“Just as a city cannot be seen until it is painted, a city cannot be read until it is written”.
For French historians by profession or obsession, Christopher Prendergast combines the social and cultural history of nineteenth century Paris with literature, painting and photography.
Prendergast gives different perspectives from critics culminating a large archive which is “potentially unmanageable”. His arguments are: 1) to make sense of this modern city and one’s place in it , 2) terms which the city exceeds identification and identity and 3) the price paid by artists trying to make Paris conform to an intelligible design. He has organized these themes around the notion that Paris is a “space affected by time, arranged and altered by history”(3).
Based on the major nineteenth century texts of Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Zola, and others, Prendergast shows how Paris has been depicted, reinvented and rediscovered. He explains the new identity of Paris in the muddled “bric-a-brac” of Haussmanization (Baudelaire Fleurs du Mal) and the view from the cafe, parks and boulevards as depicted by the Impressionists and Balzac’s Scènes de la vie Privée: “Paris est Paris, voyez-vous, Ce mot explique ma vie” (Balzac, Père Goriot). Prendergast takes issue with Balzac’s interpretation in Scènes de la vie Privée stating that the nineteenth century in which his characters stroll through is “to convenient as a free field of stimulus and adventure”.
I appreciated the author’s insights and criticisms of the Impressionists and writers of this time period as they “mirrorred ” Paris in their works. I had previously taken these impressions to heart and built an image in my mind of Paris, through the flâneur, as an iconic, bourgeois utopia. Paris and the Nineteenth Century helped me to look at the century as a whole, and how art and literature impacted Paris politically and socially.