Paris, Paris by David Downie

Paris, Paris, was first published in 2005. Its reissue this year is a perfect opportunity for those who have any level of knowledge or interest in Paris to read this splendid book.

David Downie is a native San Franciscan who has been living in Paris since the 1980s, writing about travel, food, and wine. Paris, Paris, is a collection of his essays about the city’s people, places, events, and general character.

The book balances the three ingredients of history, current events, and personal sensibility in carefully-dosed proportions. Downie rarely stays in any of the three modes for long, avoiding indulgence and tedium. He pulls off a balancing act that yields a book for people curious enough about any of these angles who may not have the stamina to read a book focused on a single one. He manages to write in a way that draws in those who do not know the city well, while presenting interesting perspectives for those who do.

The subjects of the essays are wide-ranging, satisfyingly reflecting an informed, roaming curiosity. Downie moves from a discussion of the rash modernization of the 60s and early 70s entitled The Perils of Pompidou to an essay on the artisans of Paris. He drifts from Mitterand’s grands projets to Coco Chanel to a very enjoyable piece on the turn-of-the-century era known as La Belle Époque.

My favorite pieces are toward the end. In La Ville Lumière: Paris City of Light, Downie explores the actual lighting of the city through history and today. Night Walking is a splendid piece on the pleasures of noctambulisme and the Parisian tradition of the same.

In Life is a Café, Downie adeptly handles an inevitable, and for that reason potentially treacherous, Parisian theme. I particularly liked the wonderfully well-targeted few paragraphs on the Café Charbon in rue Oberkampf, a place I know well. One can see that Downie has lived in Paris a long time – the places where does not show himself to be thoroughly informed of the Parisians’ perspective are extremely rare.

In Place des Vosges, Downie tells about Montgomery’s accidental killing of King Henry II, of Madame de Sévigné and Victor Hugo, but also writes:

Sometimes, especially on a rainy night, the square feels like our cloister, a place of reflection and meditation. Sit in summer under the scented linden trees as the sun goes down and the street lamps flicker into life and you’ll feel not only the linden blossoms’ sticky weeping, but also your sensibilities tingle.

What is unendingly pleasurable is a book about Paris that is so informative but also so sensitive and personal. Paris, Paris is a perfect companion for a visit to the city, or for an imaginary trip from the comfort of one’s favorite armchair.

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  1. Pingback: David Downie and Stephane Kirkland at McNally Jackson | stephanekirkland.com

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