West on Books: 3 Paris Books for Bastille Day
Reviewed by Richard West
“Ah! To wander over Paris!” wrote Honore de Balzac. “What an adorable and delectable existence is that! Flanerie is a form of science, it is the gastronomy of the eye.” If true (and it is), Paris is the world’s great eyegasm banquet , not only for obvious reasons seen afar—the Arch, the Tour de Eiffel, the Louvre—but what you see closer afoot: the amount of detail, exquisite minutiae, and sense of care revealed in the ordinary: the perfect lamppost, the hidden gargoyle, the landscaped horse-chestnut trees. A mere glance around reveals beauty that would make a rhino weep. Three new flaneriel books of differing sophistications escort you around the City of Light:
John Baxter’s “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris” is a good first-visitor’s introduction. Breezily written, the book walks you through familiars like Hemingway’s Paris, La Coupole, and down his own most beautiful walk on the street where he lives, Rue de l’Odeon. Along the way, interesting asides—Hemingway’s favorite meal at Brasserie Lipp, the most beautiful metro stops—and a useful “Paris, a Users’ Guide” appendix . But why chapters on L.A. as a useless walking city and an account of childhood memories in Australia?
The veteran Paris visitor will learn many new things in David Downie’s “Paris, paris: Journey Into the City of Light” with photos by his wife, Alison Harris. A 25-year-resident, Downie knows the city and has done his homework . Where did Coco Chanel sip her chocolat africain at the still-lovely Angelina tea room on Rue de Rivoli? (Table 11). Love pipe-organ Baroque music? Then check Pariscope for concerts at the church of Saint Louis en I’Ile on Ile Saint-Louis. Where is Cardinal Richelieu’s gorgeous groomed garden and orangerie ? Accessible from 5 Place des Vosges. All 31 essays are beautifully written, combining history, personal thoughts, facts. Don’t leave your hotel without it.
For the Paris passionate obsessive whose life is dismal away from the city and who wants to know all, Eric Hazen’s “The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps” is for you. Over decades, M. Hazan, a true Homo parisianus, has walked the city’s history and architectural development into his soul, every rue and ruelle. No event or passage is too insignificant. This is a graduate-level treatise. You better know your street locations and neighborhoods or you’ll be lost. If you do, it’s tres rewarding as are Hazan’s aux-barricades, comrades outrages about recent architectural atrocities like the Tour Montparnasse and Boulevard des Italiens.
True of all three writers is Captain Cuttle’s mantra in Dickens’ “Dombey and Son”: “When found, make note of.”
Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.