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Tower of Power: In movies like 'The Conformist,' the Eiffel Tower stands as the symbol for the endlessly fascinating city of Paris.

We'll Always Have Paris

Alistair Horne explains why we love the city of lights in 'The Seven Ages of Paris'

By Richard von Busack

MOST PEOPLE carry such a quantity of muck in their head about Paris that a lifetime of living there wouldn't cleanse it out. I'll volunteer myself for the experiment, just to see if it might work.

Paris, snobbish? The word is meaningless. Everybody is a snob about something. Despite the entrenched bureaucracy, the numbing rules of conduct and class, the crippling expense and the exasperating custom of la grève (the strike), despite even the climate—as Parisophile Adam Gopnick notes, the queen of cities lies upon the same latitude as Newfoundland—despite all that, one would rather be with Parisians than with the finest people in the world.

And Alistair Horne's The Seven Ages of Paris, now out in paperback, is an essential book either for first-time tourists or those who've been pining for Paris ever since they spent too short a vacation there. Horne's history combines an Englishman's ice-dry wit and precision with a Parisian's rapture for rumor and the right word. Horne has previously written two books on Napoleon, one on Verdun, two on the Commune; while this vast history must have been hard work, it seems light and effortless.

Fluctuat nec mergitur reads the motto on Paris' heraldic shield, underneath the image of a crescent-shaped ship on a choppy sea. "She is tossed upon the waves but is not overwhelmed." Horne examines seven periods of growth and turbulence from roughly 1200 to the present.

The city began as Lutetia, a colony founded in 358 by Emperor Julian the Apostate, who loved the site and lived there for years. Horne brushes aside the first eight centuries of Paris history in a few dozen pages. He has no use for Charlemagne ("a rather less attractive character than his portraits"); by the year 1000, Paris was "the unimpressive capital of an unimportant state."

Horne starts zeroing in on the regime of King Phillipe II, called Augustus, the first builder of the "coral-like entity" the Louvre—the tower fortress that grew into "the greatest palace in the world." Shortly after Phillipe II's era began the construction of the one thing you'd want to see if you were in that terrible hypothetical situation of seeing one thing in Paris. I mean that tiny church of stained glass and stone built to house Christ's crown of thorns: the incomparable Sainte-Chapelle.

Horne follows up with a fine but unsentimental study of everybody's favorite French monarch, Henri IV. Henri is loved despite (or because of) his lechery and his indifference to religion. In his era, work commenced on the Pont Neuf and the most captivating of all housing developments, today called the Place de Vosges.

Louis XIV, whose name is greater than Henry's, inspires less liking in Horne, who chronicles the Sun King's ego, his stuffiness and his love of wars of aggression. Louis drove out the Protestants, causing the worst talent drain to strike a nation until the Nazis chased out the Jews. King Louis almost let the Louvre fall apart, and then he moved to a boring ranch out in the suburbs: Versailles, where he and the subsequent Louis lived.

Horne is particularly witty on the subject of Napoleon, confidentially and briefly relating his wars and selecting the domestic details: Empress Josephine, fretting about the ghost of Marie-Antoinette, for example. The book includes an Imelda Marcos-like inventory of Josephine's possessions: 666 winter dresses, 230 summer dresses and two pairs of panties. When not concerning himself with his faithless wife, the emperor built the Quai d'Orsay and the Arc de Triomphe and some of the long straight streets that would one day become speedways for demented Parisian drivers.

Always behind the splendor was squalor: 16,800 people guillotined (but most of them in the provinces), dozens of foolish wars and a fair amount of torture (a good history ought to have a pinch of torture in it). Over all, Paris exhibited a lasting indifference to hygiene. Horne writes, "In a medieval Europe accustomed to evil-smelling streets, Paris had prize-winning qualities that were to endure through the ages." The author has the quotes to prove it, from Bretonne and Rousseau among others. At the turn of the 1800s, Stendhal wrote, the stink of Paris was so loud you could hear it. Cholera clipped the population, killing the prime minister in 1832. Getting fresh water in and sewage out was a problem mostly unsolved until the gilded but rotting reign of Emperor Napoleon III.

This Napoleon, a tinhorn among tinhorns, "left far more of permanence behind him than his uncle." The emperor's prefect of the Department of the Seine was Baron Haussmann, who "ripped open the belly of the old Paris"—and those were Haussmann's words, giving a sense of the tact with which he renovated the city. The Alsatian Baron brought gaslight, overpowering railway stations and grand boulevards. He also created newer and fouler slums in East Paris, which are still risky today (if not nearly as risky as Gaspar Noe suggests in his ghastly film Irreversible).

The story of Paris continues into its vicious insurrection, the Commune, followed by the rich interlude of the belle époch of the 1890s, the Great War and the Good War. Horne finishes in the age of De Gaulle, bringing (temporarily) stability but stodginess; the city was tossed in 1968 but did not sink.

Septic and scandalous as it was, Paris reigns supreme in the craft of the novel. The world loves Dickens, but it lives Balzac. Need one add words about Paris and the arts? or how the city inspired the sui generis Picasso? Yes, Picasso's works were fouled by culture vultures. But take a trip to his Musée in Paris' Marais, and you'll keel over for him, just as all his women did.

City of fraud and spectacle, many times conquered, it conquers all. As Mark Twain said, when good Americans die they get to go there. Horne quotes Zola's novel Une Page d'Amour: "I love the horizons of this big city with all my heart ... depending on whether a ray of sunshine brightens it, or a dull sky lets it dream ... this is art, all around us. A living art, an art still unknown." Less unknown now, thanks to Horne's art.

The Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne; Vintage; 458 pages; $16 paper.

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From the June 23-29, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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