A love letter to Paris - from a man who first visited 50 years ago; Paris, by John Russell. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 350 pp. $45.
Books about Paris written by non-Parisians tend to be either passionate love letters to that city, or coldly objective historical accountings of what brought Paris into being, and what has happened to it since.
John Russell's ''Paris'' is a dramatic exception, for, while it is neither passionate nor coldly objective, it is both a love letter to, and a historical accounting of, that great city. Not so much the Paris of the Middle Ages and somewhat later, however - those periods are only briefly touched upon here and there, in relation to more recent events and institutions - but the Paris of the past 200 years is the focus.
Russell makes an excellent guide. Not only is he the chief art critic of the New York Times, and thus fully cognizant of Paris's artistic riches, but he has also spent a great deal of time there and has come to know that city well.
The book itself is an updated, expanded, and profusely illustrated version of the edition originally published in 1960. It leads off with a short but warmly elegant introduction by Rosamond Bernier, in which she introduces us both to ''her'' Paris and to Russell, and then sets the stage with the following: ''We stepped out on to the little balcony. Deyrolle, the naturalist's where I used to buy crystals and butterflies, was still across the street. There were some new chic boutiques, but the noble eighteenth-century facades still stood guard over the past. We looked around happily: there they were, our cherished landmarks - the Invalides, the Eglise de Sainte-Clotilde, and Eiffel Tower on the left, and on the right the former Gare d'Orsay, soon to be a museum of late-nineteenth-century art, the Sacre-Coeur, and the Grand Palais.''
Who wouldn't be enchanted by such a view! Nor indeed by what Russell then proceeds to tell us about Paris, its citizens, streets, buildings, entertainments, foods, museums, and churches. It is rich fare - as well as great entertainment - and about as good an introduction to Paris as any non-French-speaking reader can hope to find.
The illustrations are numerous and excellent, and very much to the point. They range from fascinating old prints and photographs to reproductions of paintings by such masters as Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, and Matisse. Stunning photographs of 18th-century interiors rub elbows with even more stunning aerial photographs of the Ile de la Cite, the Place des Vosges, and the Palais Royal. There is an incredible 1900 photograph of the interior of the Galeries Lafayette, which gives new meaning to the word ''clutter,'' and a full-color photograph of the grand staircase of the Opera which is nothing less than the very epitome of regal elegance.
Marvelous and illuminating as the illustrations may be, however, it is Russell's text, which is the main course of this visual and verbal feast. He begins: ''It is almost fifty years to the day since I first set foot in Paris,'' and ends with a haunting description of the Isle de France. In between we are introduced to Parisian life, culture, and history in 16 chapters that focus upon specific aspects of its citizenry, geography, architecture, and institutions. The chapter on ''Parisian and Parisienne'' is a must for anyone who believes absolutely that ''Paris would be great if it weren't for the Parisians.'' And the chapters on ''The Marais,'' ''The Paris of the First Empire,'' ''The Comedie-Francaise,'' and ''The Case of Haussmann'' are also particularly rewarding.
Russell is especially pointed when discussing the Parisians. They are, he says, ''by nature both wary and impatient. They have a very low tolerance of boredom. Foreign visitors as such are not fascinating to them. They have a dread of ties that may turn out badly. It has been bred into them that 'stranger' rhymes with 'danger.' ''
On the other hand, ''They are quick to get on to the new thing when the new thing offers them a better look, a better life, and a bigger splash. Furthermore , they live as well as they can. Paris has its share of misers and savers, but they are outnumbered by the people who like to shut the door on the world outside and celebrate their own well-being.''
But if Russell is somewhat tart when writing about the citizens of Paris, he is close to euphoric when describing some of its institutions. Witness this accounting of an opening night at the Comedie-Francaise:
''There is a continual pit-a-pat of hurried footsteps along the colonnade. Within, the great theater is getting ready to open its doors. All around, the gas globes are beginning to flow with an opaline light. Before long, the curtain will go up after the three mandatory thumps that call the audience to order, and the Comediens Francais will begin the evening's work, just as they have done year in and year out for three hundred years, with only minimal interruption.''
And this description of Notre Dame Cathedral: ''Nothing can take away the fact that it is essentially a family church, with all France for its family. . . . It is the church where Saint Louis walked in barefoot and Philip le Bel rode in on horseback; where Henry VI of England was crowned king of France in 1431, and Henri de Navarre and le Reine Margot were married a week before the massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day; where Napoleon I was crowned, Monseigneur Sibour was murdered. Foch and Joffre were given a hero's funeral, and Charles de Gaulle made haste to worship on his return to Paris in August 1944.''
But enough! Any more and I'll be tempted to quote the entire book! Probably the truest compliment one could pay the author of ''Paris'' is to state that reviewing it is very much like attempting to ''review'' Paris itself. He has made it that real, rich, and alive.