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“Metro Stop Paris: An Underground History of the City of Light” by Gregor Dallas

Metrostopparis_2 Reviewed by Richard West

I adore books written about Paris. My collection doesn’t fill the 250 feet of shelving Thomas Jefferson required to hold the books he brought home from Paris but mine are many. My heart sank, however, when I read the title of Mr. Dallas’s new book, thinking it was about the construction of the Paris Metro which opened rather late in 1900, compared to London’s in the 1860’s and New York’s in 1870. Tedious books on building things disturbs my inner wa.

Instead the clever Mr. Dallas uses the underground system as the book’s structure, halting at twelve of the almost 300 Metro stops in sprawling Paris to illuminate an historical event or spotlight a person associated with, say, Gare du Nord or Palais-Royal. At the Gard du Nord we get both: a riff on Vincent de Paul whose nearby church is, generally, where he founded the city’s largest foundling children’s institution, the Daughters of Charity (1683), and an abysmal picture of the city’s abandoned infants in earlier centuries. As late as 1863, one in ten newborns was abandoned, over half of them surrendered to poor mercantile wet-nurses recruited from rural France.

At this Metro stop I must stop and correct Mr. Dallas who attributes to Shakespeare,

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,

Man never is, but always to be blest.”

Actually it’s from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man, Epistle One” (1773).

At the Trocadero stop we learn about the torrid affair between the famed psychiatrist, Dr. Otto Rank (nee Rosenfeld; he took his surname from “Dr. Rank” in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”) who lived nearby on rue Louis-Boilly, and writer-vampyromanic Anais Nin, perhaps a smart choice of lover by one having an affair with her father. At the Palais-Royal stop, how the whole bloody mess of the French Revolution might have been averted; At Saint-Paul, the only one serving the lovely Marais quarter, a fascinating account of King Henry II’s fatal 1559 jousting match near today’s Place des Vosges.

Exiting the Montparnasse station, Mr. Dallas thankfully doesn’t repeat oft-told tales of Hemingway, Stein, and the Lost Generation Proustituting themselves at the Cafe Dome, old whines in a new bottle. Instead he tells us about the little-known sculptor and a founder of Modernism, Antoine Bourdelle and the Musee Bourdelle at # 16 rue Antoine Bourdelle, just a few steps from Gare Montparnasse, his former studio and one of those wonderful small museum-oases that dot Paris.

His Saint-Germaine-des-Pres stop is more predictable, tales of that machine a penser, thinking machine Jean-Paul Sartre, and his l’amour fou, Simone de Beauvoir, scribbling away at Cafe Flore–never at the facing Cafe Deux Magots, a story better explained in Adam Gopnik’s “Paris to the Moon.”

I love sitting at outside tables at either cafe, often wondering if it was here that Yogi Berra had one of his insightful Yogi-isms: “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Probably not. But it was at Cafe Flore that I thought of one of those collective nouns (a pride of lions, a murder of crows, etc.): an absence of waiters.

Did you know Debussy wrote an opera? I did not until reading Mr. Dallas’s Opera stop. It was “Pelleas et Melisande” which premiered in April, 1902, to mixed reviews. Nothing so-so about Maestro Debussy’s love life–hot, hot, hot. First with occasionally suicidal mistress Gaby Dupont, followed by the so-called love of his life, Lily Texier, one of the city’s top fashion models; until he met and absconded with the older Madame Emma Bardac to the island of Jersey where he wrote charmers like “L’Isle Joyeuse.” By the way, on YouTube you can see the remarkable 12-year-old Maria Genin play this lovely piece.

Mr. Dallas’s final stop is the last stop of millions of Parisians, the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Not to Doors’s singer Jim Morrison’s grave (whose body is actually in California) but to Oscar Wilde’s, the lower half of the modernistic tomb, as ever, covered with red lipstick imprints. Mr. Dallas tells the sad story of the Divine Oscar’s last days which included introducing Andre Gide to the sexual pleasures of young North African youths and a little-known brush with the Dreyfus scandal.

One of Oscar’s well-known bot mots: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is visible, not the invisible.” Follow this advice next time in Paris. Travel the underground with Mr. Dallas’s invaluable book in one hand, a Metro pass in the other.

Metro Stop Paris: An Underground History of the City of Light,” (Walker Publishing Co., 262 pegs., $24.99).

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