Ah, Paris! The city of romance, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Mona Lisa, steak frites and café crème. Whether you're visiting or just dreaming about it, there's a lot of books to be read about Paris and its history and culture, its great novels and its philosophical traditions.
It's named after the Parissi, a Celtic tribe who lived on the banks of the Seine and, according to Julius Caesar's Gallic War, fiercely resisted the Roman conquest. Under the Romans, it was called Lutetia (as anyone who reads Asterix will know). It was Clovis, King of the Franks, who first made it his capital.
From the 12th century onwards, Paris was the dominant city in France. From the 16th century, kings resided at the Tuileries Palace, next to the Louvre, and Paris was at the centre of dramatic political events. It was the site of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day of the French religious wars; Alexis de Tocqueville would argue that Paris's predominance played a major role in the French Revolution. In 1804, Napoleon was crowned emperor at Notre Dame. In 1848, only three decades after the Bourbon Restoration, it would again be the site of revolution.
The 20th century was equally dramatic. Despite the proximity of the city to the frontlines, in World War I the French were able to stave off the German invasion. World War II did not go as well, with Paris falling to the Nazis on June 14, 1940, and the city became the seat of the German military administration. Some 50,000 Jews living in Paris would be deported and murdered in the Holocaust.
Paris has also been a big cultural capital, with artists and authors flocking from around the world to take in the atmosphere, especially the 'Bohemian' vibe of Montmartre, where Ernest Hemingway ( A Moveable Feast, a memoir of his time in Paris), Pablo Picasso, George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London) and Vincent van Gogh lived, among many, many others. More recently, Five Books contributor, Adam Gopnik's memoir Paris to the Moon captures the essence of his Parisian expatriate experience.
Another group who left their mark on Paris are philosophers: Denis Diderot put together his Encyclopedia there and Voltaire was born and died there. In Saint-Germain-des-Prés tourists still flock to the Les Deux Magots, the café where existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir hung out, all the more significant because the waiter scene is such a well-known part of Sartre's Being and Nothingness.
Down and Out in Paris and London
by George Orwell
Journey to the End of the Night
by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (translated by Ralph Manheim)
Overhead in a Balloon
by Mavis Gallant
The Belly of Paris
by Emile Zola (translated by Mark Kurlansky)
Dictionnaire Historique des Rues de Paris
by Jacques Hillairet
The city of romance and art is also, like most big cities, a place of grit and grime. The American writer and long-time Paris resident David Downie tells us where to look if we’re to understand the people and past of this most alluring city.
Paris in the 1920s was a creative melting pot, the haunt of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. The Yale English professor gives us a feel for what it was like to be there
Booker Prize-winning translator David Bellos says Les Misérables is the greatest novel of all time. When it came out, “it was an event bigger than the launch of Titanic and Avatar put together.” He picks the five greatest French novels.