- - Thursday, August 14, 2014

HOW PARIS BECAME PARIS: THE INVENTION OF THE MODERN CITY
By Joan DeJean
Bloomsbury, $30, 307 pages

Far more than a great line from a great movie, “We’ll always have Paris” captures what this magical city means to its visitors, especially those romantically inclined. Granted not everyone agrees — certainly not the 21st-century slum-dwelling immigrant unable to better his lot in life, or George Orwell as seen in “Down and Out in Paris and London.” However, for the majority of others, the fortunate rest of us, Paris, and especially our memories of it, remains a dream realized. This book will enhance those dreams.

Joan DeJean, a trustee professor of romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania specializing in 17th- and 18th-century French literature, lives, when in Paris, “on the street where the number 4 bus began service on July 5, 1662.” She has already written books about several of this great city’s characteristics, including fashion, decor and — but of course — sex. This time, she presents, chapter by chapter, a chronological explication of the 17th-century roots of modern Paris.

First, she takes us for a stroll across Pont Neuf, the magnificent bridge that spans the Seine River in sight of Notre Dame Cathedral. All who have seen the bridge have vivid memories. (The novelist Thomas Mallon, for just one example, wrote: “I have a picture of the Pont Neuf on a wall in my apartment, but I know that Paris is really on the closet shelf in the box next to the sleeping bag.”)

For several centuries, visitors to Paris have been well aware of the glories of its bridges, but when Pont Neuf was finished (in 1606) it was greeted by thrilled Parisians and foreign visitors alike as one of the wonders of the world: “Unlike other city bridges such as Florence’s Ponte Vecchio or London Bridge,” the author writes, “the Pont Neuf was built without houses, and in fact built with little balconies, almost like boxes at the theater, that encouraged those crossing the Seine to step to the side, lean on the edge, and watch the river flow.”

Next, the book covers the Place Royal (Place de Vosges), Ile St. Louis and then La Fronde, the civil wars that lasted from 1648 to 1653. Once these touchstones have been as firmly laid as the intricate ones on Pont Neuf, Ms. DeJean broadens her scope to relate the development of the city’s famous parks, boulevards and streets, its municipal services and how it earned its well-deserved reputation as the capital of the world. The last two chapters explain the growth of Paris as a financial capital and, finally, romance, after which the author sums it all up in her conclusion, titled “Making the City of Light Visible: Painting and Mapping the Transformation of Paris.”

One of the book’s strongest points is that it proves there was new life in the French capital well before Baron George-Eugene Haussmann, the justly famous civil servant who rebuilt Paris at the direction of Napoleon III in the middle of the 19th century, went around knocking down whole neighborhoods (one of which contained the house in which he himself had been born and raised) in order to build his also justly famous boulevards and neighborhoods. As this volume covers only the 17th century, some readers may wish for information on more modern eras, but that is not the author’s intention. Nonetheless, there is more than enough “Parisianna” to satisfy any reader with an interest in this most special city.

Added to that is the fact Joan DeJean writes clearly and well, which makes each of the relatively short chapters a readable and informative standalone essay on its contribution to the author’s central thesis. She writes, “Paris became the capital of an empire of culture, a culture that was widely exported to other nations. But the most widely accessible new pleasure was one that has ever since been associated with Paris, that of simply walking the streets. With the first modern streets, the first modern bridge, and the first modern city square, Paris became the prototype for the walking city, a place where people walked not merely to get around, but by choice and for pleasure.”

Being a responsible scholar, Joan DeJean includes 80 pages of notes, bibliography, illustration credits and an index. Of greatest importance is the section on illustration credits as the book is greatly enhanced by the author’s extensive use of primary sources, especially period illustrations that provide historical and artistic support for her various observations.

Joan DeJean completely had me — admittedly, a Paris nut — early on in this fine and readable book, so much so that I was sorry to see I had come to the final paragraph: “Over [the sixteenth to eighteenth] centuries, cities have come and gone But Paris remains the first great city of the modern age — the city that introduced Europeans to a new idea of the city and to cities as ideas, and even as characters. Paris caused urban planners to invent what a city could be, and it caused visitors to dream of what a city might be.”

John Greenya is a Washington writer.