Peter Brooks, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale, teaches at Princeton. He is currently at work on a book called Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris.

‘The Mysteries of Paris’

Eugène Sue; portrait by François Gabriel Guillaume Lépaulle, 1837
On June 19, 1842, readers of the staid Journal des Débats discovered installment one of The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue on the “ground floor” (the bottom quarter) of their daily newspaper’s front page. Over the following months, the story unfolded in 150 breathless episodes, reaching its end only …

The Strange Case of Paul de Man

Paul de Man with Renée and Theodore Weiss, Bard College, circa December 1949
In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith created high drama from imposture: the almost unbearable tension of suspense that comes with living a double life. That novel seems to have inspired Evelyn Barish’s notion of how to write the biography of Paul de Man. “With every passing year,” she tells us of de Man in the 1950s, “he felt a little more safe, but the stakes were high and the anxiety never left him.” That’s a good novelistic premise. A biographer has to earn it.

Behind the Iron Mask

Alexandre Dumas, 1857; photograph by Nadar
As a boy I wanted above all other professions to be a musketeer. After Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, read to me by my father, I carried on myself with the sequels, Twenty Years After, The Man in the Iron Mask. They were, though I didn’t want to admit it, …

Our Universities: How Bad? How Good?

Couch in Car, Vassar College, 2010; photograph by Tim Davis from Vassar’s sesquicentennial exhibition ‘150 Years Later: New Photography by Tina Barney, Tim Davis, Katherine Newbegin,’ at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie, New York, through March 27, 2011
The university is a precious and fragile institution, one that lives with crisis—since education, like psychoanalysis, is an “impossible profession”—but at its best thrives on it. It has endured through many transformations of ideology and purpose, but at its best remained faithful to a vision of disinterested pursuit and transmission of knowledge. Research and teaching have always cohabited: anyone who teaches a subject well wants to know more about it, and when she knows more, to impart that knowledge.

In the Hidden Paris Underground

An itinerant singer performing while his companion sells trinkets and ballad booklets; painting by Louis Joseph Watteau, 1785
Historians are often self-described as detectives. Perhaps the most probing discussion of their sleuthing is Carlo Ginzburg’s essay on “Clues”—Spie—and their decipherment. Ginzburg speculates that following the path laid out by clues—connecting bits of evidence on the ground—may go back to the way hunters tracked their prey: Man has been …

Napoleon’s Eye

Benjamin Zix: Allegorical Portrait of Vivant Denon, 1811. Denon, whom Napoleon appointed the first director of French museums, is depicted at the entrance to the Louvre’s Salle de Diane, surrounded by, among other objects, the Vendôme Column; an obelisk planned for the Pont Neuf; the elephant fountain planned for the Place de la Bastille (see page 32); and two statues of Napoleon, a bust and a seated figure (left).
Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, pried off just under one half of the Parthenon frieze (some 247 feet) and added to it fifteen metopes and seventeen of the great sculptures from the east and west pediments, then shipped them to England, eventually to repose in the British Museum, where …

From Egypt to Paris: An Artist Prized for His Travel Sketches

Dominique-Vivant Denon, the subject of my piece in the November 19, 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books, is known above all as the first Director of the Louvre—which, under his guidance, became the first encyclopedic public museum. But he was also an artist prized for his travel sketches and engravings. Since I could only touch on this aspect of his career briefly in my piece, I offer here some further notes and selections from his work.