Reviewer’s Choice: Twentieth Century Paris (1900-1950) – A Literary Guide for Travellers by Marie-José Gransard

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Review by Karen Langley

The City of Light has always attracted creative people; writers, artists and performers have flocked there over the centuries, as have all manner of misfits, finding a home in a place which welcomes all and tolerates more than most cities. However, the early part of the 20th century saw a particularly rich flourishing of talent, with a wide range of humanity migrating there from all parts of the world; dancers, authors, poets, painters and musicians, all found Paris a place where they could escape from the restrictions and prejudices of their home countries, living and working as they wished in the most romantic city in the world. Twentieth Century Paris explores the impressive list of names of those who passed through the city between 1900 and 1950 – and it’s a fascinating read.

As its subtitle makes clear, the book is a ‘literary guide’ to the Paris of the period, and as a resource it’s exemplary. Gransard themes her chapters, with titles such as ‘Gay Paree’ and ‘Flappers and Amazons’ , so that she can explore the connections between the Parisian visitors. So for example, in ‘The Lost Generation’, she follows writers like Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway, whose experience of the city is very different from those featured in the chapter ‘Down and Out’. Much of how you find the place will depend on your finances, as is clear from the experience of George Orwell, for example. And if you’re a Jean Rhys, you’ll again be existing on the breadline, dependent on handouts from friends.

As I mentioned, Paris has always been a tolerant city, and so Gransard covers the immigrant experience, with writers like James Baldwin finding it a place where they can exist without harrassment and racism. Whether the city is still the same nowadays is another matter, but in the period studied here, a person of colour like Josephine Baker could become a celebrity and have a glittering career, whereas in somewhere like the southern states of American she would have had to deal with the most appalling bigotry. 

Other chapters explore gender and sexuality; Paris, with its decadent history, was a place where those who did not conform to the norms could live safely, and writers from Proust to Baldwin flourished there. Transgressive women, too, decamped abroad, like Radclyffe Hall; chastised and mocked in Britain, she could be feted in Paris. And Gertrude Stein lived happily with her partner Alice B. Toklas, creating an artistic salon like no other. The book is incredibly wide-ranging, drawing in exiles like Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, and reaching back to authors like Baudelaire who, although he lived in Paris prior to the time period covered, still exerted a strong influence on the city and those who visited it. 

Twentieth Century Paris is stuffed full of fascinating information about the denizens of Paris during the first half of the century; whether passing through briefly, or making their homes there, they were creators of art and literature who had a massive impact of the culture of the time, nurtured by the freedom experienced in the city. It’s worth remembering, however, that the book is a guide and so perhaps best digested in smaller sections rather than reading all in one go. Where it excels, however, is in teasing out the connections between the various creatives and this element was particularly intriguing. Because of Grandard’s theming of the chapters, this did mean that certain characters made repeat appearances, but the book was even more interesting because of that.

As well as the main body of the text, the book also comes with four appendices, taking in French expressions, locations, a chronology and further reading. All of this will be ideal for any reader of the book who plans to visit Paris (when this kind of thing is again possible) to explore the sites. Twentieth Century Paris also contains a number of illustrations and maps, so it really is the perfect guidebook. It would perhaps have been nice to see some photos of the various denizens of Paris who feature in the book, as the illustrations are all of the locales they haunted; but then, this is a book which is as much about places as people. And if you have any interest in discovering just who was spending time in the City of Light during a most fascinating period of time, Twentieth Century Paris is just the book for you!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and would love to time travel back to 20th century Paris!

Harriet previously reviewed ‘Venice’ by the same author in this series for Shiny – click HERE.

Marie-José Gransard, Twentieth Century Paris (1900-1950) – A Literary Guide for Travellers (Tauris Parke, 2020). 978-0755601752 352pp., hardback.

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Comments

  1. For those who participate in the annual “Paris in July” reading event, this would be an ideal pick for this coming summer!

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