Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Readings — Seven Ages of Paris; Paris: A Secret History

Seven Ages of Paris
by Alistair Horne

Paris: A Secret History
by Andrew Hussey

Superficially, these two books appear quite different. But read a little ways into both of them, and you soon see that the core of them is much the same. There’s a slight difference of perspective, yes, and they do in the end do slightly different things; but they’re recognisably telling the same story.

That, of course, is the story of Paris. Horne’s book appears to aim, if not at greater authoritativeness, at least at presenting a more traditional view of the city. Hussey’s more conscientious about digging out opposing voices and counter-currents in the flow of history. Surprisingly, though, the difference seems to me to be not much. I think that’s because the books have to cover history on such a grand scale — well over a thousand years — that differences tend to fade next to the shared substance.

That being said, the books do have differences. Horne chooses to make his Paris a key agent in the story of France, and so provides a pocket history of the country as a whole alongside the story of the city. Hussey, on the other hand, sees his Paris in somewhat the same way Peter Ackroyd sees his London: a metropolis suspicious of its rulers, less a microcosm of the country beyond its gates than a counterweight. Hussey’s also far more sedulous about linking past to present, discussing themes of the city’s past in light of its present, describing present-day Paris as a continuation or contrast to its past, and speaking to relevant contemporary Parisians.

Both books are well-written, Horne’s style more magisterial and Hussey’s more immediate. Both have a tendency to focus on recent history in more detail than more distant times, which in sweeping histories is understandable and usual and, to me, always disappointing. I’d say that Hussey’s book is much better on postwar Paris than Horne’s, which probably gives it a slight edge if I had to pick one or another. Rather than do that, though, I’d say both are fine books, both worth reading, and just different enough to make reading both volumes worth doing.

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