Let’s get my street cred out of the way: in ninth grade, Mme. Guerin informed me that acing my French tests alone would not get me far. I needed to work on my accent. Perhaps I took her gentle reprimand too much to heart! I double majored in French (and English) in college, studied in Normandy for my junior summer, then met a Frenchman in graduate school a few years later, quelle folie!, and ran off to live with him in Mexico and Paris.
We married and the entirety of our brief marriage took place in Paris (four years) and culminated in the birth of our child and our eventual separation and divorce. Quelle horreur.
It was all extremely romantic, has given me lots of great material to write about, and of course, a charming son. I would seem to be an ideal reader for Downie’s book in many ways: I’ve read the greats of French literature: Baudelaire, Flaubert, Balzac, Victor Hugo, George Sand. I’ve walked the streets of the Marais, lived steps from the Bastille, know my way around French pastry, know that of which he speaks. And yet . . .
Downie’s book is beautifully written; he’s an excellent stylist with a distinctive voice of his own. An American, he’s done a staggering amount of research into French history and literature (much of it on foot) and spent more than thirty years living in France. Not only does he operate a tour company, Paris Tours, with his wife, but he’s managed to pen a dozen non-fiction books, several of them about Paris, and a thriller or two. “Passion” in his title is not to be taken lightly. I would say he is possessed, but in a good way. Listen:
“No one is allowed to use the back stairs to the Hugo museum except in an emergency. But when the weather is hot, a guard sometimes opens the doors and occasionally, in a slack moment on a sleepy August day when visitors are rare, if you happen to be standing nearby and are as curious and possessed as I am, you might step over the threshold onto the landing and glance up and down and then spend months or years afterward speculating, Was this the escalier derobe [hidden stairway]?”
“As I stood before the heavy stone sepulcher of Victor Hugo, tears welled in my eyes . . .”
So the reader of A Passion for Paris is with the ultimate guide, the one who knows not only where the literary greats lived and dined and hung out, but who they were sleeping with and why, and how this affected their writing. He’s irreverent, funny and pretty convincing about his thesis: “Adultery is the national pastime in France.” Ah, so that’s why the French don’t get too upset about the sexual peccadilloes and liaisons of their political leaders, seeing them as irrelevant, and wish that Americans would do the same!
Downie goes into great detail about the loves of Victor Hugo, the secret stairways into illicit love nests, the way he seamlessly juggled several mistresses at once. And yes, he was really in love with some of them.
Everybody else, including the women, seemed to be doing the same. But he sees the great Victor Hugo as the one responsible for ushering France into the Romantic Age in the early 19th century, while its roots go back to the 18th century writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. “There are those, however, who look beyond dates and ages and believe the Romantic spirit never died, that it overflowed, spread, fractured, came back together again like the Seine around its islands, morphed into other isms, changed its name and address dozens of times as Nadar and Balzac did and, like a phantom or vampire or other supernatural invention of the Romantic Age, it thrives today in billions of brains and hearts. The mother ship, the source, the living shrine of Romanticism remains the city of Paris.”
What is romanticism exactly? I’m still not sure Downie defined it. It’s more a case of you know it when you see it. Walk down a street in Paris—it’s in the air for you to breathe in and absorb.
This comprehensive work, so erudite and entertaining, has negative as well as positive effects. I realize I know nothing about Paris, that I am a lazy shirker, ignorant and non observant. Did it ever occur to me to lurk in stairways, sneak into someone’s garret apartment because a literary great had once lived there? Why did I never take the time to sort out the sexual liaisons of Paris’s literary greats? Who thought to bother learning the history of Paris’ great edifices, her grands boulevards, her cathedrals?
The bright side of this revelation is that Downie has shown me the way. Now I need to return to Paris (great excuse) and show a little more gumption and curiosity. And you would do well to follow suit!
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