If you’re a fan of David Downie’s Paris books, as I am, you shouldn’t miss his new one. It’s entitled, romantically enough, A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light, and was published only a few days ago to general acclaim — even from some of the crankier reviewers.
The best compliment I can pay the book is that its overall quality and level of interest are up there with Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light (2011) which I consider one of the finest introductions to Paris you can find anywhere. I refer to it regularly during my visits there, along with his fine smartphone app, David Downie’s Paris: Time Line.
A Passion for Paris is the story of the Romantic period in Paris, the period most Americans think of as Paris itself — the nineteenth century from Victor Hugo onward. Downie’s knowledge of the city is encyclopedic, as you’d expect from someone who’s lived in and written about it for decades. He and his wife Alison Harris, an outstanding photographer who contributes to his work as well as having her own practice, also offer walking tours of the city, which I’ve taken. They are excellent.
He has the guts of a daylight burglar. Some of his best vignettes result from back-door visits to places not ordinarily open to visitors, as well as ad-hoc interviews with people who start out unwilling to talk to him but wind up offering delightful vignettes.
His descriptions of the sights are colorful and add to the pleasure of the book. For example, here he is in full flight about the Carnavalet museum, the must-see municipal museum in the Marais:
“It’s an entertaining steeplechase of 146 rooms on three floors with 600,000 items on display in two multi-winged historic town houses wrapped around five mossy courtyards joined by staircases and passageways, one of them flying like a Chinese bridge over the Lycée Victor Hugo.”
All this history started with Victor Hugo, who lived and wrote during the turbulent period between the French Revolution and the Commune, the violent near-revolution in Paris shortly after the fall of Napoleon III. Or, in Downie’s words:
“…1830 was the year a motley group of French Romantics gathered around Victor Hugo and his friends and rivals and swept Paris into the paradoxically romantic modern age, or the unexpectedly modern Romantic age.”
Much of their work was descended from Chateaubriand, especially his René, who Downie believe “shaped or warped the minds of a generation, starting with Victor Hugo.” George Sand said, “I was René.” Baudelaire, a generation later, was still influenced by Chateaubriand.
Read the book. It’s a bottomless well of information about one of the most important periods of Paris history. St. Martin’s Press, 2015. Kindle edition $12.99, hardcover $20.17 on Amazon.
The Paris Time Line App
If you have trouble keeping up with the characters, turn to his outstanding Time Line app. I use it frequently to look up personalities or points of history, and can’t summarize it any better than this “about” material Downie sent me:
About this app:
Entertaining, informative, opinionated: David Downie’s Paris Time Line brings Paris alive.
This is much more than a Wikipedia-style listing. It features Paris and Paris alone and goes into places revealing details you’ll find nowhere else.
The When, Where, Why, What and Who of Paris: David Downie’s Paris Time Line features key Dates, Places, Events and People in Paris’s 2,000+ years of history.
The layout is simple and clear. This app is all you need to explore the City of Light on site or in an armchair, from the time when Paris was a pre-Roman settlement of mud huts, to the kaleidoscopic megalopolis of the present day.
Fully illustrated with hundreds of historic images and contemporary photos by the author or by photographer Alison Harris, David Downie’s Paris Time Line tells you where to go to see Paris’s history alive today or documented in the streets, monuments, churches, museums, parks, and gardens of the city. While you roam around Paris, David Downie’s Paris Time Line helps you discover dozens of key Places: you learn what you’re looking at, when it was built or came into being, and what historical or contemporary figures are associated with it.
You can also search by name: “Napoleon” for example. Or you can search by an event-driven term like “Impressionism.”
It’s available on the App Store (Look up Romanticism for a thumbnail history.) $4.99