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Barricades, Balzac, Big Bertha and Josephine Baker
on November 19, 2002
In the past few years we've had a massive biography of New York City ("Gotham") and several only slightly less massive biographies of London (by Peter Ackroyd, Stephen Inwood, etc.). Alistair Horne, an Englishman who has spent most of his life writing about France, rightly decided that it's about time we gave equal time to the City Of Light. He has written a very good book. If you don't know much about France and the French, Mr. Horne's book covers so many different areas that it is sure to whet your appetite to learn more. Even if you're a longtime Francophile, the author has dug so deeply into his sources that you're bound to be delighted and/or surprised at many of the tidbits he's unearthed. For example, during the siege of Paris in the autumn of 1870, the Parisians were able to communicate with the rest of France by successfully sending out balloons. But the balloons were never able to make it back in to Paris. The solution? Mr. Horne takes up the story: "It was the humble carrier-pigeon that was to prove the only means of breaking the blockade in reverse. A microphotography unit was set up in Tours, and there government despatches were reduced to a minute size, printed on feathery collodion membranes, so that one pigeon could carry up to 40,000 despatches, equivalent to the contents of a complete book. On reaching Paris, the despatches were projected by magic lantern, their contents transcribed by a battery of clerks......As a counter-measure, the Prussians imported falcons, which prompted one of the many imaginative Parisian 'inventors' to suggest that the pigeons be equipped with whistles to frighten off the predators". And while many people know that the siege reduced Parisians to having to eat horses, dogs, cats, rats and even animals from the zoo.....where else could you find out that it's estimated that during the siege the Parisians consumed 65,000 horses, 5,000 cats, 1,200 dogs.....but only 300 rats! Depending on your interests (or the strength of your stomach!) this is either fascinating or maybe a bit TOO much information! Mr. Horne tries to let you sample various aspects of Parisian life. So, in each "Age" he tries to tell you what was going on in certain core areas: politics, architecture, relations between the sexes, culture (music, dance, theater, art, literature), etc. Heavyweight material (Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Paris Commune, collaboration during WWII) is beautifully and seamlessly blended with lighter fare- such as the 1809 inventory of Josephine's wardrobe (which found 666 winter dresses, 230 summer dresses but only 2 pairs of knickers!). We learn that King Louis-Philippe kept 2 pairs of gloves "on hand"- a special dirty pair for shaking the hands of the "common people" and a cleaner kid glove pair for use with old aristocrats, bankers, etc. In the world of dance, we find out about the moral outrage expressed when, during the 1912 season, Nijinsky decided to perform in "Afternoon Of A Faun" in a manner that some people felt was not quite appropriate. (He went onstage "sans cup".) Mr. Horne wears his likes and dislikes on his sleeve: He clearly dislikes Louis XIV and admires Charles de Gaulle, for example. (But, he has a wonderful sense of humor and can't resist telling us that Jean-Paul Sartre used to call de Gaulle "Charles XI"!) Mr. Horne makes it clear that this is a "personal" history rather than a "scholarly" history. Fair enough....at least we know the groundrules. The reason I decided to give this book only 4 stars rather than 5 is that, if anything, Mr. Horne was not quite ambitious enough in his undertaking. Granted, 477 pages is not a short book......but it isn't long enough for a subject such as this. You feel a bit "rushed" in the first 3 "Ages", as approximately 600 years of history are compressed into 150 pages. And, for all intents and purposes, the Revolution of 1789 is ignored! The book doesn't hit it's stride until Napoleon struts onto the scene. So, the last 200 years are covered in 300 pages and the pace for that period seems more leisurely and appropriate. After all, we want to do full justice to such a rich, complex, story. To finish with a quote by Charles de Gaulle: "How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese!"