David Downie’s “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” did something that few books on Paris have managed to do: Given an entirely new approach to the city – one in which I lived – while still recalling all the classics that were the reasons I moved there in the first place.
The book is divided into three parts, and each part is composed of essays taking up only a few pages. It makes for an easy read, and they can be read in any order.
“Paris Places” is the first part, and it, to me, was probably the least inspiring point of the book. I enjoyed reading Downie’s take on the physical aspect of the city, from a walk along the banks of the Seine to time in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, but it felt like other books I’ve read.
That’s not to say the first part was boring. Far from it. And to be honest, the essays about Les Halles and the recent construction dilemma with regard to restoring versus bulldozing and building anew, were excellent. Those two in particular gave me an insight into the recent history of the city, and why things are the way they are – and how glad I am that some politicians didn’t get to leave the imprints they wanted to on the city.
Where the book truly shone was in the second part, “Paris People.” And I hadn’t expected that. Brief biographies of people such as Coco Chanel, Picasso and Modigliani were just what I wanted. They gave a snapshot of the lives of people who truly embody what it is to be Parisian, and I didn’t have to wade through hundreds of pages. They’re great primers on some of the famous people who’ve lived in the city, and they’re enough to give a basic understanding.
My favorite parts were the ones about Parisians in general. One essay details the lives of the Paris “boat people.” Anyone who visits the city sees boats traversing the Seine. They’re not all tourist-laden bateaux mouches, and many of them actually carry goods. Downie describes their plight with the authority that only someone who has lived in the city and worked as a journalist can. He shows how the boat people are possibly a dying breed, navigating France’s waterways on boats more than 50 years old while trains and vehicles take the cargo they once depended on.
Another set of people I truly enjoyed reading about were the Paris artisans – the men and women who specialize in some obscure craft and still produce something better-made and longer-lasting than modern technology and machinery can. Paris is full of independent artisans, and Downie describes in an easy-to-read way the system that makes that possible.
The third part of the book is called “Paris Phenomena,” and it hits on all the things that make Paris what it is. From the vibrant cafe scene to the sometimes-overgrown tombstones in cemeteries, reading the last third of the book evokes Paris as few books do.
I was fascinated to find myself actually engrossed in the piece about cobblestones – from their evolution as a ubiquitous paving material to the role they played in making barricades during revolutions. They were then paved over by the government and now they’re enjoying a renaissance in which they, merely by their presence, increase the value of surrounding real estate. I assumed it would be a skippable chapter, but like the rest of the book, it held my attention and made me want to know more.
One thing did annoy me as a reader. I felt that Downie was repetitive on a few points. I must have read three or four times how his office used to be close to Père Lachaise, and he enjoyed walking through the cemetery daily. I also rolled my eyes by the time I’d read about Baron Haussmann’s facelift of the city for what seemed like the fifth time – briefly explained in each essay in which it’s relevant.
But those were minor, and the organization of the book as a collection of essays makes that a byproduct, though one I would have preferred to see taken care of in the editing process. It does, however, leave the reader free to skip around in the book and not get lost.
The photos by Alison Harris bear mentioning, and they start each chapter, along with a quote. They didn’t capture my attention as the writing did, but they added to the book.
Overall, I felt that “Paris, Paris” was an excellent book that can be enjoyed by those who have never been as much as by those who have. As someone who is a confirmed francophile and once had the joy of calling Paris home, if only briefly, I found that it taught me new things about a city I haven’t stopped studying, and it provided evocative reflections on Paris, triggering memories I cherish.
Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, by David Downie. Published by Broadway in 2005, 2011. 303 pages. ISBN: 978-0-307-88608-8.