Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
City of Light the real protagonist in historical novel
Paris is British writer Edward Rutherfurd's eighth historical novel, and, like London, New York, Russia, and so on, its subject is vast and situates it squarely in the James Michener tradition of massive historical-fiction bestsellers.
Its title is also a declaration of its intent: though the narrative has the shape of a multi-generational saga, the human characters are not the true centre of the drama. Rather, it is the city itself that takes centre stage, and here Rutherfurd has done a fine job of capturing the spirit of the City of Light.
The primary narrative begins in the late 1800s, and Rutherfurd paints a detailed portrait of the city's transformation into the French capital most readers would recognize from both reality and our shared cultural imagination.
Many of the old neighbourhoods have been erased by Baron Haussmann's construction of the great boulevards and avenues. The Opera has recently been completed, Sacré-Coeur is rising on the top of Montmartre, and the most ambitious and controversial project yet by an engineering genius named Eiffel is about to begin.
It is on this evolving, history-laden stage that Rutherfurd sets his cast in motion. The main narrative traces the intertwining fates of three families: the aristocratic De Cygnes, the bourgeois Blanchards, and the working-class Le Sourds. Also important to the primary thread, which runs from 1875 to 1968, are the Gascon brothers: Thomas and Luc.
Thomas is the honest labourer, who gets his start working for Eiffel on the construction of the Statue of Liberty. Luc is the scoundrel, and his underworld deal-making will have fateful consequences, for good and ill, for the other characters.
Rutherfurd quickly establishes links among the families. The radical Jacques Le Sourd vows, from childhood, to kill Roland de Cygne to avenge his father, a Communard executed by the elder de Cygne.
The conservative Roland holds tightly to the traditions and prejudices of the nobility, only to find them eroded by the forces of a rapidly changing world. One of those forces of change is Marie Blanchard, who catches the eye of Roland, and who will not be satisfied with the ornamental existence lived by many women of her class.
Rutherfurd interrupts the developing saga with individual chapters that hop back to various points in history: to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of the Huguenots, to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles, to the Terror in 1794, and so on. The common thread in almost all of these episodes is the de Cygne family.
We follow them across Rutherfurd's centuries-spanning web of chance events that finally come together with pleasing symmetry in Nazi-occupied Paris.
But for all the dramatic history that Rutherfurd references, he resolutely keeps his characters at the margins. They are aware of great events, but are never at the centre of them. As a result, the massacres, revolutions, wars and upheavals are things that readers are told about, rather than shown.
When they are not engaged in uncertain courtships, the characters spend a fair bit of time waiting for something to happen, and discussing events in great reams of expository dialogue. Scenes with foreign (usually American) visitors become pretexts for guided tours of the likes of Giverny or Versailles.
The characters thus become more functional than convincing, even though they are pleasant company. Often, their primary roles are the transmission of information to the reader, a means of shifting the history lessons from narration to dialogue, and breaking them up with romantic and domestic turmoil.
The sense that great things are occurring perpetually over the horizon, rather than here and now, gives the novel a certain stillness, at least until the genuinely suspenseful climax, but the story is never dull.
So readers approaching Paris in the hopes of encountering a tempestuous familial saga will likely be disappointed. But they would also be missing the point, because the true protagonist is the city of Paris itself.
Here, Rutherfurd shines. His Paris is by turns mercurial and frustrating, dangerous and welcoming, romantic and seedy, or all of these things at once. He uses the Eiffel Tower as the defining image for the city, portraying a creation flexible and strong, masculine and feminine.
Furthermore, the Impressionists are the filter for his authorial gaze, and his chapters become so many daubs of paint on his canvas. The Paris of Paris, then, is a collection of points in time that, in their fragmentary nature, convey the richness of the full picture.
University of Manitoba English and film instructor David Annandale's latest novel is The Death of Antagonis. He spent much of his youth in Paris and returns whenever he can.
By Edward Rutherfurd
Doubleday, 832 pages, $38
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 j10
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