"Wonderful country France . . . pity about the French." From the "Queen of the world" to the "corpse of an old whore" - Andrew Hussey on changing views of Paris

Seven Ages of Paris: portrait of a city

Alistair Horne <em>Macmillan, 520pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0333

Paris arouses strong emotions. "How different was my first sight of Paris from what I had expected," wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the first explorers of the modern city, in 1770. "I had imagined a town as beautiful as it was large. I saw only dirty, stinking alleys, ugly black houses, a stench of filth and poverty. My distaste still lingers." In its long and vast literary history, Paris has also been variously represented as a prison, a paradise and a vision of hell. For Alistair Horne, however, the city is best represented as a woman who is "sexy and beautiful, but also turbulent, troublesome and sometimes excessively violent . . . a hauntingly alluring, and exacting mistress". The feminine metaphor for the city is as old as Paris itself, stretching from Rabelais to the surrealists. But in recent years, the sexualised language has turned from love poems to insult. Few inhabitants of contemporary Paris would now recognise, or agree with, the 19th-century description of the city as the "Queen of the world". Rather, as its city centre has been violated over the past three decades by a disastrous coalition of government and big business developments, ranging from the Beaubourg to the grands projets of the Mitterrand years, Paris has been most frequently likened to, as one gloomy commentator put it recently, "the corpse of an old whore".

Horne's book finishes, quite arbitrarily and rather abruptly (although it is a very long book), in 1969. His justification for this is that his book makes no claim to be a definitive history of Paris. The millions of words devoted to Paris over the centuries, as Horne points out, suggest anyway that such a task would be impossibly "arrogant". Instead, he sets out to tell the story of Paris in a series of seven "biographical essays", which are intended to illustrate the city's "immortal beauty" and the "swift changes of mood" that apparently explain such disparate slices of historical upheaval as the Fronde, the Commune and occupation. That he tells these stories with such admirably partisan verve makes it all the more striking - and a shame - that Horne, who does not shrink from attacking corruption or stupidity in any age or under any guise, makes no comment on the 1970s and 1980s, when Paris and its sleazy politicians turned venality into a fine art.

The "idiosyncratic, personal and prejudiced" selection of the seven ages of the city that Horne announces at the beginning of the book also turns out to be quite conventional and therefore mildly disappointing. Horne constructs a fast-moving and extremely readable narrative, but there is here none of the thematic playfulness that made Peter Ackroyd's London: the biography so distinctive. He begins with the origins and foundations of the city, tracing its development from regional capital to its eventual pre- eminence as the city that took over all the rest of France. He marches us briskly through the grand siecle, the revolution, Napoleon, the fall of the Second Empire, the 20th-century experience of war, and so on. The concentration is on battles, treaties and the lives of great men.

Horne is a clear-minded and rigorous historian. Among his previous achievements is a history of the Algerian war of independence, which still reads as a remarkably prescient work in the age of al-Qaeda. Here, however, as Horne magisterially sweeps across the centuries, he seldom asks questions of either his sources or his own opinions, and he overlooks the role of the people of Paris in making their own history.

There is surprisingly little, or no, mention of ordinary Parisians, other than as bit-part players in the great drama scripted by the rich or powerful. The languages and accents of Paris that have played such a crucial role in the formation of class and cultural identities - the stock figures of the parigot or titi, for example (the rough equivalents of cockney city-dwellers) - are hardly mentioned. Slang and popular culture, at which Parisians have always excelled, are similarly dismissed as picturesque irrelevancies. The overall effect is to remind the reader of the offhand remark (quoted by Horne in his introduction) that is often attributed to the eminent Oxford historian Richard Cobb: "Wonderful country France . . . pity about the French."

For everything that there is to admire in Horne's history of Paris - the stylish prose and the panoramic view - there is no sense of the city as a unique place. Walter Benjamin was not the first, but he was one of the most convincing commentators on Paris to insist that it is in the shifting movement of the everyday city that we can glimpse what it is that makes history. Benjamin's contention was that everyday experience - aimlessly strolling the streets, drinking coffee or alcohol, picking up someone of the opposite or same sex - always means more than it appears to on the surface.

This approach to the history of Paris has most recently been echoed by the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, who, writing from his home in the Sentier district at the heart of the Right Bank, has argued in novels and essays for Paris as "the capital of the 21st century". The key to this, he writes, is the daily life of Paris, of its immigrants, its vagabonds, its marginal classes, who are inventing new hybrid identities, not wholly African, Arab or Asian, on a daily basis in the cultural capital of Europe. Even the most disillusioned of Parisians, from Michel Houellebecq to the rappers of suburban St-Denis, describe the city in historical terms: even if they hate or fear it, they still identify Paris as the battlefield for modernity, the locus of history.

This, indeed, was also the argument of Louis Chevalier, the great French historian of Paris. In some ways, Chevalier's instincts could be every bit as conservative as Horne's. One of Chevalier's final works, L'assassinat de Paris, deals specifically with the period from 1969 onwards, the period ignored by Horne, when the city was most viciously redeveloped. Chevalier laments the destruction of the streets of Belleville and Menilmontant, and the life that was lived in them. In Seven Ages of Paris, Horne gives a parallel account of what it was like to live through Baron Haussmann's destruction of old Paris in the mid-19th century. But, says Chevalier, it was at the end of the 20th century that history really began to move on from Paris, as everyday life was bulldozed away with the last of the old quartiers.

This deadly work continues today, as the city is reduced to cliche and commodity by mass tourism.

It is reproduced in countless posters, postcards and prints that are sent around the world as dead ciphers for art, sex, food, culture. The Eiffel Tower, the Sacre-Coeur and Notre Dame are all part of a global visual culture, a Disneyfied baby language that distorts and destroys real meaning. This process is greedy and all-consuming. Monuments and churches, the paintings of Degas and Manet, the photographs of Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis, the films of Marcel Carne and Francois Truffaut have all been separated from their true context. Little wonder Parisians are left to conclude that, in recent years, it is the vibrant and unpredictable territories of Sydney, New York and London that have truly captured the world's imagination.

The current centre-right government in France is set to continue the eradication of Paris and Parisian ways. Most visibly, the gung-ho minister of the interior, Nicholas Sarkozy, has introduced a law that will banish prostitutes from the city's streets. But the old-style streetwalkers themselves have started to fight back.

They are supported by all sections of Parisian society, as demonstrated in a recent article in the normally prudish Le Parisien which praised the so-called "traditionelles" for their manners and expressed nostalgia for their "gouaille aux accents d'Arletty" (Parisian accents like the actress Arletty).

Horne is old-fashioned enough to see Paris in similar terms - "thoroughly female", as he puts it - and he is unafraid to express an almost erotic pull towards the city. His book is really an evocation of this feeling and proof that, alive or dead, the oldest whore of them all still casts a powerful spell.

Andrew Hussey is the author of The Game of War: the life and death of Guy Debord (Pimlico)