Tag Archives: Paris

The Other Paris

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The Other Paris – An Illustrated Journey Through
A City’s Poor and Bohemian Past
By Luc Sante
Faber & Faber – £16.99

”Before Haussmann’s reconfiguration of the centre, the neighbourhoods were tightly interwoven; afterward they were more separated, but the classes still met on common ground: on the squares and boulevards. It was said that when cafes began to feature open terraces, the poor discovered what and how to eat from passing by and observing the diners as they ate. And the rich always had the opportunity to absorb the culture of the poor from their markets and entertainments. For that matter, the practice of mixite flourished for at least a century: a house of six or seven stories would feature a shop on the ground floor; the shopkeepers’s dwelling on the mezzanine level; a bourgeois family upstairs from the mezzanine, on the, the ‘noble floor’ then each succeeding story would house people of progressively lesser income. People trudged up as few flights of stairs as they could afford, and as a result, every such house was itself a microcosm of society as a whole.”

When one thinks of Paris, for some idiosyncratically odd and perhaps romantic reason, they invariably conjure up many of the images described and photographed throughout this altogether wonderful book.

To be sure, The Other Paris – An Illustrated Journey Through A City’s Poor and Bohemian Past by Luc Sante is somewhat mesmerising in that it immediately transports the reader unto a place we all – for some reason or other – already know so well. The hustle and bustle, the oft referenced ‘seductive couture and intellectual hauteur’ that makes Paris so intrinsically alluring.

Indeed it’s all here; these 271 pages (excluding Carte de Paris, Notes, Acknowledgements and Index) vividly convey a city for all its captivating worth: ”What an awakening, silent but alive, happens when this city – its streets, houses, sidewalks, lamposts, trees, urinals – is no longer covered like a skin, like a crust, by that grublike swarm of humans rushing to the job machine, but at night comes back to life, swims back to the surface, washes off it s filth, stands back on its feet, scratches itself, sings to break the silence, makes light to rend the darkness. It stretches, relaxes, spreads itself out before me, the solitary walker, the unknown strider, stranding me among its scattered limbs, a vast labyrinth in which I rapturously lose myself, turning every corner, leaving every boulevard at the first left, catching up with the stream once again or passing it by, hopping on one foot, whistling with a but in the corner of my mouth.”

Inundated with a cornucopia of black and white photographs, drawings and reprints of posters (of a long but not necessarily forgotten era), these twelve chapters are as vivid as they are entertaining as they are at times, highly educational.

As The London Review of Books’ Jeremy Harding has since written: ”A poetic guide to the city’s underworld across six centuries, a threepenny opera with a milling crowd of beggars, gangsters, whores and constables, attended by artists, insurrectionaries and intellectuals.”

In and of itself, quite a wide (and unforgiving) gambit; rather like the stunning city of Paris itself.

David Marx

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The French-Inspired Home

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The French-Inspired Home
By Carolyn Westbrook
Cico Books – £19.99

On the many occasions that I’ve walked the streets of Paris, the incredible attention to detail, from the architecture to the golden statues that are just an everyday sight in the middle of the street, was all too apparent. The hand-painted facade of a gourmet shop looked as though it belonged in a museum. The patisseries offered their own kind of artwork, with stacks of pastries and goodies piled high on cake plates and displayed to perfection. Store-fronts were breathtaking, as were the interiors and the wares on sale. Even the beautiful aqua subway tile designs in the Metro were a stunning work of art. All in all, a sensory overload but in the best possible way.

To say the above is a mere tip of a most beautiful iceberg, is an understatement of the most profound order.

Paris is indeed stunning in a myriad of ways; including that of its invariable, invaluable degree of detail – so deeply embedded within its glorious structure, design and architecture. One need only gaze at any number of old black and white, Cartier-Bresson photographs, to be immediately transported unto a time, place and era unlike any other.

Is it any wonder then, that so many of us want to tap into some of the majesty of Parisian/French design?

The French-Inspired Home does just that, by equating much of the above onto 155 pages (excluding Index and Acknowledgements) of superlative colour photography, replete with the sort of high-octane, literary inspiration, nominally associated with authoress, Carolyn Westbrook.

Having grown up in the United states, her southern heritage was inevitably infused with French influence – from the chic elegance of New Orleans to the elongated romance of southern plantation houses. As such, her subsequent travels to France have only re-substantiated her unwavering passion for French interior design – which is all too evident amid this rather marvellous book.

To be sure, her embrace for all that is French, often translates into her home décor design that more often than not, includes all nigh things: from bedding and pillows to armoires, armchairs and a menagerie of accessories. One can literally open any page of The French-Inspired Home (at random), and become unequivocally inspired. Be it the simplicity, the layout, the colour(s), or the matching of a certain type of bronzed mirror with that of a certain type of fabric.

For instance, in the section ‘The French Country House,’ Westbrook writes: ”Although the wilderness is never far away from the front door, inside the French country house there is all the comfort, beauty, and refuge you could need. After leaving behind the fast pace of the city, you can revel in the sights and sounds that only a country house can offer. The French country style is not only practical, but creates surroundings that appear effortless. A table arrangement is put together by just going outside and gathering the necessary items from nature. Long, twisting branches laden with the colours of the season, along with sunflowers that grow abundantly in a nearby field, make for an inspiring work of art.”

Indeed they do, but it does have to be said, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about most French homes, that just doesn’t exist anywhere else. It really is as simple as that – which, like it or not, is nigh impossible to emulate.

Unless of course, one takes the time to study and articulate what it is one is trying to emulate.

All the more reason to embrace this utterly wonderful book, which, lest it be said, is capable of inviting one into a whole new world: ”Inspiration for our displays can come from anywhere, from the delicate pink of a tattered and worn pair of ballet shoes to a painting picked up at a Paris flea market. Just by looking at the interiors in this book, you can see how important display is to their overall appeal […]. As I have said elsewhere, the monetary value of the art is irrelevant. What matters is that I feel a connection with the piece and it draws me in.”

I cannot help but second and third said emotion; along with most of the others throughout this book’s seven chapters.

David Marx

Paris Metro Tales

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Paris Metro Tales
Stories Translated by Helen Constantine
Oxford University Press – £9.99

For anyone who’s ever been to France’s capital city, Paris Metro Tales will ensure the inspired memories will come hurtling back at a most ferocious pace. It’s a joy to read, as not only does it open up the flood-gates of one’s imagination with regards this most beautiful of cities, quite possibly the most beautiful in the world, it introduces the reader to an array of writers.

Many of whom most defintely warrant further investigation.

Writers such as Jacques Reda and Julien Green for instance – whose two stories ‘The Gard du Nord’ and ‘Saint-Julien-Le-Pauvre’ immediately set the tone of this book by being its initial two – wax lyrical with such genuine ease and panache, I found myself wanting to read more.

Of the third busiest railway station in the world, Reda writes: ”The interior has been painted in two contrasting tones – a very dark greeny-blue, the colour of roquefort, and a salmon pink – yet they unite in joyful harmony, like a small polyphony of trumpets in a tapestry of greyhounds and medieval headdresses,” while of Saint-Julien-Le-Pauvre’s ”sumptuous past,” Green bequeaths the following: ”In this place, perhaps, Dante knelt, between these green walls that look as though an ocean has left behind trails of seaweed. In this place the visionary spoke to the Unseen Presence and later recalled a small street in Paris where he rested awhile in mediatation on his journey to the utmost depths of the inner world.”

And while Marie Desplechin’s ‘Summer Rain’ is riddled with an assortrment of cracking one liners (‘Too much companionship, not enough passion,’ ‘The ghost of happiness imploded in my head,’ ‘Crowds cloged the pavements. Thousands of heads floated by like little blind corks,’ ‘It resonates like the dull echo of pain,’ ‘Love is a deserted place, an abandoned room, nothing gained, nothing lost’), it’s an author whose work I’ve read in the past, that’s still my favourite short story herein.

I wouldn’t have thought Emile Zola needs any introduction, although I have to confess to not being familiar with a particularly exquisite short story, simply entitled ‘Snow.’ As delicate and refined as it is, it has continued to retain a certain poetic tonality; the sort of which is so sorely lacking amid an array lot of current (loudly shouted-about) literature:

”I have just crossed the Luxembourg gardens, without recognizing either the trees or borders. A far cry from the shimmering golds and greens in the red-and-yellow brightness of the setting sun. It was like being in a cemetery. The flower-beds resembled colossal marble tombs, with here and there shrubs for black crosses.

The staggered rows of chestnut trees are enormous chandeliers of spun glass. The work is exquisite; each little branch is decorated with fine crystals; delicate embroideries cover the brown bark. You dare not touch these fragile glass ornaments in case you break them.”

Each of the twenty-two short stories, which is accompanied by a relative, black and white photograph, is written in a totally different way: perhaps more subtlety here, and a lot less nuance there, more happy-go-lucky here, while a lot less density there. Which in all, accounts for just one of the (many) reasons why Paris Metro Tales is as good, while at times invigorating, and truly provocative as it is.

David Marx

Paris – The Epic Novel of the City of Lights

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Paris – The Epic Novel of the City of Lights
By Edward Rutherfurd
Hodder & Stoughton – £18.99

What I particularly like about Edward Rutherfurd’s Paris – The Epic Novel of the City of Lights, is its literary and more than imaginative traipse through what still has to be the most celebrated and beautiful city in the world.

Anchored within a fraught period of one hundred years, the author takes us on a tantalizingly beguiling, and particularly charming historical tour of the French capital.

As seen through the eyes of one who clearly knows, adores and what’s more, understands Paris – and it’s all centrifugal, influential and tempestuous past – this book weaves together the occasionally gripping saga of four completely different families across the centuries. From the deeply entrenched dishonesty that traverses the noble line of de Cygne, to the revolutionary Le Sourds who seek their down-fall; from the Blanchards whose quasi-bourgeois respectability offers minimal protection against scandal, to the hard-working Gascons and their veritable soaring ambition(s) – Paris really is an ultimately intriguing read, wherein the reader is transported unto another time and another place.

To be sure, I found the city itself to be the prime protagonist, while the four families (as linear and as essential as they undoubtedly are) simply furnish Rutherfurd with a reason or a canvas upon which to project his sparkling, yet fundamentally historical vision: ”Yet old Paris was still there, around almost every corner, with her memories of centuries past, and of lives relived. Memories as haunting as an old, half-forgotten tune that, when played again – in another age, in another key, whether on harp or hurdy-gurdy – is still the same. This was her enduring gaze.”

Whether gazing over the majestic skyline of Paris from the top of Montmartre Hill – where a mere few pages along, the hard-working Thomas Gascon pronounces: ”’Montmartre isn’t holding up the church. It’s the church that’s holding up Montmartre”’ – or any other such heightened vantage point; that the author ends the above quotation with the line ”This was her enduring gaze,” triggers much eloquent food for thought.

For Paris is indeed enduring.
As is her everlasting gaze.

And this is all the more substantiated by the fact that Rutherfurd then continues with a new paragraph: ”Was Paris now at peace with herself? She had suffered and survived, seen empires rise and fall. Chaos and dictatorship, monarchy and republic: Paris had tried them all. And which did she like the best? Ah, there was a question… For all her age and grace, it seemed she did not know.”

Like many an epic novel, there are always a couple of (perhaps) questionable short-comings. One such example herein, being the plausibility through which history is both regaled and transferred.

The following is a conversation between the nine-year-old Jacques Le Sourd and his mother, which some, might find a little far-fetched:

”’What happened to the priests, Maman? Were they killed, too?’
‘Some.’ She shrugged. ‘Not enough.’
‘But the priests are still here today.’
‘Unfortunately.’
‘So were all the men of the Revolution atheists?’
‘No. But the best were.’
‘You do not believe in God, Maman?’ asked Jacques. His mother shook her head. ‘Did my father?’ he pursued.
‘No.’
The boy was thoughtful for a moment.
‘Then nor shall I,’ he said.
The path was curving towards the east, drawing closer to the outer edge of the cemetery.
‘What happened to the Revolution, Maman? Why didn’t it last?’
His mother shrugged again.
‘There was confusion. Napoleon came to power. He was half revolutionary, and a half Roman emperor. He nearly conquered all Europe before he was defeated.’
‘Was he an atheist?’
‘Who knows. The Church never got its power back, but he found the priests useful to him – like most rulers.’

Suffice to say, there’s a hell of a lot of historical, as well as (dense) ideological information being shared here, which is fine – regardless of whatever side of the revolutionary fence one finds oneself. My issue is whether such a conversation is plausible between a mother and a nine-year-old boy.

Other than such instances, Paris – The Epic Novel of the City of Lights, is a profoundly endearing and illuminating read. If it doesn’t do just as much to promote this most wondrous of cities, as say Helen Constantine’s Paris Metro Tales (Oxford University Press), then I’d be mighty surprised.

Not to mention surprisingly disappointed.

David Marx

Paris From The Ground Up

Paris From The Ground Up
By James H. S. McGregor
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £22.95


Paris is indeed beautiful – as well as mesmerising, beguiling, romantic, magnetic, and as a result, quintessentially intoxicating. It is also really hard work, annoying and by far, far too expensive for its own good. But then everyone has differing perceptions and pre-conceived ideas of the place; a place that is in equal measure, sparkling and magical, administratively deplorable and socially questionable.

So it’s (sometimes) rather nice to be able to stand back, and regard the many attractions of this stunning city from afar. And where better to start than with such an enticing book as this?

By injecting something of a humanistic spirit into the places on which he writes, James H. S. McGregor brings the essential essence of a city to life. While his previous From The Ground Up’ writings include Rome, Venice and Washington, Paris From The Ground Up really is something else. By writing with an astute authority in relation to his subject, as well as an acute awareness of his readership (and if it isn’t thus, it most certainly comes across as such), the author inadvertently ensnares his readers into wanting to investigate – both city and book – a great deal further.

Contained herein is something for everyone: from hedonists to historians, from philosophers to poets, from romantics to revolutionaries, from dedicated followers of both fashion and passion to architects and artists.

Like the city itself, this book is as lavish as it is contained as it is bristling with inspiration and invitation, as McGregor succinctly writes in the Introduction: ‘’Paris for many is the city of enlightenment where high culture, grand literature, and precise expression have reigned for centuries. Their city sets an absolute standard for correctness in art and life. For others, Paris is the capital of Modernism – the place where all the significant revolutions in taste and practice first took hold and where the great movements in anti-academic art began their worldwide careers. They honour the paintings of Gris and Picasso, along with the writings of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, the young Hemingway, and other expatriates. The city that these people hold dear rejects all boundaries and rules.’’

I’m not sure I entirely agree with the last sentiment regarding ‘’the city that these people hold dear rejects all boundaries and rules.’’ For having lived in France, I have to confess to not knowing anywhere else like it with regards (petty) rules and (hideous) regulation.

The country’s quasi-obsessive yet abominable administrative network, is so utterly inane and irrational, I’m still amazed as to how France as a whole, continues to function. Apart from elongated lunch breaks and a mendacious maze of ‘’rules’’ that just DO NOT WORK, the Paris that the aforementioned people may have once held ‘’dear,’’ is currently awash with ‘’boundaries and rules.’’ Then again, perhaps the eloquence of France’s capital city is more than enough to distract its populace from such social and governmental shortcomings.

Who knows?

Either way, this book does the place proud. By focusing on all of its plus points – of which there are far too many to mention in just one book, although McGregor does come close – the author instils within the reader, an array of poetic and petulant emotions. From ‘The Cathedral of Notre Dame’ to the ‘Foundations of the Louvre,’ from ‘Paris On The Edge’ to ‘Revolution and Redesign,’ Paris From the Ground Up is an enthralling account of one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

Replete with a collection of superb photographs and colourful historical maps (ten in all, which date back to Roman Lutetia and conclude with the City of Paris circa 1739), this highly informative yet tastefully written book, definitely needs to be read by anyone remotely interested in the City of Light.

David Marx
www.davidmarx.co.uk