Paris from the Ground Up

June 18, 2009

According to Ecclesiastes xii, 12: "of making many books there is no end". On no subject is that more true than Paris - probably the most written-about city in the world. The question to be posed of any addition to the pile is: does it add anything new? Newness could be new material, a new perspective, or an approach geared to a new audience. Unfortunately, Paris from the Ground Up fails on all these counts.

It is not at all clear what James McGregor is trying to do. In eight chapters he narrates aspects of the city from the Roman period to the present day. But is he aiming to provide a history of the built environment of Paris, as the title and some of the early material suggest? Is he producing a tourist guide? Is he offering a general narration of the role of Paris in the government of France?

What would normally be the preface actually appears on page 301, but even this does not explain what the author intended with this work, other than to suggest that the book can be used as a sort of guide - moving through the city in both time and space from chapter to chapter. But if it is intended as a guidebook, I would advise readers to buy the Blue Guide Paris and Versailles instead.

Indeed, there are sections of Paris from the Ground Up that read almost like a parody of a standard cultural guide: for example, its detailed descriptions of the architectural features of Notre Dame Cathedral that are indecipherable on the over-reduced photographs alongside; the long description of individual items in the Cluny Museum; and the apparently random selection of pictures in the Louvre that McGregor chooses to describe. Parody (or maybe bathos) is also present in a number of 1066 and All That-style moments, such as a passing reference to Emile Zola, "who wrote grim novels about the lives of labourers".

McGregor makes a number of voyages out of his chosen city to provide over-extended and irrelevant descriptions (given the length of the book) of events such as the Battle of Crecy and the life of Joan of Arc. He has also chosen to circumscribe Paris narrowly, almost exclusively within its 1784 borders, and to limit himself to a selection of public buildings and spaces. The real Paris, where more than 7 million inhabitants actually live, is ignored almost entirely, except for the surprising description of a "band of outer neighbourhoods and suburban communities where an African heritage predominates".

McGregor has written three other "from the ground up" books. Two of them, on Venice and Rome, were more closely related to his own research interests in medieval and Renaissance Italian literature. His book on Paris contains no new research or analysis, and its broad and simplistic statements about French and Parisian history are unaccompanied by any references to existing literature. Twenty-five books of further reading are suggested, three of them McGregor's own on other places. None is in French and several have a very tangential relationship to the themes of the book under review. None of its 135 illustrations is captioned.

After reading Paris from the Ground Up, I went back to my groaning shelf of books on Paris and rekindled my interest in the urban history of the city via Norma Evenson, Bernard Rouleau and Anthony Sutcliffe. Others may want to go straight to them, and avoid starting "from the ground up".

Paris from the Ground Up

By James H.S. McGregor. Belknap Harvard, 352pp, £22.95. ISBN 9780674033160. Published 30 April 2009

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