The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Watching the flames burn Notre Dame, the spiritual heart of France

Visitors flock to Notre Dame in Paris on April 16, 2019, the day after a historic fire tore through the ancient cathedral. (Photo by Cyril Zannettacci/Agence VU/For The Washington Post)
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On April 15, 2019, the night of the great Notre Dame fire, the world watched in disbelief and sorrow as flames devoured its roof and columns of thick smoke shot into the sky. The medieval cathedral that radiated immortality hovered on the edge of destruction. And yet, by the early hours of the next morning, the stone structure stood tall. All the firefighters survived.

The French turned to Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, “Notre-Dame de Paris,” for comfort. Hugo had called the cathedral “a vast symphony in stone” and bemoaned its “degradations and mutilations.” Now, his opus rocketed to the top of bestseller lists.

Newspapers and magazines ran special editions recounting the drama of that night. Then came several books on the fire, including “La nuit de Notre-Dame: Par ceux qui l’ont sauvée” (“The Night of Notre-Dame: By Those Who Saved It”), a gripping, unadorned account by the Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris, the Paris firefighting force.

A 500-page coffee-table book originally published for the 850th anniversary of Notre Dame in 2013 was reissued. With dozens of essays by scholars and several hundred images (as well as the blessing of the Élysée Palace, Paris City Hall and the Paris Archdiocese), it is a tour de force, a joy even for non-French-speakers.

In English, the best-selling novelist Ken Follett wrote a slim volume, “Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals,” donating royalties to the cathedral’s restoration fund.

The most recent work to enter this literary universe is “Notre-Dame: The Soul of France” by Agnès Poirier, a French-born print and broadcast journalist who works extensively for British media. Readers who want an overview of events on the night of the fire and a recounting of some of the main events in Notre Dame’s history may find her book useful and informative.

Her thesis — Notre Dame is the soul of France — rings true. With the Seine River as its mirror and protector, the cathedral is the geographical, spiritual and cultural center of France. In 1769, Louis XV decreed that all distances in France would be calculated from the forecourt of the cathedral. In 1924, “point zéro,” as it is called, became the reference to judge the mileage of highways in France, and an octagonal brass compass was set into the cobblestones.

The site has been holy since antiquity, perhaps explaining why Notre Dame feels spiritual, even for nonbelievers. A Druid shrine and then a pagan temple dedicated to Jupiter, the chief of the Roman gods, are believed to have stood on this spot. Then came a Frankish church, a Merovingian basilica, and Carolingian and Romanesque cathedrals.

Poirier opens with a first-person account on the night of the fire, how she saw “bright yellow plumes of smoke . . . coiling into the sky” from the kitchen of her apartment on the Quai de la Tournelle and ran down to the street to get closer. She was struck by “the unbearable realization and excruciating thought: Our Lady might go,” she writes.

She recounts the oft-told narrative of events, enriching it with interviews with many of the key players, including Marie-Hélène Didier, the heritage curator in charge of France’s religious art; Philippe Villeneuve, a chief architect of historic monuments; Laurent Prades, Notre Dame’s general manager; and Gen. Jean-Claude Gallet, the firefighters’ commander.

Her prose is breathless. A curator is not “powerless” but “completely powerless”; officials are not “waiting” but “anxiously waiting”; the thought that Notre Dame could have perished is not “unbearable” but “simply unbearable to contemplate.” When the 19th-century, 750-ton, lead-covered oak spire falls, breaking the stone vault of the nave, she tells us that “everybody’s pulse now beats even faster,” including, she writes, those of firefighters, bystanders, Parisians, French and foreigners.

Then Poirier adopts a neutral voice, going back to the cathedral’s beginnings in 1163, when Bishop Maurice de Sully decided that he needed a grander church, one that would take almost two centuries to build. She dashes through nine centuries — the conversion of Henri IV to Catholicism (but not his assassination), the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor, Hugo’s campaign to restore the cathedral, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s transformation of Paris, the city’s Liberation in 1944 — before returning to the present.

Missing from the narrative, perhaps for the sake of brevity, are large swaths of French history. The reader is in 1638 with Louis XIII, and two pages later it is 1789 and the Bastille has been stormed. The degraded state of the cathedral and the struggle to raise money for renovations before the fire merit two paragraphs. (Balustrades had fallen, gargoyles had broken, flying buttresses were blackened and worn away by pollution. Water was seeping through cracks in the spire, weakening its wooden frame.)

The book does not pretend to be a work of investigative journalism. It does not break new ground in examining the absence of adequate fire-protection systems in the cathedral or the theories about the causes of the blaze.

The author assumes (as is the habit of many French writers) that the reader starts with a general knowledge of French history and current events that many American readers might not have. Robespierre, Simone de Beauvoir and the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) protesters are not identified when they are introduced. The first name of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the urban planner who transformed Paris in the 19th century, is left out of the early pages.

She tells us that Notre Dame’s archaeological crypt needs a “complete review,” without explaining why.

Books can be written quickly. Follett wrote his thin volume of six mini-essays in a week. And despite an advance from his publisher and years of procrastination, when Hugo finally hunkered down to write “Notre-Dame de Paris,” he produced the novel — nearly 200,000 words — in fewer than five months.

Poirier’s book, with footnotes and a mostly French bibliography, might have been even richer had she taken more time to smooth out the style and fill in the historical gaps about the greatest cathedral in the world.


The Soul
of France

By Agnès Poirier

219 pp. $26.95