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Find more The Allure of Paris
Ah, Paris, the City of Light, Liberty, and Licentiousness. The mecca for all who are enthralled by elegance, art, wine, food, and romance. Each of these Paris-besotted books celebrates the city’s seductive mystique, but each also delves into its sorrows as embodied in the unforgettable stories of its revolutionary writers and artists.
John Baxter, an Australian expat, film scholar, and seasoned and popular travel writer, has charmed and informed readers about the finer points of Paris, his beloved adopted city, in such smart and avid books as Paris at the End of the World (2014). In Five Nights in Paris, an entertaining mix of amusing autobiography and fluent expertise, he undertakes an intriguing new challenge. Baxter was conducting daylight literary tours when a visitor, enamored of Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, asked him about nocturnal explorations. Baxter was game, and thought, “Why not base my night walks on the senses?” A veritable font of historical anecdotes and bonhomie, Baxter makes after-dark visits to the sites of once fashionable brothels and jazz clubs, follows the scent of perfume, and sumptuously indulges his passion for food, writing, at each turn, with wit and rapture. Along the way, Baxter unveils evocative connections among such Paris-based creative rebels as the surrealists, Henry Miller, and Brassaï, all of whom also found Parisian nights intoxicating.
David Downie (Paris to the Pyrenees, 2013), is, like John Baxter, a Paris transplant, a walking-tour guide steeped in Parisian lore, and an acclaimed writer. In A Passion for Paris, he seeks the source of the city’s celebrated aura of romance in those who fomented the “cultural revolt that turned Paris into the capital of Romanticism.” Downie begins this intrepidly researched, entrancingly descriptive, ruminative, funny, and revealing inquiry by telling the uncensored story of prodigious Victor Hugo, who basically wrote the manifesto for Romanticism while navigating a truly “racy” love life. Downie also chronicles the complex romantic entanglements of Balzac, Baudelaire, George Sand (“the Great Woman of the Age of Romanticism”), and Henri Murger, whose Scenes of Bohemian Life inspired Puccini’s opera, La Bohème. Canny observations about Paris’ “spirit of freedom,” “permanent sexual revolution,” and embrace of melancholy, which “lies at the root of Romanticism and romance,” are laced throughout this provocative inquiry. With 115 photographs and many exquisitely written passages detailing his visits to historic sites and “romantic enclaves,” Downie presents a gorgeously discursive and affecting homage to Paris’ “great Romantics,” and to the city itself, redolent with art, literature, and longing.
Compared to the feverish hedonism and artistic flowering surveyed in Baxter and Downie’s Paris meanderings, Stanley Meisler’s Shocking Paris is chilling. A family connection by marriage to the “dark, enigmatic artist” Chaim Soutine propels Meisler’s meticulous examination of the painter’s scantily documented life. A poor shtetl boy, Soutine was able to attend art school only because his parents received compensation after he was badly beaten for making a sketch of the rabbi . Shy and art-obsessed, Soutine arrived in Paris in 1913 as part of a wave of Russian Jewish artists fleeing persecution and seeking artistic freedom. As he developed his sculptural approach to paint and created his highly charged portraits and unnerving still lives of decaying sides of beef, Soutine found his opposite in savvy Chagall and a savior in Modigliani. Meisler brings a fresh perspective to this ardent trio’s struggles and triumphs while charting the rising anger among the French against the brilliant immigrant artists gathered in Montparnasse, fury that found a ready channel once the Nazis invaded.
Recent events remind us that the City of Light can also be the City of Hate. But Paris has demonstrated its deep commitment to liberty, and the world has reaffirmed its passion for this ever-alluring, radiant, and romantic capital of dreams.
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