I received this book as a gift from my father while still at university. Unfortunately, between then and now this literary behemoth slowly became buried under compulsory books for university and my busy schedule. I rediscovered the book and felt that now was the time to read it, and share with you all my thoughts on Alistair Horne’s chef d’œuvre
This was by no means a light read at almost 500 pages, Horne whisks us through Paris’s history, stopping at key moments of interest. Paris is seen through a political lens as we transition from a monarchy to a republic (with a few empires on the way). I certainly wouldn’t recommend this book for someone with just a passing interest in Paris; Horne delves into architectural shifts within the capital, and details military history throughout her past. This is an account for keen history-buffs, and those with some knowledge of French (there are passages written in French, with no translation to English offered).
The book, as the title suggests, is centred on seven defining ages of Parisian history. Namely, the reigns of Philippe Auguste, Henri IV, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and the political ages defined by the Commune, the Treaty of Versailles, and President de Gaulle.
It took me 2 months to finish the book, this is by no means a criticism of Horne’s writing skill, as he is obviously knowledgable on his subject and writes in an engaging, if at times fusty, way. Rather, this is due to my own historical penchants. I found that I whizzed through Philippe Auguste’s medieval Paris and, Abelard’s creation of the Sorbonne, whereas anything past Napoleon’s empire was a bit of a slog. Although crucial to understanding the French imagination, the military prowess of Charles de Gaulle was perhaps not as appealing to me. (However, Horne’s depiction of the two world wars and their impact on the capital is moving, to say the least.)
While I think a lot is to be gained from reading this ambitious work chronologically, you could certainly dip in and out, reading the ‘ages’ or eras that interest you the most (Napoleon’s empire, or Louis XIV’s Versailles for example). But for those seeking a general view of Paris through the ages, I would take the book as it comes.
Horne obviously has a lot to say about Paris, being enamoured by the City of Light has lead personal comments and feelings to be peppered throughout the work. For example, he describes the Pompidou centre as an “eyesore”. Ok, although this may also be my opinion too, his use of adjectives seem rather biased and misplaced in this academic work. However, for me it is his comments on the important women of Paris’ history (of which there are, apparently, few) that left a bitter taste. He tells the reader that Gertrude Stein was “dumpy”, and even more intolerably, refers to Josephine Baker (Paris’ beloved black jazz dancer and singer) as a “superb animal from the jungle”.
I’m sure this book was a labour of love for the author, and those interested in the formation of Paris, and how it came to be the ‘city of light’ will enjoy this overview- bonne lecture! 😉