'We'll always have Paris' isn't just a Humphrey Bogart line
Balzac called it the 'city of a thousand novels,' and now this 'second Rome' gets its own big biography
Paris has been the subject of numerous publications. Recent works include the posthumously published study by social critic Walter Benjamin, "The Arcades Project" (1999) and Patrice Higonnet's "Paris: Capital of the World" (2002). Both works focus principally on 19th-century Paris.
Colin Jones, on the other hand, has written a comprehensive history of the city of Paris from prehistoric times to the present. He is professor of history at the University of Warwick in England, and his previous books on 18th-century France and his "Cambridge Illustrated History of France" serve him well in providing a broad context for his survey. As the lengthy bibliographical guide indicates, he has read extensively on the topic, particularly the many specialized French studies on everything from politics and poetry to prostitution.
For this "narrative of time and place," the author charts the physical extension of the city from a small settlement on an island of the Seine to what was to become the center of the French nation - and the largest port in France by the 1830s. Jones details the expansion almost hectare by hectare, as Paris grows outward toward the suburbs and cities that encircle the capital today.
Geographical expansion accompanied a general ongoing increase in population through the centuries, except for setbacks owing to disease and hostilities. The author is particularly attentive to the changing social status of the population in displacements over the years that tended to adversely impact the working poor. Jones also notes the tensions and divisions caused by gender as well as politics and class.
From the Romans onward (the Vichy state of Marshal Pétain excepted), virtually every regime sought to make Paris an expression of its power. Until fairly recently, the major conflict over this power was between the state and the (Catholic) church. Surprisingly there is no mention of the 1905 Concordat and its impact since then on church/state relations in the capital.
The book covers the worldwide cultural impact of this "second Rome," as Paris was designated from post-Renaissance times onward. Jones surveys the plastic arts, music, theater, and cinema, with particular emphasis, understandably, on architecture. Fashion and the industries related to it are analyzed.
Early in its history Paris came to play a major role as a center of learning, a development linked to the growth of the printing industry.
Following Balzac's description of Paris as the "city of a thousand novels," many literary works are noted - foreign as well as French. Writers, Jones observes, are witnesses of historic significance in the metamorphosis of a city, and they contribute to a fuller understanding of those changes.
The author acknowledges the complications he introduces to his chronological narrative by choosing to insert "feature boxes" within each chapter. These focus on large or small parts of the Paris scene and include additional historical and other detail. Some, like the Louvre, are very well known, but others, such as the rue Transnonain, site of an 1834 massacre, are much less familiar.
In fact, excessive detail is the main problem of this "biography of a city," as Jones subtitles his study, for, like many biographers, he has amassed an extensive amount of material and wants to share it with the reader. The work is replete with facts, figures, and lists: dates of 15th-century floods, the locations of the city's markets through the centuries, the many products they offered at different periods.
The supplementary material of almost 100 pages (including a 34-page Index) is therefore most welcome and helpful.
The illustrations - prints, maps, cartoons, photos, etc. - are well-chosen, but the reproductions in varying shades of gray are poor. This makes it virtually impossible to follow the vast urban renewal project of Baron Haussmann that so changed Paris in the latter half of the 19th century, because one cannot read the names of the famed boulevards he built in the interests of "security, circulation, and salubrity." (The political implications of his priorities are revealing.)
That said, this presentation of Paris covers virtually all that one could wish to know about "the focal point of civilization" (Victor Hugo's description of the city). One wants to visit - or revisit - Paris armed with this new knowledge and enrichment. Those unable to do so soon can become armchair flâneurs, ambling through the city in their imaginations and appreciating all that Paris has to offer as they peruse its biography.
Although there may be what the French call an "embarrassment of riches" in this work, readers will find many details fascinating.
• Margaret Collins Weitz is professor emerita of Humanities and modern languages at Suffolk University. She goes frequently to Paris for research and pleasure.