Friday, 11 March 2011

Book Review ~ "Promenades sur les Lieux de l'Histoire" by Anne Thoraval

POSTED IN:  ~ PublicationsReviews ~ Books

Promenades sur les lieux de l'Histoire
D'Henri IV à mai 68, le rue de Paris racontent l'histoire de France
by Anne Thoraval
Parigramme USA 2008
ISBN 9782840963233

Book Review
Although there's a heck of a lot of competition these days in the 'beautifully illustrated and informative books about Paris' arena, the publisher Parigramme are still easily top of the heap as far as I'm concerned. And 'Promenades sur les lieux de l'Histoire' is a beauty - a shining example of what makes me love this series so.

It's in French, so you may want to switch off now if you're not comfortable with the language of Molière, as there's currently no English translation, although some of the others in this series are available in English. However, if you do read French, or are looking for an interesting book to use in your studies of this beautiful tongue, or just want to drink in the words of this fondly tapped review, let's march on.

And marching is one of the main elements of this book, in one way or another. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The meatily titled Promenades sur les lieux de l'Histoire - D'Henri IV à mai 68, le rue de Paris racontent l'histoire de France (anything else you need to know?) is a truly fascinating delve into the history of this city, and hence of France itself, through a series of cleverly constructed and well-chosen topics.

As we can see from the contents page, the book is divided into chapters based on the most significant, and often extremely bloody, events of the last 400 years or so. And boy-oh-boy were there a lot of them!

It's a book like this that makes me take a deep breath and admit how far I've got to go before realising my life-long goal of actually understanding French history reasonably well. But this book sure does help.

Not only does it break things down into nice, bite-sized chunks, but it also illustrates them, literally and lavishly, in a manner that makes what could be somewhat dry really come alive, which is the approach I enjoy most.

Added to that is a galloping narrative which sweeps us along and makes us feel practically present at these great events, from the revolutions to the funerals, passing by arrestations, executions and assasinations, just in case you were still doubtful as to just how bloody French history actually is.

It's not all gore and guts though, and we are invited to a handful of more joyous events too, such as Napoleon's coronation, World War I's Armistice Day and the entry of de Gaulle into Paris once the city had been liberated towards the end of the Second World War.

An excellent feature of this book is that the first couple of pages of each chapter are devoted to an overall summary of what happened during whatever tumultuous period of Gallic turmoil is being treated.

This concise intro is immediately followed by a blow by blow account of the key events in the order they happened. Marvellous. Too obvious and cartoonified for a serious scholar, perhaps, but for an avowed historical ignoramus like myself this approach is ideal.

I should once again say that the choice and variety of illustrations used is really top notch. There are literally one or two glorious pictures or engravings or photos on each and every page. This nicely chops up the text and makes the book much more managable, giving the sensation of moving swiftly along, which is vital for a slow and impatient reader like myself.

The icing on the cake, in my opinion, is that they've kept the spirit of a family of books which more commonly offers us real pavement pounding walks around the city streets.

Each chapter has its own little map, with the location of the main events labelled, and it is indeed possible to envisage a stroll between the assorted hot-spots as we peruse the paragraphs and imagine ourselves back in those revolutionary, royalist, empiric or simply chaotic times. (Quite a few of my actual Paris walks are rather chaotic come to think of it.)

Although I found the chapters on contemporary times, such as the '68 student uprising and the two world wars enlightening, it was the old stuff that really stirred my imaginative juices.

To be taken back so vividly, right here in the city where I spend my days, to times of courts and kings and empires and revolutions and emprisonments in gothic towers and gruesome beheadings and violent politics and betrayals and heroic returns is the sort of thing a sceptical school boy could still get fired up about. Unless he's already discoved Facebook or Twitter or other dangerously dumbing-down devices. Some might think our history no longer serves much useful purpose; I for one don't believe that to be the case, but you get the feeling it's struggling sometimes.

On closing the book, I felt I had just scratched the veneer of Paris and glimpsed a secret world of intrigue and conspiracy seething below the surface of the streets and behind the walls we walk past every day.

If I can just retain the basics of a few, or even a couple of all the events covered in Promenades sur les lieux de l'Histoire then I'll consider I have an excellent basis from which to continue building my still shaky knowledge of this special place.

In the meantime I'll continue offering you my little snippets of this vast panorama called Parisian history through what the French would charmingly refer to as 'clins d'oeil' (winks) of the the past as I stumble across them, on the facades and statues and stones of the city. Helped by books like this one. Vive la France!

© 2011 Sab Will / Paris Set Me Free - Contact me directly with suggestions, questions and requests, thanks.

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