on 12 March 2012
The only way to really get to know any city is to walk (with the obvious exception of Los Angeles, as John Baxter points out so entertainingly) and if this book doesn't make you want to meander around the beautiful city of Paris, nothing ever will! Guide books will tell you things like which metro line will take you to the Eiffel Tower, and that the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, but this book will encourage you to wander and seek out for yourself the unusual, the fascinating and the beautiful corners that make this city such a delight to visit again and again.
Mr Baxter's knowledge of Paris and its recent history is evident on every page, and so too is his love for the city that he has called home for several decades. He has many stories to tell about the people who lived, loved, ate, drank and even committed murder in these streets and parks. I will never be able to sit in the Luxembourg Gardens calmly reading my book ever again, without thinking of the Luftwaffe making the Luxembourg Palace their HQ (they weren't daft, were they!) or the evil Henri Desire Landru who met the women he would go on to murder at the cafe in these very gardens, and I shall be constantly looking in shop windows for an opium pipe! Hemingway gets many a mention and Mr Baxter is quite happy to affectionately chip away at the "action man" image that this literary giant has acquired over the years.
The real message of the book is that every one, Parisian and visitor alike, has a different view of what makes Paris such a wonderful place to be, and if you leave your guide book behind and just walk you will find your own favourite shops, cafes and views and then you too can return home with stories to tell. The author has told us about some of his favourite walks in Paris, but I bet he has kept his absolute favourite a secret - and why not!
on 27 December 2012
In recent years, a whole shelf-load of books has appeared by Anglo-Saxon authors about living (and sometimes loving) in Paris, complete with wry observations on the French and their culture, and on the follies of Anglo-Saxons adrift there. John Baxter, an Australian cultural critic married to Frenchwoman, has already had several goes at this theme: this is his latest, and it's a frustrating and irritating read. That's because it's a reasonable book which, with a bit of editing and some judicious additions and deletions, could have been a good one. As it is, the text has a rushed, unfinished, Will This Do? kind of quality to it. There's no preface thanking those who read the book in draft, which is logical enough, because it looks as though nobody did.
The first thing to say is that this is not a book of Paris walks, nor even a book about the habit of walking in Paris, along the lines of Edmund White's Le Flaneur. It's really a collection of (mostly) amusing anecdotes, loosely related to walking around the author's own Sixth Arrondisement, and showing uncomprehending American tourists the cultural landmarks. There are long digressions about other cities the author has lived in (presumably to use up space) and stories about famous American expatriates, usually drunk. On the other hand, there are no footnotes or references, no index and and no useful maps. Nearly all of the Parisians mentioned in the book, living and dead, writers, artists or just tourists, are non-French: indeed, the French figure very little in the book at all.
The book has its virtues. It is gracefully and amusingly written it is obviously based on deep knowledge of parts, at least, of the city, and some affection for it, and most of its practical advice is quite useful. (Just don't follow the suggestion to buy a Carte Orange for the Metro or you'll get a funny look. It wae replaced some years ago by the Navigo Pass).
But this is very much the Paris of the upper middle class professionals, hardly straying outside the chicest areas, and full of the kind of wild, witty generalisations you might might hear at smart dinner parties, and of which the French are so fond. It's not true that Parisians don't own cars, for example: a few minutes on a street corner watching for cars with "75" on the number plate will convince you of that.(Indeed, elsewhere in the book the author makes it clear that he himself has a car, or at least drives one). It's not true that there are no French-language guides to walking in Paris: I have one. It's not true that all Parisians are slim: there's increasing worry about obesity among the young, especially in the large, and usually poor, immigrant communities which are scarcely mentioned in the book. It's not true that everybody leaves Paris in August. It's certainly the case that the traditional holiday period is between 14 July (Bastille Day) and 15 August (the feast of the Assumption), but by the third week in August many Parisians are back, because the schools will soon be re-starting. That said, many Parisians can't afford holidays anyway, and many others have to stay on to operate the transport system, serve in the shops and bars that stay open, and clean the streets, and the apartments of the middle classes. The oddest blind spot, though, comes at the end of the section on Baron Haussmann, the architect of the Grands Boulevards the author likes walking along. It's suggested (correctly) that one of Napoleon II's major reasons for undertaking this project was the fear of violent revolution, and the desire to have wide open spaces for troops to fire and manoeuvre in. But it's also suggested that Haussmann was fired in 1870 because the revolution failed to happen. Not only is this wrong (he was the fall-guy for massive scandals and cost-overruns), but the revolution, or something like it, actually broke out the very next year, after the French defeat by the Prussians, when the ordinary people of Paris rebelled against the decision to seek peace and surrender the city. The government, which had fled to Versailles, sent troops down the shiny new Boulevards to savagely repress the Commune which had been set up, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, mostly non-combatants. It's the greatest atrocity of modern French history, but then again it's unlikely to be discussed at dinner parties in the Sixth arrondissement very often. These kinds of things ought to have been caught as part of the editing process, and it's easy to imagine the kind of letter that should have been sent: more on Paris, less on LA, check this and this, do you mean X by Y? and so forth. But some of the mistakes should have been caught just by re-reading the text. For example, Parisians do not keep contact details in their "agenda" which is a diary, but in their "carnet d'adresses," their address book, like everybody else. And the romantic expression "living off love and fresh water" makes no sense at all, and is mistranslated from the original "l'amour et l'eau fraiche" or love and cold water, which does make sense.
Above all, don't use this as a guide-book. The lack of proper maps, and the vague nature of the descriptions, which mean that it's hard to know which areas are being referred to, would get you lost in no time. Again, it's as if the author is jotting down, or even dictating, notes from memory, rather than doing some elementary checking with a street map.
As I say, a shame. Reading the book is a bit like lunching (at your expense) with a very amusing and knowledgeable foreign resident in Paris with a taste for colourful stories and a tendency to exaggerate. But frankly, the publisher should not have let this out as a book in its current form.
This not Wainwright's Paris. If you are looking for a series of walks with the mileage and the main features outlined, look elsewhere. It is also not a tourist guide to Paris or a history of Paris - I'm finding this quite a difficult book to describe. I think I'm going to go all whimsical:
Imagine you are in a bar in Paris, having met up with a friend you have not seen for some time. In mood, you are suspended somewhere between the second and third glass, mellow but still in charge of your faculties. He starts to tell you what he has been getting up to, describing his life in Paris, sidetracking off into anecdotes as they come to him, odd bits of history, jokes, gossip, the odd snippet about his family. You listen, entranced, because you are relaxed and the ambiance in the bar is great - and he is such a fabulous story teller.
So, I apologise for the whimsy, but it's the best way I can describe this book. It has whetted my appetite for Paris, A Moveable Feast by Hemingway and more books by John Baxter (already ordered!) It has also made me feel mellow and happy and not at all hungover. What more could one ask of a book?