Patrick Marnham

A people horrible to behold

Two new books take equal delight in celebrating the city’s violent past and vibrant present

The much-lamented journalist and bon viveur Sam White, late of the rue du Bac, The Spectator and the Evening Standard, who lived in Paris for over 40 years, once wrote an affectionate portrait of his adopted home that opened with the defiant words, ‘Yes: I like it here.’ As a short review of the city it was perfect. Longer accounts that say less are published every year and must run by now into thousands of volumes.

A glance at the map shows why Paris — ‘most sublime of cities’, as Luc Sante terms it — continues to attract such devotion. There is the twisting shape of the river, cutting the city in two, the islands that form the original nucleus — defensible against Roman or barbarian armies — the heights of Montmartre, the line of the city walls, marked more clearly now by the péripherique ring road, and the 20 enclosed arrondissements, their numbers distributed in a chaotic jumble until one traces the pattern of a coiled snake with its head at the centre. This is a model railway of a capital city, small enough to be crossed comfortably on foot, a magical playground in which to play the game of getting lost for as long as possible in the course of a leisurely day.

Luc Sante, who is visiting professor of writing and the history of photography at Bard College, New York, has put together an exhaustive and sometimes bewildering collection of anecdotes and snapshots that commemorate the life over several hundred years of the city’s underclass. He argues that Paris embodies the nation’s revolutionary instincts. ‘The Parisians,’ he writes, ‘have historically shown an extraordinary willingness, and even eagerness, to fight authority in the streets… Even today [the city] continues to serve as a theatre for every sort of demonstration and strike.’

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