Warwick's Reviews > Paris: The Secret History

Paris by Andrew Hussey
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it was ok
bookshelves: france, paris, travel, history

I was disappointed by this one. There are a lot of entertaining historical anecdotes in here, but somehow as a whole it doesn't quite hang together.

Part of the problem is that it wants to be more than just a factual history. Hussey says in the prologue that he is modelling the project on Peter Ackroyd's wonderful London: The Biography, but that sets the bar pretty high. He is decent when he sticks to the facts, but when he starts trying to be metaphysical, he just doesn't have Ackroyd's control, and ends up drawing rather silly and pseudo-profound conclusions like, "The death of [Princess] Diana [...] could only have happened here [...] she is only the latest and most famous example of those who have been fatally seduced here." And so on.

Part of the reason Ackroyd was so good at moving beyond facts into "psychogeography" (or whatever you want to call it) is that he took a catholic, thematic approach to his history. Hussey just starts with the Celts and works his way methodically forwards in time. Of course there's nothing wrong with that as a methodology, but it does mean he has to work hard to keep each chapter coherent, and occasionally it slips away from him.

The book's focus is neither one thing or the other. It claims to be a "secret" history which examines the city's underclasses, its back-alleys and criminals and occultists. Yet there is a strong relience on fairly un-secret narratives about kings and presidents and other "great men" or important dates. The result is that neither strand seems wholly satisfying.

Having one eye on the downtrodden was a good idea, and it provides the book with most of its best stories. It's great to hear details about things like the "bread of Madame Montpensier" (which used flour from ground-up human bones, during food shortages), or about the semi-mythical King of Thieves holding court over the city's beggars. But too often, his remit manifests itself only in a vague fascination with what he calls "whores", and a predilection for details which, while often interesting, can sometimes seem juvenile.

Finally, the quality of the writing itself irritated me. He does not know the difference between "flout" and "flaunt". He uses the seismological term "epicentre" as a lazy synonym for "centre". The net result of all this is a feeling that Hussey has a wealth of information about Paris, but not a very good idea about how to organise it or talk about it.

You'll get some interesting stuff out of this book, but it's more of an effort than it should be.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
December 20, 2012 – Shelved
December 20, 2012 – Shelved as: history
December 20, 2012 – Shelved as: paris
December 20, 2012 – Shelved as: france
December 20, 2012 – Shelved as: travel

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Ginger (new) - added it

Ginger Carter great review!

message 2: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia (Just posting this a on random book of yours about Paris that didn't have too much other chat.)

The Notre Dame fire is horrible and it must be so much worse if you've actually lived in Paris. I was getting flashbacks to the York Minster Fire (and all the years it was in the news and on Blue Peter being rebuilt) and this looks like it might be even worse, that the entire thing must be gone. It's almost impossible to imagine.

Warwick Yes I was crying my eyes out last night watching the spire collapse. It was strange seeing how much more viscerally this affected me than things like terror attacks. I used to live in the rue de la Huchette just over the river from N-D, and the bells used to wake me up every morning. It was very central to my experience of Paris in the first couple of years after I moved there.

message 4: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia Oh gosh. I always find it upsetting when ancient buildings and artefacts are destroyed (even hearing about it long ago in the English Civil War) but this was a place that I and lots of people I know have been to, and Notre Dame seems even more central to the idea of France and Paris (and even Europe?) than the great churches in London. That it happened at a time of political turmoil makes it feel even more tumultuous, like something out of apocalyptic fiction - though at least it looks like the main building might now have been saved.

Already annoyed about the the fucking conspiracy theorists who will no doubt be appearing. (And Houellebecq is no doubt wishing he'd invented it for one of his novels.)

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