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Worth a mass of detail

13 November 2004

12:00 AM

13 November 2004

12:00 AM

Paris: Biography of a City Colin Jones

Allen Lane, pp.642, 25

No one wants to write a history of Paris from Caesar to Sarkozy. Histories that are largely political, which tell the story of the city’s expanding boundaries, endless wars and growing importance within France as a whole tend to be tedious. Most authors try to show that the history of Paris is special, involving a multiplicity of subjects and demanding sentiment and admiration.

Colin Jones is determined that his history should demonstrate the richness and complexity of the city. One gains the impression from his introduction that he will surprise the reader, for he begins with a quotation from the avant-garde writer George Perec who, in 1975, spent three days watching the Place Saint-Sulpice. The result is a catalogue of happenings: three children are taken to school, a 96 bus stops at the bus-stop, the church bell ceases to ring, a man with a pipe is observed, more buses come and go . . . Perec’s three days are counted as a single day of complete observation of what happens in a single square. But if one is to write the history of the whole of Paris one must enlarge one’s knowledge; so Jones sets out on his own counting exercises. He tells us not only how many streets, traffic-lights and bus-stops there are, but also pigeons, dogs and public conveniences for the 2.1 million residents.

His conclusion is that Paris’ history may be too diverse to be encompassed in a single narrative, but he expresses his desire to write such a history all the same. He continues to give us examples of ‘complexity’ — such as the fact that people living on one side of the Seine were reluctant to cross it — and while he claims to have told the story of Paris, as he puts it, ‘from earliest beginnings until tomorrow’ he also uses a device that allows him to escape from the strictness of chronological narrative and pursue a single topic over a longer period in a ‘feature box’, of which there are several in each chapter. For example, in a chapter on Haussmann and the considerable social and cultural changes that marked the period 1851-89 he ‘features’ the Eiffel Tower and gives us a detailed account of the opposition to its construction by some 50 intellectuals, including Dumas, Maupassant, Gounod and Massenet. These ‘passionate lovers of beauty’ raged against the gigantic black factory chimney before — as the feature box knowingly puts it — any of the 2.5 million rivets that the building would require had been driven into place. But despite these early protests the Eiffel Tower has been astonishingly successful. Two associates of the Burgundian engineer Eiffel, Nouguier and Koechlin (who were the real designers), claimed that it was the highest edifice man had ever built and compared it to the pyramids. Many of their contemporaries and ‘just about all of subsequent posterity’ have rallied to its cause. Two million sightseers came in the year of its construction and its distinguished early visitors included the Prince of Wales and Buffalo Bill. A further statistic states that at the beginning of this century total visitor numbers were approaching 20 million.

Many attempts have been made to find a practical use for the tower, but nothing has been done which could not have been applied to another building. This lack of utility has stimulated a quest to give it meaning and we have details and dates of these attempts: flying an airplane through its legs, a foot race to the top and descending it by bicycle are some examples. These adventures, together with suicides, have endowed it with a death toll of around 350.

Finally there are the fantasies, which are sometimes erotic but which also include a vision of the tower as a shepherdess tending her Parisian lambs. The conclusion is that it ‘transcends beauty, utility, history, vision and just about everything else’.

This featured piece, which seeks to be informative over a long period of time, evidently does not aid the narrative history. It contains many useless facts and is eccentric in its choice of detail. Other boxed articles could be criticised on the same grounds. In the chapter on ‘Paris-Lutetia’ we are shown an illustration of the earliest Parisian face — that of a child. Discovered in 1878, it dates from almost 2,000 years ago. We are told about its excavation, but are then treat- ed to a long description of how a child’s death was a banal occurence throughout most of Paris’ history. We are informed about the dumping of children, whether outside the city or later in its hospitals. Children become beggars and we conclude with Tocqueville’s account of juvenile insurrections and Hugo’s Gavroche dying on the barricades.

This is clearly not acceptable as a narrative history but more reminiscent of a guide which takes its reader on a tour of Paris. Colin Jones is well informed but eccentric. Many individual pages are of interest but the book itself leaves one dissatisfied.

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