Book Review: David Downie’s “A Passion for Paris: Romanticism & Romance in the City of Light”
Paris Paris: Journey into the City of Light is the book I almost always recommend when someone asks me which book they should take to Paris if they can only take one. This delightful collection of essays is full of fascinating background information about the city—particularly rich in historical and architectural detail—and enriched by the lively, personable, and idiosyncratic point of view of its author, David Downie.
Now—especially for those who are interested in the romantic reputation of the city and/or its 19th century history—there is a second volume you need to bring on your next trip to Paris. But why wait until then?
As other reviewers have already pointed out, A Passion for Paris: Romanticism & Romance in the City of Light is “intrepidly researched” (Booklist); offers “encyclopedic knowledge of the city and its magical story” (Kirkus Reviews); and is “wickedly humorous…exquisitely told…a must-read for true Paris lovers” (Harriet Welty Rochefort).
All of this is true, and is just a small sampling of the accolades rolling in.
A Passion for Paris is an extremely complex and sophisticated achievement, and very difficult to summarize. Forgive me for saying you really just have to read it if you have any interest whatsoever in France, past, present, or future.
I must confess that I approached this book with very little inherent interest in learning a great deal about this particular period of French history, other than my general curiosity about all things French. But such is my respect for and admiration of Downie as a writer that of course I wanted to read it. And such is his literary skill that I found myself instantly drawn in and not only interested, but mesmerized, by Paris of the Romantic Age as he has brought it to life.
Just a few of the many things I enjoyed learning about in A Passion for Paris: the personalities, lives, and loves of that great triumvirate of 19th century French writers, Hugo, Balzac, and Baudelaire, not to mention a great many other interesting characters of the period, and how they related to each other; how and why George Sand is such an important feminist figure; who it was that became known for walking a lobster on a leash in the gardens of the Palais Royal; and how the French came to have such an inordinate amount (from an American point of view) of fascination with and respect for Edgar Allan Poe.
As is usual with Downie’s work, it’s not just historical facts and information we gain. He is also most generous in sharing his always intelligent, often provocative ruminations on what all that history means–not only what it meant back then, but what it continues to mean for us today, and may continue to mean to humanity going forward. With Downie as our guide we find ourselves reflecting, for example, on fundamental differences between the nature of the French and the American revolutions—“France and America are children of the Age of Enlightenment and of revolutions,” he writes, and adds, “One major difference marks the infancy and adolescence of these revolutionary nations: America had George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, France Napoléon Bonaparte and Robespierre. From the American Revolution sprang pragmatic optimism and democratic continuity in a ‘New World’ with lots of room to roam, a place free from European historical baggage. From the French Revolution grew the cult of perpetual struggle and world-weary pessimism, the guillotine, and Romanticism, the ambiguous creature facing both backward and forward, like the ancient Roman god Janus. He is alive and well today in the heart of every French citizen.”
But I think what I love most about this book, as about all of Downie’s nonfiction works about France, is the way the reader is brought intimately into the adventure of his discoveries as he performs his intrepid research. We are spared, of course, the many hours of reading in dusty libraries he has done for us. But when he sets out into the Paris of today in search of its ghosts of yesteryear, he takes us along with him. We are there with him as he interviews the archivist at the Victor Hugo Museum, and the director of the Arsenal Library–a gathering place for such Romantic age luminaries as Dumas, Liszt, de Musset, Delacroix, Balzac, and Gautier—a place which, Downie tells us, “hasn’t changed much since the 1820s.” We are there with him as he sneaks up back stairways and into private courtyards in his furtive attempts to connect with Romantic heroes of the past, to look out the same windows they looked out of, gaze upon the same courtyards they would have seen. We are there with him in those rare moments when he is able to commune with those spirits of the past, and we benefit from his informed musings on them. And we are also there to enjoy his ever-present wit, and his incisive understanding and explication of French character, for both better and worse.
For me, though, I think the most precious thing of all about this book is this. David Downie has captured the essence of what remains in the Paris of today from her romantic past in a way that no one else has, or could. This work is strictly unique, a wonderful combination of rigorous research and the author’s lively, personal interpretation of what that research reveals. Downie has written about the foundations of Romanticism in Paris in such a way that if someone reads this book a hundred years from now they will learn about more than Paris of the 19th century. Perhaps even more important, they will learn a great deal about Paris of the early 21st century, as seen by an exceptionally curious, exceptionally intrepid American traveler, a masterful writer who has brought the romantic past of Paris to life for us in a richly complex, thought-provoking, inimitable way.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She writes about France for Bonjour Paris, France Revisited, and on this blog (you’ll find more posts on Paris here). She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” in Paris each summer for Queens College, CUNY, and also teaches classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. You can learn more about David Downie’s books, as well as his customized tours of Paris here.