Paris has a fascinating history – with some superb history books guaranteed to enrich your visit or your reading.
Paris is said to be the most visited city in the world. It’s probably the one that’s had most written about it, too – though London and New York are strong competitors. There’s almost too much to choose from. In the twentieth century it has been a magnet for writers from all over the world, each one claiming it in their own way by describing the city, their experiences of it, or setting their stories on its streets. Paris, it seems, belongs to the world – not just to Parisians.
It’s a city with a long, fascinating, and often dramatic history captured and ‘processed’ by writers in every genre – a story that includes the Roman city, Lutetia, the building of the great churches in mediaeval times, the increasingly elaborate life of the French Court in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the development of Enlightenment ideas in the eighteenth century, culminating in the French Revolution of 1789, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, the restored monarchy, the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune of 1871, the First World War, the culturally vibrant inter-war years, the Nazi Occupation, the Liberation, the mini-revolution of 1968 … Well, of course, that’s just the merest outline: if you want to get the most out of a visit, you need more than a thumbnail sketch of the city’s history. And there are a number of superb books that give you all you need.
A different kind of history
I loved Andrew Hussey‘s Paris: the secret history (2006), which takes us from the city’s soggy beginnings in pre-history right up to 2005. The book is four hundred pages plus of energy and interest. If you’re used to thinking of works of history as ‘heavy going’, have your mind changed by Hussey’s book – and by Graham Robb‘s Parisians: an adventure history of Paris (2010). He takes a whole range of characters from Parisian history and uses their stories as a way of navigating a different kind of history of the city. Robb is one of my favourite writers on all things French (prize-winning biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud, plus The Discovery of France); his energy and interest in his subject are truly infectious.
Also enjoyable is Paris: biography of a city (2004) by Colin Jones, the history broken up by insets on specific places and people, offering additional details without holding up the flow of the narrative. A more standard history is Alistair Horne‘s The Seven Ages of Paris (2002), enhanced by beautiful photographic illustrations. A collection of writings by historian Richard Cobb, Paris and Elsewhere (1998) harks back to the 1930s and 40s, if you are particularly interested in that period. (For those who don’t have time for a full, serious history, check out the ‘History’ chapter in Stephen Clarke’s Paris Revealed – mentioned later.)
The streets of the city
A very interesting and detailed historical dip-in read is The Invention of Paris: a history in footsteps (2002, translation 2010). Written by passionate radical Parisian author and publisher Eric Hazan (he founded the La Fabrique publishing house), the reader is walked through the streets of the city, district by district. Hazan clearly loves his city and its rebellious history. Philosophers, artists, writers, photographers – we meet them all. The book does presuppose a certain knowledge of French history and of Paris itself, so is perhaps best approached after reading one or two of the histories mentioned above, and with some familiarity with the city. But it is written by a Frenchman, initially with a French readership in mind, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this. There aren’t a huge number of illustrations, but among them are examples of early street photography – including one of street barricades (something Paris has always been good at!) in the revolutionary year of 1848, and another of the cannons positioned on the strategically important hill of Montmartre at the time of the Paris Commune of 1871 – the site now occupied by the great wedding-cake of a church, Sacré Cœur.
If you prefer your history in the form of fiction, then try Edward Rutherfurd‘s sweeping saga called simply Paris (2013) in which he tells the story of the city through fictional families and what they have done over the centuries. I have to admit to not having read this one, but his similar volume on New York really changed my view of and knowledge about the city, and it was a good page-turning read into the bargain. And for pre-nineteenth-century history, do read Pure (2011) by award-winning writer Andrew Miller. It’ set just before the French Revolution and uses the story of the removal of the old, massively overcrowded and polluting cemetery of ‘Les Innocents’ and the reburial of the bones in the Paris Catacombs (now visited by tourists) to give a vivid picture of a society on the brink of upheaval and radical change. I’m not always a great lover of historical fiction, but this one I really enjoyed – and learned a lot from! (The site of the cemetery is now covered by the Place Joachim-du-Bellay, in the Les Halles district, not far from the Pompidou Centre.)
The best of times …
And, of course, for the Revolution itself, there’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens. The two cities are Paris and London, and parallels are drawn between the suffering and injustices meted out to the poor in both countries. When William Wordsworth wrote about the period of the French Revolution, his famous words were ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!/ But to be young was very heaven.’ Dickens, however, has a more complex and ultimately realistic take on it all, summed up in the famous opening of his novel, which I can’t resist quoting:
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …’
And a more recent fictional take on the Revolution is Hilary Mantel‘s magnificent A Place of Greater Safety (1992) – vivid, involving, informative, enjoyable … Read it for its own sake, even if you’re not going to Paris!
More on historical novels, of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, later on …
There is masses of non-fiction on the Paris of the Second World War, as well as on the French Revolution, Napoleon, and so on, but unless you have a particular interest in a period, most of what the majority of us need to know is covered in the other general histories of Paris detailed above. One of ‘Occupation’ books I have on my shelf and that I’d like to mention is And the Show Went On: cultural life in Nazi-occupied Paris (2010) by Alan Riding. Everywhere you go in Paris there are reminders of the terrible period of the Occupation, plaques marking the spot where people were shot. And the whole issue of ‘collaboration’ is still one that haunts French society. But the period is covered in the books recommended above so I won’t load this section with the a whole library of books on the subject. Such a survey would require a whole book to itself – though we’ll return to the subject when we get onto fiction set in the capital. I would just like to mention the sections on Paris – particularly the chapter called ‘The Fall of Paris’ in Canadian Rosemary Sullivan‘s Villa Air-Bel. The book mainly concerns Marseille and will be dealt with in our Marseille section, but the first part of the book includes a very vivid description of the chaos when the Nazis were approaching the capital, and then actually took it.
If you enjoy history via diaries kept at the time, then do look at Maman, what are we called now? (1957, translation 2015) by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar (1909-1987), recently ‘rescued’ and re-published in an exquisitely beautiful paperback edition by Persephone Books. The first part consists of her detailed diary from 18th July to 25th August 1944, so covers the lead up to the Liberation of Paris. The details of everyday life with her young daughter are played out against the backdrop of history and the continual fears and griefs the Occupation brought to everyone in Paris, regardless of class – especially if family members were involved in any form of resistance. Part two consists of related magazine articles by Mesnil-Amar (a graduate of the Sorbonne – brought up in the chic Paris suburb of Passy – she was a magazine journalist, so her writing is far from naïve), and between the two sections are a collection of nine full-page photographs taken by war correspondent Thérèse Bonney who travelled all over Europe taking pictures of the children whose lives were being devastated by war (her book Europe’s Children 1939-1943 was published in 1943. Persephone Books have given us a fine example of ‘history as it was lived’.
And … while in Paris you must visit what is the city’s most delightful English language bookshop: Shakespeare & Company. A few minutes from Notre Dame Cathedral, near the Seine, it absolutely oozes atmosphere and literature and featured in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris . It was founded by George Whitman and is now run by his daughter and is visited by thousands of literary lovers and writers every year. ‘Must see’ literary events are held here every week with writers from around the world. Don’t miss the excellent new cafe next door either,
You could even add a little je ne sais quoi to your style with this French-imported T-shirt, based on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, from the Literary Gift Company. Just a more subtle way of saying ‘I love Paris’!
Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series, which includes city-pick Paris featuring over sixty writers on the city.
She is the author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (‘a brilliant travel guide to the city of books’ Helen Dunmore) and Bookworms, Dog-Ears & Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover’s Alphabet (Reader’s Digest Book of the Month) and the novels Miranda Road (‘rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender’ Maggie Gee) and Zade (‘tremendous verve and wit’, Jill Dawson). All the titles are published by Oxygen Books.