[6 May 2009]
Paris is many things to many people. A Mecca for food lovers, art lovers, or just plain lovers, the city has layers that require skill and patience to unravel. For visitors, the nearly six millennia of history hidden beneath the pavements and embedded within the monuments can be daunting. Each layer presents a different experience, a different city; Depending on which Paris you intend on seeing, some guidance is required, a professional pointer to avoid becoming lost among the overlapping eras and twisting streets.
Paris from the Ground Up is the fourth in a series of city narratives, following author James McGregor’s deep, comprehensive explorations of Rome, Venice, and Washington DC. Though a comparative literature professor by day, McGregor wears many hats throughout the journeys contained in Paris from the Ground Up. He is, simultaneously, a historian, a critic of art and architecture, an anthropologist, a political theorist, a connoisseur of cultural mores, and, primarily, a tour guide.
Paris from the Ground Up is a peculiar hybrid of a book. McGregor aims to illuminate the city in all its grandeur, to create an epic urban biography that traces Paris from its modest Celtic inception to its cosmopolitan and sometimes turbulent present. The book aspires to accomplish great things, yet often feels like little more than a meatier travel guide from Fodor’s or Baedeker. The fact of the matter is that a city as rich and diverse as Paris, with such a long and storied history, is impossible to encapsulate in a single volume, from a single perspective, no matter how attentive it may be.
The flow of Paris from the Ground Up is chronological, though McGregor can’t resist chasing the occasional stray bit of trivia into a tangent. That’s a challenge when discussing locations with layered significance, venues whose importance spans time and space. In his entertaining and informative exploration of the cathedral of Notre Dame, McGregor swings between the various eras in which different pieces of the building were constructed, lurching back and forth between the 12th, 13th, 14th and 19th centuries at breakneck speed. He holds these disparate periods together with an olio of information, everything from the dramatic intention of the cathedral’s gargoyles and decorative accents to the political ramifications of such constructions on France’s Capetian kings.
It’s a dizzying chapter, replete with fascinating anecdotes and revelations. Still, the wide-ranging subject matter makes one feel as if they are chasing their tour guide to and fro as he sprints through nave, sconce, and cloister at full speed, rattling off every last thing he can think of along the way.
McGregor is adept at conveying the majesty of monumental Paris and charting the transformational sweep of time over the landscape. In the smaller spaces, however, Paris from the Ground Up feels distinctly claustrophobic. The book is far more exciting when describing how the walls of famous museums like the Louvre were built than it is when guiding readers on a virtual tour of what art has been placed on them. These segments, piece-by-piece tours of exhibits and rooms, read like the script for a museum’s audio guide or walking tour.
Entire books could be (and have been) written on the Mona Lisa; when it appears in a brief vignette here, it’s like a tease. Nearly everything McGregor touches upon cries out for deeper inspection, his tangents so tantalizing that when they peter out it’s like a flicker of light has been quashed.
Paris from the Ground Up is not an analysis of city living, it’s an analysis of a living city, nurtured on the waters of the Seine and perpetually in bloom, spreading the seeds of thought and culture out from its vibrant heart. That the book cannot fully encompass the colossal stature of Paris is not a failure, it’s simply a reminder that sometimes the institutions and places human beings create to serve them, like cities, can take on a life of their own. Paris is such a place, and its life and history are of a scope beyond our perception. We can only visit, and become a small part of it for a moment.