out after a week of flooding and the waters gradually began to recede, was revealed to be under a thick blanket of mud. Many people lost their most important possessions, and many returned to find their dwellings no longer habitable. The newspaper Le Matin wrote: "We were taught to have faith in science; we learned that it contains goodness, morality, and peace. . . . But today everyone is asking the same question: How could science, so sure of itself, be defeated by primitive waters? Why was it incapable of protecting our most beautiful city against the capricious river?"

As Jackson says, "The flood challenged many of the era's most basic assumptions in the inevitable force of progress." That's a useful lesson, though at a very high cost. Paris is better protected now, though serious flooding has been barely avoided several times since 1910. Jackson, who teaches history at Rhodes College in Memphis, has written an agreeably non-academic account of the Seine's rise and fall. He has also put together an excellent Web site -- www.parisunderwater.com -- that includes a number of photographs and a brief explanatory text. It is a useful companion piece to the book as well as a free-standing if brief story of the flood.

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