Each facet of Paris’s long and varied history is captivating in a different way. Two new, richly researched books explore aspects of the city’s path in pursuit of the elusive question of just what gives Paris its inimitable character.
Well before we had anything resembling a city on our shores, Paris was defining core aspects of what we still regard as modern urban culture. In “How Paris Became Paris,” Joan DeJean presents the city’s role as a precursor of urban modernity by taking us to the 17th century, a decisive period of change for the city.
One of the milestones in the emergence of an urban culture came in the summer of 1606, when Parisians witnessed the opening of the freshly built Pont Neuf, or New Bridge. For the first time, people were able to walk, ride and drive over what was not just a new bridge, but a new type of bridge. It was an engineering feat, a broad structure suited to heavy traffic and therefore able to serve as the first real artery between the two banks, with a stop on the Île de la Cité in between. It was the first Parisian bridge built without houses, affording views of the water from the deck. It featured a broad space for pedestrians to circulate, elevated and protected from vehicle traffic by high stone curbs. Most important, it was not just utilitarian: It was treated as a place for urban civility and exchange, and it had a small square with a statue of the king, Henri IV, on horseback.
This audacious bridge was only one of the projects that marked the emergence of a new kind of city during the reigns of Henri IV and Louis XIII. Two major urban developments of the time, the Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges) and the Île Saint-Louis, each with an ordered layout and new amenities, contributed to the formation of the urban ideal that Paris was beginning to embody.
The next major projects for Paris came later in the century, when the Sun King, Louis XIV, again launched not just a new project, but the prototype of a new kind of urban space that persists today. He took the bold step of having Paris’s ramparts pulled down and elm trees planted to create a promenade, a remarkably ambitious public space. These “boulevards” became a tremendous success, immensely popular with Parisians and visitors alike for strolling and riding, a magnet for restaurants, cafes and, later, theaters. For two centuries before the building of the Eiffel Tower, the boulevards were the symbol of Paris and the emblem of its urban culture. Although to Parisians, the term “boulevard” should, strictly speaking, be applied only to these original promenades along the former rampart, others have since been built in cities around the world. The boulevard has become a defining element of what makes a city.
“How Paris Became Paris” is not exclusively about built space. DeJean covers La Fronde, the mid-17th-century period of revolt against the monarchy, and how it represented the emergence of modernity in political thought and communication. She presents the new services and amenities, such as public transportation; the emergence of a new elite in response to novel financial mechanisms; and changes that went along with the cultural and physical emergence of the new city, such as evolutions in fashion and sexual practices.
The greatest strength of “How Paris Became Paris” is the richness of its subject matter. DeJean is fluent with the material and has conducted thorough research, with many interesting primary sources. But the book also has weaknesses. The period covered is vast and the scope broad, making the maintenance of a cohesive story at times challenging, with the writing at risk of becoming subsumed in the delivery of facts. The author asserts the interest and importance of the period at length, which is not only unnecessary given the quality of the material but detracts from the thrust of the narrative. Nevertheless, if one has a strong interest for this fabulous subject and a willingness to ride through the slow parts, “How Paris Became Paris” is well worth reading.
John Baxter’s “Paris at the End of the World” is, on the surface, a book about Paris during World War I. It examines how, after the exuberant opening of the 20th century, the city was affected by the outbreak of a conflict that fractured Europe and left millions of young men dead or maimed and scarred in muddy fields only a few hours’ drive from the glamorous boulevards.
The chapters are short and dense, well-researched and entertaining. Baxter tells the story of the requisition of Parisian taxis to take soldiers to the front in September 1914. He portrays the extraordinary character of Jean Cocteau, first dashing about the front as an aesthete ambulance driver, then leading Paris cultural life by, among other things, staging the avant-garde dance, music and visual piece “Parade” with Érik Satie and Pablo Picasso at the Théâtre du Châtelet despite the ongoing war. Details abound of life in a city close to death and enmeshed in the ideology of the war, yet still culturally vibrant.
Woven among these chapters is the story of Archie Baxter, the author’s grandfather, a young man from Burrawang, New South Wales, who volunteered to join the Australian Imperial Force in Europe and ended up in an East Anglian hospital. The material on the older Baxter is a bit skimpy, and the author has to stretch a bit to fit it in, but the adventure of the genealogical research makes for some good passages.
“Paris at the End of the World” is certainly for those interested in World War I. It deals particularly well with the perspectives of Australian, British and American soldiers. The choice of topics follows the author’s interests, including things that have little connection to Paris, such as English-language war poetry. Those hoping to really penetrate war-era Paris may find themselves not completely satisfied, but this does not diminish the interest of the book as a subjective collection of investigations and observations concerning World War I.
All in all, the content is compelling and the writing vivid. Baxter does not have quite the profundity of observation nor the ease of the quill of the greatest essayists, but his anecdotes and observations are consistently enlightening.
Paris’s inexhaustibility as an object of literary and historic work is extraordinary. These two valuable books, so different in subject matter, approach and tone, further demonstrate the never-ending fascination of this city and come as welcome additions to our shelves.
HOW PARIS BECAME PARIS
The Invention of the Modern City
By Joan DeJean
Bloomsbury. 307 pp. $30
PARIS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
The City of Light During the Great War, 1914-1918
By John Baxter
Harper Perennial. 402 pp. Paperback, $15.99