Haussmann: Paris, over-ornamental

September 30, 2001|By A. J. Sherman | By A. J. Sherman,Special to the Sun

Haussmann, or the Distinction, by Paul LaFarge. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 379 pages. $24.

Any reader who has visited Paris, or seen photographs of its broad, tree-lined boulevards, radiating strategically from one great railroad station to another, will know the work of Baron Haussmann, the Robert Moses of his time. Between 1853 and 1870, with ferocious energy and irresistible political will, he transformed a medieval maze of dark small streets into the City of Light we know today. Equally notable, though for the most part invisible, was Haussmann's titanic engineering and public health triumph, the building of the Paris sewers. Both the brilliant surface light and the dark watery depths of Paris play a role in this ambitious fantastic novel, deliberately reminiscent of Borges, if not Balzac.

Obviously at home in the 19th century he has chosen as his setting, Paul LaFarge presents us Baron Haussmann as a middle-aged man, immensely accomplished and driven by vast ambition, yet vulnerable to the charms of a beautiful young foundling, a child of the old Paris, who is deliberately cast in his path by a friend and colleague, the dissolute and sinister demolition expert de Fonce, who enriched himself by selling architectural remnants of the buildings he destroyed on Haussmann's orders. The evolution of what becomes a triangular affair, conducted with a secrecy constantly threatened by a relentless avenging journalist, makes for absorbing reading, especially when played out against the lavishly described background of the autocratic and corrupt Second Empire.

We come to know Madeleine, the barely post-nymphet object of desire, from her earliest days in a convent to which she is consigned after nearly suffering an anonymous death by drowning; her wild feline grace is quite plausible, as is the passion she arouses in the otherwise impeccably rational and self-disciplined Haussmann, for whose lonely dedicated toil and grand vision we come to feel a certain sympathy. If other characters are more shadowy, several are well drawn and believable despite their baroque punning names and sometimes extravagant behavior.

And yet. The author, whose second deliberately mysterious novel this is, cannot resist excess, piling on thick rococo description that occludes the narrative, calls attention to itself and is ultimately numbing: at one of Haussmann's balls "the light from torches, gas jets, chandeliers, sconces, and candles is reflected from nearly three thousand bald pates, half again as many lorgnettes, not a few glass eyes and of course the gold and silver noses of syphilitics." Or, at the Opera one night, "white fans rustled like pigeons in rut; innuendoes fluttered over the diminuendos and then sank again to pigeonlike cooing." He also has a habit of addressing the reader with a series of arch asides, winks and nudges that remind one of a tiresome dinner companion who needs to make quite sure we understand every faintly naughty anecdote, each reference to historical events or specific places.

Paul LaFarge writes, in short, like a clever undergraduate who still feels compelled to impress; on the evidence here, he needn't strain so hard. He has fine historical imagination coupled with considerable narrative gifts: he might try to permit both a somewhat less self-conscious, more natural expression, and trust discerning readers to understand his intentions.

A. J. Sherman, a foundation consultant who lives in Vermont, has published both fiction and nonfiction. His latest book is Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948.

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