The Seine. The River That Made Paris. By Elaine Sciolino 370 Pages. W,W, Norton and Company. $26.95
By Michael D. Mosettig
It takes a particularly intrepid author/journalist to try to write yet another book about Paris given the hundreds and thousands already sagging bookshelves in France and elsewhere.
But the river Seine has met its match in Elaine Sciolino, whose reporting career with Newsweek and The New York Times has spanned Europe, the Middle East and Washington. Her previous books range from an ostensibly small, a street in Paris, to the larger ambitions of Saddam Hussein.
Among other things, her book is an achievement in organization. No easy feat considering that the approximately 480-mile waterway has no real beginning and as it symbolizes so much of Paris and its surrounding areas and all the history that incorporates.
Sciolino achieves that with chapters neatly divided into descriptions of the river as it moves from Burgundy to its end point at the Atlantic ocean. In between are chapters on the art, literature, films, songs and photography that the river helped inspire among so many creative people. Of course, there is plenty of romance, some of it gone awry.
Swimming, with or without bathing suits, was banned in 1925. But beachgoers in varieties of dress or undress have come back as Paris has tried to create an urban oasis with imported sand and palm trees along with a $15 billion effort to clean the horrendously polluted waterway.
Stories abound. One particularly delightful one for Washington natives and residents is the 1925 decision of Duncan Phillips to lay out $125,000 (add at least three zeroes at today’s prices) for Renoir’s The Boating Party. The painting, done in Ile de Chatou 13 miles west of Paris, is now the gem of the Phillips Collection near Dupont Circle.
And all the history, some going back to pre-historic eras but more commencing with the decision of Henri IV to build the Pont Neuf in 1607. The 761-foot span from the Left Bank across the Île de la Cité to the Right Bank was a turning point in the creation of modern Paris.
Of course, time does not stand still. House boat dwellers are being pushed aside by gentrification. The book sellers on the quays are falling victim to changing tastes and economics. While the author’s bibliography is impressive, some of us would like to see her reporter notebooks and all the interviews, ranging from curators to officials to the bouquinistes dealing with a change in book-buying habits and economics to the French regulatory state.
To all this history is added much tragedy, the accidental deaths and suicides of unknown people. Victor Hugo’s daughter Leopoldine drowned in a boating accident in 1843. After the 1961 mass killing of Algerian demonstrators, many of their bodies were dumped in the river.
Even as it is delightfully and personally written, the detail can overwhelm. By the time one reaches a penultimate chapter, “Where the Seine Ends,” the thought flashes, where will this book end. There is some overreaching for material, such as the Nazi abandonment of Paris in World War II. The only seeming connection is that the river flowed as the Germans marched triumphantly in 1940 and as they scrambled away without laying waste to the city four years later. The book also could use more and better maps.
Fate horrifically intervened to provide a dramatic final chapter. Nearly half the water that helped save Notre Dame from total destruction last year was pumped from the Seine. Yet, another reminder, as if we needed it, how deeply and dramatically this river is attached to the idea of Paris and to France.
Michael D. Mosettig was senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour and a European correspondent for UPI. He conducts a Media and International Relations seminar at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.