Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The years in France, especially Paris, known as the Belle Epoque (from the late 1800s up to World War I), are generally considered to be years filled with excessive joy, light, merriment, and practically endless festivity. We have this impression because of the extraordinary -- and I use that word in its truest sense -- and rather breathtaking achievements in all of the arts, which often reflected the leisure-time pursuits of both ordinary and wealthy Parisians. However, as many of us who are familiar with French history know, this image is a distorted one, only half true. Historian and critic Walter Benjamin may have referred to Paris as the "Capital of the Nineteenth Century" but the bright lights and merriment were all on the surface, masking enormous political turmoil and social injustices.

Last year a unique and insightful book on this topic was published by historian and writer Mary McAuliffe entitled Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011). It is my good fortune that Mary lives in New York, so I have had the pleasure of meeting her for coffee and Paris conversations several times (she also joined me on a panel to celebrate the publication of my Paris book at the 92nd Street Y/Tribeca). Mary holds a PhD in history and is the author of Paris Discovered: Explorations in the City of Light (Princeton Book Company, 2006), which grew out of her regular columns for the wonderful (but now sadly defunct) newsletter, Paris Notes.

I used the word 'unique' to describe Mary's book because thought it is a non-fiction work, it actually reads more like a novel. The chapters are arranged chronologically, which is logical for a book like this, but in each chapter we are introduced to the key personalities and events of the era often through excerpts from actual letters or diaries. I felt like I was a part of the personal lives of everyone, and by the time I finished the book I had a deeper understanding of the (real life) characters, even those I already knew a lot about.

Mary brilliantly juxtaposes the groundbreaking works in painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, architecture, and music with the collapse of the Second Empire, the Paris Commune, the Panama Canal scandal, turbulent clashes between the Republic and the Church, economic woes, nasty anti-Semitism, and the Dreyfus Affair. The struggles and events of these years have continued to influence French politics and society right up to the present day. As McAuliffe notes in her Introductory chapter, 'The Terrible Year (1870-1871),' "Unlike Americans, the French remember their history -- perhaps because they live so closely with tangible vestiges of their past. And if Belleville and Montmartre no longer summon up the images of danger and despair that they once did, then the simmering banlieues just beyond certainly do."

The Washington Independent Review of Books noted that, "McAuliffe paints with broad, majestic strokes a world that has been lost to us or perhaps never was." I highly recommend reading Dawn simultaneously with a book called Pleasures of Paris: Daumier to Picasso (David Godine, Publisher) which is actually the catalog for an exhibit of the same name that was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (5 June - 1 September, 1991). I saw this terrific exhibit when it traveled to the former IBM Gallery of Science and Art in New York (15 October - 28 December, 1991), and the catalog features color reproductions by a number of the artists highlighted in Mary's book, as well as many other illustrations and photographs. The initial chapter written by Barbara Stern Shapiro, associate curator, is an excellent overview of the period and deserves wide appreciation. She concludes it by noting that Paris suffered poverty, crime, and injustices, but when we think of the city in the second half of the 19th century we keep coming back to that image of "graces and joys." But, she writes, "it was a unique period of intoxication and excitement that could not be sustained and appropriately drew to a close with the first World War. We owe a debt to the astonishingly productive painters, printmakers, photographers, and illustrators who recorded this intense and legendary aspect of French life and who made Paris in this celebrated period the unrivaled world center for the arts." Reading these two books together is an unrivaled experience.

I caught up with Mary as she was finishing up her research on her new book with the dashing title of Clash of Crowns: William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, and Eleanor of Aquitaine - A Story of Bloodshed, Betrayal, and Revenge (also published by Rowman & Littlefield):

Q: When did you first become so interested in France and French history?
I do believe that my ears perked up at an early age when my mother spoke of her French grandmother, Juliette. Juliette was born in Geneva, Switzerland (her father was a jeweler and watchmaker), but the family came from Paris, and family legend has it that her grandfather was a good friend of Victor Hugo's and even went into exile with him. I've never been able to document that one, and I think it may be largely myth. But still, the story caught my attention—as did the quintessentially-French dessert, Ile Flottante, which my mother made for me once or twice, and which I loved. She got it from her mother, whom I assume got it from her mother—Juliette. I still order it on my first night back in Paris, every time!

Next step: My husband's work on the musical, "Les Miz," during its pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center (where he was then Director of Marketing), piqued my interest in Victor Hugo. This, as I explained in the Intro to my earlier book, "Paris Discovered," led me to track down all the sites I could find from Hugo's "Les Misérables" and "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame." A great introduction to Paris! Not long after, I learned that Paris once had walls—a series of them, in fact—and searching out the remnants took me and my husband into parts of Paris we might never have explored otherwise. One thing led to another, and eventually I found myself writing history and culture for Paris Notes for ten wonderful years. The walls of Paris also led me to you—and to inclusion of my article on the walls of Paris in your "Paris: The Collected Traveler."

Q: What was it specifically about the time period of the Belle Epoque that interested you to delve further into it?

A: Well, to begin with, it's such an incredibly rich period. But what really caught my attention for the particular span of years Dawn deals with (1871-1900) is that it begins with a triple disaster (the terrible Siege of Paris plus France's defeat at the hands of Bismrck's Germany plus the bloody Commune uprising), which left France's morale shattered and much of Paris in ruins. And yet, look at what happened in the short space of years that followed! The Impressionists, the Neo-Impressionists, Rodin, Debussy, Ravel, Bernhardt, Zola, Eiffel, Marie Curie, and so on and so on. The list of legendary characters and movements as a whole (especially the Impressionists), but little attention has been paid to the background against which these lives were lived and these achievements took place. We look back on this period as one blessed by a kind of explosion of creativity and assume that life must have been easy, a kind of bubble bath in pastel colors, but this was not the case. It was a difficult time, one of great political and economic uncertainty, and so you have the tremors that any creative person has as he or she ventures forth, coupled with the great uncertainty of the times. I wanted to view this as much as possible through the eyes of those who lived through these years, using their memoirs, diaries, correspondence. I purposefully chose a wide variety of individuals, from artists and musicians to politicians, hoteliers (Cesar Ritz), entrepreneurs (Ernest Cognacq), an anarchist (Louise Michel), and even a teenager (Julie Manet). No, I don't know of another book quite like this. Some readers have even said that it reads like a novel -- although I should emphasize that there is nothing fictional about it. The drama is real, not something that I have had to create. These three decades have a natural dramatic arc, starting with those triple disasters of 1870-71 and culminating in the shattering Dreyfus Affair.

Q: Of all the personalities, politicians, artists, and musicians highlighted in the book, do you have a fondness for some in particular?

A: I think I have fallen at least a little bit in love with each and every one of these people, although admittedly some more than others. I love Berthe Morisot and have ever since I saw an exhibition on her painting many years ago at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. I had never heard of her before this -- her work had pretty much disappeared into the shadows until quite recently -- and I was quite overcome by my "discovery." I still have the poster from that exhibition, framed and on our wall. I love her painting, and I love the qualities that shine through it -- her modesty, her courage, and her love. Her daughter, Julie Manet, is also enchanting. And then there is Pissarro, that gentle artist and generous friend, so much older than his colleagues, who lived in poverty for much of his long life. "The Americans can't get used to my painting," he wrote his eldest son in 1897, "which is too sad for them."

Q: You and I share a great fondness for the Musee Carnavalet, the Museum of the History of Paris, and I love that there are so many images from the museum featured in your book. The cover illustration, too, is from the Museum's collection -- how did you choose it?

A: Oh, yes -- the cover! I found it at the Carnavalet in an upstairs room, often closed, with a number of small items in a display case along one side. It's a very small painting, by the genre painter, Jean Beraud, and it was almost too easy to pass over. And yet something about it held me, and so I asked my husband to take a record shot (he does a lot of that for me). I soon decided that I definitely wanted it for an illustration, but it was my editor who immediately spotted it as a terrific cover (thank you, Susan!). It was only last May, just after Dawn was out, that my husband and I were once again in Paris and saw that the Carnavalet had chosen this same little painting for its banner. We were so excited and rushed into the museum's bookstore to show the manager and his assistant, who loved the connection and immediately said that they must have Dawn for sale there. (For the record, the book is for sale in the bookstore, but the banner is no longer up.)

Q: Your new book, just out, is obviously about an earlier and completely different time period than the Belle Epoque -- what inspired you to look backwards to the medieval era?

A: A castle. A remarkable castle, Chateau-Gaillard, just down the Seine from Paris in Les Andelys. A friend had suggested that we might find it interesting, and indeed we did. Richard Lionheart built it, and I wanted to find out everything I could about it. This led to an exploration of the borderlands between the English crown lands of Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, and Aquitaine. I had studied medieval history in graduate school and subsequently taught it, so it was not new to me. In fact, I have always loved it. And so I have thoroughly enjoyed following the trail of this intriguing subject wherever it has led me -- including back to the Vikings. Yes, William the Conqueror and Richard Lionheart were descended from Vikings! Oddly enough, Chateau-Gaillard is located only a few minutes down the Seine from Monet's peaceful garden at Giverny, and the banks of the River Epte, which Monet so frequently painted, bristled with fortifications eight centuries ago.

Q: Researching these books required extended stays in Paris and in France. Can you share some favorite experiences while compiling these books, as well as some of your favorite things to see and do in Paris?

A: I could write another book just on this! I love to wander in Paris's parks, or simply sit in them. We often visit the place des Vosges and the Luxembourg Gardens, and of course the tiny Square du Vert-Galant at the tip of the Ile de la Cite. We also enjoy Parc Monceau and, depending on whether we are in the neighborhood, Parc Montsouris and the Parc des Buttes Chaumont. We regularly check out the Parc Floral in the Bois de Vincennes and the nearby Lac Daumesnil (the Chateau de Vincennes is terrific, too -- be sure to vist, if you've never done so). And there are lots more! We obviously enjoy wandering through and around Paris, and on rainy days (yes, there are those), we head for the Musee Carnavalet (endlessly fascinating) or the Petit Palais (I love its architecture as well as the Guimard Art Nouveau room downstairs), among other destinations. Every part of Paris has its own special attractions, some of them little known, and we enjoy finding them. This also involves a fair amount of eating, which we rarely object to! Although I must say that breakfast has its own special place in our hearts. We have a neighborhood artisanal bakery with the most incredible baguettes. In the evening I love watching Parisians en route from work carrying home their baguettes for dinner and -- unable to resist -- nibbling at the crusty end as they walk.

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