originally written 25/10/2010
An unusual approach to history, though that meandering and rather brutal style seems to be a hallmark of Gregor Dallas. He has selected twelve metro stations in Paris and takes us on history lessons behind each of them, but far from the obvious ones. The 20th century is very well-served, though nearly every age receives its due, going all the way back to the Dark Ages. None of these are really happy tales, and the first few chapters were really depressing. Denfert-Rochereau is all about the catacombs. I have visited these before—they left quite an impression—and while I knew some of the history behind them, the disgusting, miserable truth about why there was need of them is revealed in a history of the great charnel-grounds of Paris prior to the 19th century. Dallas argues about our completely different attitude toward death than that of our medieval ancestors, showing us up as the bourgeois of the 1750s whose life expectancy was longer and therefore we no longer wanted death in plain sight. It’s all quite sobering, and the onslaught continues on the other side of spectrum at St.-Denis, where St Vincent de Paul’s philosophy inadvertently led to the abandonment of millions of children. “The abandonment of children was not invented in the seventeenth century. The earliest image we have a of a Parisian face—discovered in 1878 by the archaeologist Eugène Toulouzé in a Roman cemetery behind the Port-Royal maternity hospital—is that of a child who may well have been abandoned; it was around a year old and mud, turned to concrete, had received an imprint of the dead infant’s face.” For over two centuries, an industry of wet-nurses and abandoned children created, Dallas argued, people like Grenouille, the anti-hero of Perfume. When Dallas brings the reality of the mob to the fore in this chapter, I can’t help feeling immensely depressed at the thought of generations of children with no childhood growing up to be adults with bastards and cast-offs. (It’s interesting to note the first two chapters both have connections to Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, firstly in the burial grounds where Quasimodo went to die with Esmeralda, and secondly in the two orphans, Quasimodo and Esmeralda, one adopted by the Church and the other by Gypsies.)
Next come the chapters in which I have little interest at all, Trocadéro (which focuses on Anaïs Nin’s abortion) Montparnasse (the sculptor Bourdelle), and St.-Germain-des-Prés (Sartre). Oh, I had more than enough of Sartre in high school. Porte de Clignancourt rejects the cozy notion of Clovis that medieval and Renaissance scholars have passed on to us. This is a fascinating lesson in the realities of what would become France in the Dark Ages. St. Denis, an evangelizing Roman martyred in Montmartre, it is claimed, walked away from his execution with his head in his hand until he fell at the spot where Saint Geneviève would later found a basilica. Like Shakespeare, we know very little about Clovis. Dallas likens him to Hitler, and his rival Theodoric to Napoleon. Dallas also makes the rather surprising suggestion that if Clovis had not succeeded, perhaps Islam would have never existed. “Islam, a simplification of the theology of one God—reducing Christ incarnate to the status of a prophet—shows certain similarities to the old Arian heresy, which like Islam was tailor-made for a warrior caste. Without the concept of the Holy Trinity, the relationship of Christianity to Islam would have been very different.”
Châtelet-les-Halles gives us a blood-and-guts picture of a marketplace Émile Zola captured in his novel Ventre de Paris. Porte-de-la-Vilette gives us the surprising portrait of a French cowboy whose anti-Semitic tendencies made him a maverick in more ways than one. I was surprised that the section on Opéra would have anything new to tell me, but its biography of Debussy has a tragic flavor to it. Palais-Royal gives an alternate history for the French Revolution, if the original patron of the Third Estate, Louis Philippe Joseph, the Duc d’Orléans, had perhaps behaved a little differently. Saint-Paul is the fascinating story of Gabriel de Montgomery, the unhappy knight who killed Henri II in one of the most famous jousts in history. Fleeing immediately from the scene, Montgomery eventually became a black knight who was the scourge of Renaissance Catholics and a thorn in the side of Catherine de Medicis up until the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve.
The final chapter deals with Père Lachaise and, unsurprisingly, though it touches in a rather long-winded fashion on the tombs of Victor Noir, Abelard and Héloïse, and Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde is its focus. Having studied Wilde’s life post-imprisonment in some detail for "1900," a lot of the material was familiar to me—however, Dallas links him to André Gide, a famous author in France but less so in the English-speaking world. He also, masterfully, gives the full background behind the Dreyfus case, which is frightening (and again depressing) in how the corruption in the top levels of the French government at the turn of the last century was so widespread that hundreds of incriminating pieces of evidence were manufactured against Dreyfus so he could be the fall guy. Interestingly, Dallas notes that the innocent man, Dreyfus, was quite unremarkable, whereas Gide was fascinated by Wilde’s levels of pretenses.
An interesting book, but not your populist’s armchair history.