I live in the center of Paris, a hundred yards from the Seine. Every day I walk along it, or cross one of the bridges that link the Left Bank to the Right. As someone who grew up along the Mississippi, I almost require the sight of a dirty brown stream to feel normal and happy, and thus am the ideal reader for Elaine Sciolino’s well-researched book The Seine: The River That Made Paris, which will tell the reader all there is to know about it. Rivers have always symbolized escape, but these days in Paris, its free flowing taunts. No one can travel to the US, itself riddled with the coronavirus, or to any of the other countries whose borders are closed. I had planned to take my husband’s ashes back to California; he died of Covid-19 last March, one of the earliest victims, infected in a French hospital.
There are worse places to mourn than Paris, for the moment suitably gray and frightened, as if a mortuary veil were concealing the city’s usually joyous face. On the surface all seems normal. The winter array of Gala apples, the morilles, pleurotes, and trompettes de la mort are in the markets; the buses run. But restaurants and bars are closed. The biannual sales are on, but no one buys. Theaters are dark. There are no tourists, only a handful of Parisians at a time, masked and tentative on their errands or walking their dogs. A curfew has been inflicted for 6 PM, reminding old people of life during World War II, when night streets were empty, and stirring the defiance of the young, undeterred by hefty fines for breaking the rules.
The general moroseness mirrors my own state of mind. I am hardly the only one to find that the Seine has the immemorial power of the pathetic fallacy, symbolizing or reflecting human emotions. It probably had the same power for Napoleon and Caesar, and even Vercingetorix. Right now the river is angry, slapping over the banks, drowning the benches where in better times people sit in peaceful contemplation.
Sciolino’s book furnishes a potpourri of details to reinforce the elegiac mood. For instance, near the seldom-visited village of Châtillon-sur-Seine is the lavishly decorated, five-foot-high Vix vase, a cauldron of hammered bronze made in Greece and found in the sixth-century tomb of a Celtic princess. She tells us it weighs almost a quarter-ton and could hold three hundred gallons of wine. People have speculated that it may be a treasure that Herodotus described in detail, forged by Spartan smiths for King Croesus of Lydia.
Is Sciolino’s look at the Seine a travel book that tells you where to go, what to see, what to avoid; or is it a history? Some of both. The river arises far from Paris, in a “forgotten corner of Burgundy” near a village called, naturally, Saint-Germain-Source-Seine. The spot is marked by a Napoleon III–era statue of a river nymph. An intrepid and conscientious reporter, Sciolino goes to look at it, talks to Antoine Hoareau, the enthusiastic leader of the Friends of the Sources of the Seine, and drinks the water bubbling from springs in a swampy field. “Pesticides?” she asks. “It is very good and fresh,” he reassures her.
Perhaps there’s a question of audience for Sciolino’s compilation of history and anecdote about the Seine: experienced consumers of books about Paris will already know many of the stories she tells, for instance how the Eiffel Tower came to be built, and how it was intended to be torn down but finally wasn’t. On the other hand, there is an abundance of esoteric detail for readers who want depth about places they hope to visit. She says that on display in the Atelier Lorenzi, in the riverside suburb of Arcueil, is a death mask of a beautiful unknown corpse. That “the best view of the Seine estuary is found atop Mont-Joli, outside Honfleur,” the harbor town across from Le Havre. And that the Seine’s bargemen inspired La Houppelande, a 1910 play that in turn inspired Puccini’s opera Il Tabarro, a grim Frankie and Johnny story set among these rough characters who transported river cargo and lived on their boats.
She has quite a lot about bridges. I can see three at the end of my street: the Pont des Arts, the Pont du Carrousel, and the Pont Neuf—the “new” bridge, the oldest one in Paris, straddling the Ile de la Cité. Cities on rivers are enabled by bridges, mankind’s way of asserting itself over water, literal impediments that can alter history. Think of the possible damage to urban life and morale if General Dietrich von Choltitz had followed Hitler’s orders to blow up the bridges of Paris.
The Pont des Arts is where lovers attached padlocks until 2015, when the collective weight became so heavy it began to sag and the locks had to be removed. Sciolino talks to Richard Overstreet, maker of brilliant photographs of numerous Seine bridges that, in her words, “seduce you with the practical grace of their beauty.” He shows her the “underbelly of the Belle Époque Pont Alexandre III,” everyone’s favorite, with its exuberant gilded statuary, elaborate streetlamps, and “magnificent crisscrossing and intricate braiding of trusses and girders.” She includes a photograph of one of the details and another of the Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir, a steel footbridge (engineered by my son-in-law Jean-François Blassel) in a less monumental part of the city. The book is punctuated by maps and photographs. There’s Émile Zola with a camera, there’s Audrey Hepburn on a bateau mouche river cruise, and even a painting by Renoir—unfortunately none in color.
From her book I hoped to learn (and did) the answer to a question I’ve long had: Why does nobody swim in the Seine in Paris? Farther downriver the water is safer, but I’d like to take a dip near my apartment in the Sixth Arrondissement. She tells us it would be poison. The City of Paris constructs a beach, complete with sand and umbrellas, along its banks in the summer—but the water is too dirty for swimming. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, has pledged to clean it up.
Meantime you can fish—though the fish are inedible, tainted with arsenic and other toxins. A recent report in The New York Times identified the growing popularity of angling in the Seine and the Canal Saint-Martin among young people, strictly catch-and-release. With cleanup efforts there are more than thirty species where before there were only five. I have not seen people fishing. Fish are less endangered than the bouquinistes, the booksellers, so picturesquely lining the quays, about whom Sciolino reports in detail, their diminishing numbers no doubt related to the decline of reading. Unlike Sciolino, I haven’t made friends with any of them.
Apart from its power as a metaphor, a river is a vital artery nourishing a nation’s economy, a vibrant synecdoche for its life and history, often connected to a founding myth (Romulus and Remus are saved from the Tiber, Moses is fished out of the bulrushes of the Nile) and often the organizing principle of a narrative. We can think of V.S. Naipaul and Joseph Conrad on the Congo, Mark Twain and Jonathan Raban on the Mississippi, Henry David Thoreau on the Concord and Merrimack, V.S. Pritchett “Down the Seine,” Theodore Roosevelt braving the Amazon, Claudio Magris on the Danube. The river Floss was central to George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, as it drowns poor Maggie Tulliver. The Seine, in Sciolino’s presentation, to me feels more occasional and domestic, more like a picnic in a Caillebotte painting.
Though sometimes it has “run red with blood”: in 1572, during the wars of religion that racked France for nearly forty years, Catholic conspirators at the instigation of Catherine de’ Medici organized the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestant Huguenots and threw the victims’ bodies into the Seine. During World War II, as the Allied forces moved toward the city, the Nazis planned a bloodbath, which luckily was thwarted by the German commander’s reluctance to carry out his orders. In 1961, in the so-called Paris Massacre, Algerians demonstrating against the Algerian War were beaten to death by the French police and drowned in the Seine. Hundreds of bodies washed up in the weeks afterward, though the killings were officially unacknowledged for decades, and the official death toll was three.
Despite its sometimes lurid history, as a subject the Seine lets Sciolino down in one respect. She has done distinguished work in far more difficult and far-flung places, for instance Iraq and Iran, where she faced convoluted political and religious situations and even personal danger, as she recounts in her book Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran (2000). The complexities of the Seine’s hydraulic locks or the fascination of a group fresco in the Rouen city hall do not rise to those of the nearly decade-long Iran–Iraq War or of Iran’s nuclear program.
Sciolino has made her home in Paris since she was first posted here by The New York Times in 2002. Almost every English-speaking writer who has lived in France has found a way of writing, usually in appreciation, about some aspect of French geography, economy, history, or generally the country’s central place in the world of culture—a book is often a justification for continuing to live here. The city is home to numbers of foreign journalists who have found ways of staying on when their assignments were over.* For some it’s a retirement decision; for others it has meant giving up or changing jobs, or marrying a French person. (I came as a trailing wife, when my husband took a job directing an NGO based here.) Perhaps it was in the spirit of staying that Sciolino hit upon the immutable Seine as a subject. She could equally have chosen the Loire, with its châteaux, its wine, the death of Leonardo—but the Seine serves perfectly, timeless and variable.
What is it about France that has long captured the American heart? The American appetite for books about France seems inexhaustible. Amazon lists more than 80,000 of them, more than 50,000 about Paris, 184 about the Seine—not all written by Americans, but most of them are. To be fair, there are nearly as many books about London, but this is less surprising in view of the Anglo-oriented nature of American education. I can think of at least a dozen friends who have recently written books about aspects of Paris or France. My own effort (Into a Paris Quartier) was commissioned by the National Geographic Society for a series of short books by writers about where they live. I took that to mean Paris and plunged bravely in, but it soon became clear that I had to limit myself not just to the Sixth Arrondissement, where I live most of the year, but to my corner of the Sixth, Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Sciolino, in an earlier book, The Only Street in Paris (2015), solved the problem of Paris abundance by focusing just on her street, the rue des Martyrs.
Susan Sontag wrote in a preface to Steven Barclay’s useful A Place in the World Called Paris (1994) that no place else has offered such a feast of fulfillments: “Exile’s Paris, drinker’s Paris, artist’s Paris, student’s Paris, champion moviegoer’s Paris, sexual quester’s Paris….” Sontag herself embraced some of these specialties—although, not much of a gourmet, she left out diner’s Paris. There is a utilitarian side to this sort of travel book, that researches for your use the charms and dangers of somewhere you might go; Sciolino’s fits that category.
But many Anglophone books about France incorporate another narrative, usually some sort of personal quest for solace or self-improvement, some belief in the mythology of a place that fits into the life of the traveler who wants to become an artist (like Mary Cassatt or Joan Mitchell) or learn to cook (Richard Olney, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Alice Waters). The roots of our admiration for French culture date to the American Revolution, when France was our ally against the British. A number of our founders—Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, for example—lived in Paris and had close friendships with the French.
At the time of the Revolution, there was a strong tradition of American women who could afford it going to France to have their dresses made, and such informal exchange over the centuries continued: learning the language, looking at art, attending the Cordon Bleu. In the nineteenth century, the eager consumers of French culture who flocked to Paris were likely to be men, not young women, Isabel Archer notwithstanding. David McCullough’s excellent book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (2011) focuses on figures like James McNeill Whistler, Stanford White, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Henry James—young men who went to Paris because that was the center of their world of art and culture, and returned to influence American public sculpture, literature, and architecture. On my part of rue Bonaparte, or around the corner, have lived Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, John Paul Jones, Ernest Hemingway, John Jay, James Fenimore Cooper—the street gets eight pages in Americans in Paris (1984), Brian Morton’s helpful guide to who lived where.
Paris has long served as a place to escape to. Since the 1920s African-American writers, musicians, and performers—James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Coleman Hawkins, Josephine Baker—have sought relief from the racism they found in the US. Many American writers bought into the belief that some magic infusion of creativity awaited them in Paris: Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Jones, and their literary avatars like Hemingway’s Jake Barnes and Henry James’s Chad Newsome. Newsome wanted to get away from stuffy upper-class New England; Miller wanted sex and adventure—and “to write.” More recently, for people like me, the distractions of French museums and markets, and having to learn French, mean that instead of writing you have to spend time devising ways just to live, for instance buying things for which the words are the same in English and ordering two of them—deux oranges—thus avoiding the need to remember whether to say un orange or une orange. Biftecks, brocolis, carottes.
Many books about France begin by saying something that Sciolino says only at the end of her tour of the Seine: “Like so many Americans, I felt as if I already knew the city, as if I owned it. I had studied French history. I had read about Paris in novels and seen it in paintings. I had heard songs about April in Paris and loving Paris in the springtime and the fall. I had watched movies.” Sciolino is recapitulating the experience of many Americans but especially, it seems, of young American women of the last seventy years. The traditional American junior year abroad had long been a custom for well-bred young American men, but at some point it became available to women. Thousands of girls have come to study at a French or Paris-based American institution, ideally to live and eat with a French family—though this boarding arrangement is becoming less common, as the French are not so hard up as they were in the 1950s—travel around the Continent, and generally experience life in a foreign country, an exhilarating and liberating period for most of them, though shattering for some. For students out from under parental eyes, French cultural advantages included alcohol (during Prohibition), racy theater and cabarets, museums, cuisine and fashion not found at home, and, by the 1950s, premarital sex.
One entertaining account is Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French (2012), on the junior years abroad of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. All three young women found it a formative experience, though they were not there at the same time. Sontag explored the arcana of French philosophy, Davis of radical politics. Jackie Bouvier, exploring culture, lost her virginity in a French elevator (though it was to a fellow American; at least it wasn’t in the back of a Chevy at home). All three perfected their French. Kaplan explains, “France was the place where they could become themselves, or protect themselves from what they didn’t want to become, as products of their families, their societies.” Despite increasing freedoms everywhere for daughters, American parents still felt more comfortable sending their girls to Paris than, say, Cairo or Kirkuk.
All the same, today’s college graduates have considerably branched out. One of my daughters married a Frenchman (the engineer) and lives here in Paris, but my sons went to China and Japan to study; they speak Japanese and Mandarin, and married women who grew up in Asia.
There are nuances in our American attitude to France. Is there a tinge of envy of France’s long history and cultural norms, a note of malice and glee, of schadenfreude, in the ways the American press reports on strikes, fires, and floods, and anything else that seems to go wrong in France? Only envy could explain the patronizing gesture of Donald Trump brushing imaginary dandruff off Emmanuel Macron’s immaculate shoulder while taking in his military parade. But the bond and sympathy are real, and the American horror at the attack on Charlie Hebdo, or the fire in Notre Dame, was heartfelt.
We all have the hope that some other culture can fill in our shortcomings. Sciolino’s book and all the others contain in their encomiums the implicit wish, or hope, or recommendation that America could take France’s example and be better than it is. Henry Adams put his finger on it, writing in his autobiography, “Being in no way responsible for the French and sincerely disapproving them, he felt quite at liberty to enjoy to the full everything he disapproved. Stated thus crudely, the idea sounds derisive; but, as a matter of fact, several thousand Americans passed much of their time there on this understanding.”
An American living in Paris, I have found, never becomes French but instead even more American than before, perhaps more conscious than Americans at home of our national qualities and shortcomings. When I think of my own future without my companion of fifty years, do I see myself as an American citizen in good standing in the undeniably beautiful San Francisco, or as a foreigner here, in a creaking seventeenth-century apartment, where I can walk along the river to the movies and don’t need a car? It’s the dilemma that keeps me awake at night, though I think I know the answer.
Elizabeth Bard, Mary Blume, David Downie, Charles Glass, Janet Hulstrand, Jake Lamar, the late Polly Platt, Alan Riding, Mort Rosenblum, Harriet Welty Rochefort, Edmund White—just to name a few. John Baxter! ↩