I picked up this book with a lot of hope and excitement. I have been fascinated with France, and particularly Paris, ever since I started learning French from the 8th grade. But the book disappointed me. It is, not as I expected, about the many walks through Paris and the author's personal favourite. It is rather a collection of observations the author has about Paris, only some of which are related to him being a flaneur.
But, that is not to say I did not enjoy the book. It does mention tidbits about Paris and its literary inheritance which a lot of visitors may not know about. The author, who lives on rue de l'Odeon boasts of the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company run by Slyvia Beach; Slyvia lived in the author's building where James Joyce often visited as did Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. So, one may say, John Baxter is quite qualified to write about Paris and its walks from a literary angle.
The author mentions that Paris belongs to its pedestrians. He quotes the writer Edmund White who wrote, “Paris is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone, for only the pace of strolling can take in all the rich (if muted) detail.” If the Paris of pedestrians has heroes, notes Baxter, they are Georges Eugene Haussmann (who got people back on the streets in the late 1800s) and Andre Malraux (the minister of culture).
Before the author came to Paris, he lived in Los Angeles which had “persuaded him that going anywhere on foot wasn't just unusual but downright unnatural, even illegal.” He mentions Ray Bradbury's 1951 short story “The Pedestrian” set in a future Los Angeles where nobody walks. The only man who defies this custom is hauled off by the Psychiatric Center because “Who but a madman would walk for pleasure” I would tend to agree. On my travels to the United States, I have observed that nobody walks, not even in the suburbs. People drive down to the nearest park and then take a walk there. The US is certainly not a country for flaneurs in my opinion!
The author also mentions that since nobody walks like the French, they are the people who have raised the political walk to near perfection. Parisians grow up with the promenade, or stroll, as a natural part of their lives.
Baxter gives some interesting tidbits about the various metro stations in Paris, at least I found them wonderfully fascinating. Pont Neuf, nearest to Le Monnaie, displays old coinage and an ancient hand press. At Concorde, each tile bears a single letter, as if for a giant game of Scrabble. At Varenne, nearest to the Musee Rodin, full-size replicas of his Thinker and statue of Honore de Balzac rule the platform. Louvre-Rivoli station is elaborately decorated with facsimile Egyptian status and other antiquities.
During the course of the book, the author takes us through some amazing anecdotes about Hemingway's life; he takes us underground Paris's streets where the catacombs lie; he talks about the fascination painters have with the city; and how the French really love their food.
At the end of the book, he also gives some tips to visitors. I found the following ones interesting:
- A true French cafe breakfast remains one of the great pleasures of life in Paris.
- Paris's twenty arrondissements spiral out from Notre Dame, with something interesting in each of them.
- Paris's rare-book market takes place every weekend on rue Brancion in the fifteenth, in what used to be an old slaughterhouse.
- Afternoon hot chocolate at Proust's favourite cafe, Angelina.
- Climb the famous stone staircases of Montmartre around 5.00 a.m. or take the little cable car, buy coffee and rolls, and eat breakfast on the terrace below the Cathedral of Sacre-Coeur.
Though the book did not live up to its title, I did enjoy reading it and the various little pieces of information it offered me in terms of its past inhabitants and how they came about to shape and build the city as we know it today. Rest assured, when I do visit Paris, I will be taking this book along with me if only as a kind of a tour guide.