Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Paris to the Past by Ina Caro

New Yorker Ina Caro had a great idea: to use Paris as a home base and then make day trips to places reachable by train in 90 minutes or less in order to make French history come to life. She begins with the cathedrals and fortresses of the middle ages and travels century by century, ending with Napoleon in the 19th century. I love France and travelling by train - as well as being interested in history - so I thought this book would be perfect for me. It would have been, if I didn't find Caro's chatty and repetitive style so annoying. With only 50 pages (out of 349) left to go, I gave up.

How many times would I have to read that Caro could only imagine historical people and events by having physical evidence? I got it the first time. Yet her imagination does seem pretty vivid. When she learned that a beheading had taken place in a garden she passed on foot in Paris, Caro "began picturing the courtyard with the count's severed head rolling in puddles of blood" and "began taking another route to the Place des Vosges." She is also good at editing out present-day people dressed anachronistically, and seeing only the architecture around her.

Caro uses first person and is so much present that I felt like I was reading a blog. Regarding Claude Monet's dreams: "I was surprised to learn that his nightmares, unlike my black and white dreams, were in pre-Hollywood technicolor, largely in pinks and blues." Louis X11's wife carved these (translated) words on the wall of their chateau at Blois - Nothing means anything to me anymore - and Caro comments "the words I would have carved if my love had died." In describing the assassination of King Henry IV, Caro twice mentions the irrelevant fact that the killer was red-haired. At another point, Caro is surprised by "the French tide, about which I had totally forgotten" and I wondered if the tide in France could possibly be different from the tide in Spain or England.

Caro's constant presence isn't actually the problem. I usually enjoy feeling like I'm right there, right beside the author... as long as it is someone I get along with. Caro just rubs me the wrong way. I happen to be reading another Jewish author's historical exploration now: Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes. He has brought me right to a particular street in Paris as he examines the mansion of an ancestor and then slips inside behind a delivery person. The difference is that I like hanging out with de Waal.

Another detraction is that Caro's sense of humour doesn't appeal to me. "Those who dismiss the great-man theory of history have obviously not considered the consequences of Louis the Fat's obesity on the city of Paris, or for that matter on me." Sentence structure can get pretty convoluted: "What becomes clear as we travel in Joan [of Arc]'s footsteps is that what the people of France in the fifteenth century believed had a truth in the consequences it produced: their faith in the legend replaced despair and bound the fragments of a feudal country into a nation with a messianic patriotism strong enough to finally drive the English out of France." (Whew!) Some of her references are obscure: "The keep itself [at the Chateau de Vincennes] is as typical of the period as a Levitt house would have been in 1950s America." (I had to google images of Levitt homes, never having heard of them before.)

I was able to relate to Caro's experience of the crowds of tourists at Versailles: "My day had been comparable to shopping at a department store during the Christmas season." For a more engaging account of French history, I recommend Graham Robb's Discovery of France.

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