March 2008

Jonathan Shipley

nonfiction

Metro Stop Paris: An Underground History of the City of Light by Gregor Dallas

Having just returned from my first trip to Paris, this is one of the many things I learned: you don’t “do” Paris, Paris does you. There is simply too much to see and too much to do in the fabled City of Light. “Oh,” you’ll think to yourself, “I’ll go to the Louvre in the morning, the Musee D’Orsay in the afternoon and, well, the Pompidou stays open until 9 so I’ll see the modern art there, as well.” No; no, you won’t. If you’re in the Louvre it’ll take you half a day to find the bathroom. The D’Orsay isn’t to be rushed but savored like fine wine and niblets of cheese. The Pompidou will make your head spin. In other words, it’s good to be choosy, good to pick those particular stories you want to follow. That’s another thing about Paris -- there are stories everywhere. At the café, along Rue Monge, near the Notre Dame, inside the Arc de Triomphe. Some of these stories and histories are told in Gregor Dallas’s new book Metro Stop Paris: An Underground History of the City of Light. It’s a well-researched, well-rounded book -- but it’ll just whet your Parisian appetite, it won’t sate it.

The book is broken down by Metro stops. Twelve stops, twelve stories. At the Trocadero stop Dallas tells the interesting, and troubling, tale of psychoanalyst Otto Rank and his romantic entanglements with none other than Anais Nin, including the abortion she had. “The fourteen pages Anais Nin devoted to her abortion, under the date 29 August 1934, are the most extraordinary of her entire multi-volume unexpunged diary. They are the most powerful, with a tension far more gripping than the thousand plus pages detailing her sexual exploits. To whom is she addressing the diary entry? Her dying child?”

The Gare du Nord stop details the life and works of St. Vincent de Paul. Saint-Germaine-Des-Pres haunts the place and time of John-Paul Sartre. Pere Lachaise ties Oscar Wilde to the infamous Dreyfus Affair.

With twelve utterly different histories you can read the book straight through or pick and choose, which you just may want to do. Dallas, author of a plethora of European history books including At the Heart of a Tiger: Clemenceau and His World, 1841-1929 and The Final Act: The Roads to Waterloo, can turn his writing into decidedly long college-like lectures on topics that may not be of interest to you. For me, the more interesting ones were those about the arts -- composer Claude Debussy at the Opera stop, sculptor Antoine Bourdelle at Montparnasse, Anais Nin -- not the tales about Clovis, king of the Franks, and the philosophical meanderings of Sartre.

The book also isn’t really an underground history of the City of Light. I expected a history of the Paris underground, the catacombs, the creation of the subway system, and so forth. Also it’s labeled as History/Travel. History, yes. Travel, a bit of a stretch. It’s not as though you’ll climb out of the ground at Portae de Gingancourt and follow along with the book. The topic is too dense and there are too many tangents.

What it does do is make you want to learn more about Paris and about the topics that interest you (there’s a handy reading list in the back). Metro Stop Paris teaches you a) histories you didn’t know and b) that there are hundreds of histories of Paris you didn’t know. Dallas has just picked a handful of them. That handful, like the roasted chestnuts you can get from Parisian street vendors, has some tasty bits, but there are also some duds, too, that you just might as well toss into the flowing Seine.

Metro Stop Paris: An Underground History of the City of Light by Gregor Dallas
Walker & Company
ISBN: 0802716954
272 Pages