Paris The Secret History

Andrew Hussey

Bloomsbury USA




512 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy

In this thorough account of two thousand years of the Parisian counterculture, Andrew Hussey reveals the story of the City of Light from the point of view of the Parisians themselves: the working classes and the criminals, the existentialists and insurrectionists, the street urchins and artists, the propagandists and prostitutes. Paris: The Secret History ranges across centuries and through wars, revolution, starvation, and terror just as it celebrates the art, beauty, romance, and literature that have made Paris the world's most beloved city.

"In its long and vast history," writes Hussey, "Paris has been variously represented as a prison, a paradise and a vision of hell. It has also been characterized as a beautiful woman, a sorceress and a demon." As Hussey shows in this remarkable book, sometimes literature really is an accurate reflection of daily life: Paris is indeed a city of contradictions. Yes, the history of Paris is one of princes and palaces, but Paris is the city where, after centuries of bloody conflict, the people's revolution was invented. Hussey introduces us to the myriad Parisians who have left their marks on the city: the classes dangereuses, parigot (working classes), trublions (disturbers of the peace), and petites gens (ordinary people). He walks readers past the tourist attractions and through a maze of secret adventures and hidden meanings. Above all, Paris is a history book written to be used; it can be taken on the metro, to a bar, or into the heart of the labyrinth itself. Erudite and engaging, this is a vivid portrait of an endlessly fascinating city and culture.


Praise for Paris

"Addictively readable and richly detailed, the book recounts 'the story of Paris from the point of view of . . . marginal and subversive elements in the city,' those 'insurrectionists, vagabonds, immigrants, sexual outsiders, criminals . . . whose experiences contradict and oppose official history.' For Hussey, a biographer of the Situationist thinker Guy Debord, these elements make up an essential part of the Parisian landscape. Following the poet Jean de Boschère, he emphasizes the 'endless play of polarities—shadow and light, past and present'—that give the city not just its charm, but its edge. Such an approach comes as a welcome corrective to the 'cliché and commodity' that, Hussey rightly notes, mark most contemporary representations of Paris: 'The Eiffel Tower, the Sacré-Coeur, Notre-Dame are all part of a global visual culture, a Disneyfied baby language that distorts and destroys real meaning.' This book seeks to restore 'real history' by replacing 'the kitsch tourist version of the city' with far grittier imagery."—Caroline Weber, The New York Times Book Review

"In the closing pages of Paris: The Secret History, Andrew Hussey notes, 'As violence and terror dominated the streets, sex and love somehow still remained central to the ethos and mythology of Paris.' As it happens, he is referring to the mid-1990's, but the description could apply to almost any period in the last 500 years. Paris, Mr. Hussey amply demonstrates, has always been a city of darkness as well as light . . . This book is a lengthy reminder that urban history is about artisans, criminals, conspirators, prostitutes, priests, immigrants, students and intellectuals no less than emperors, kings and presidents."—Alan Riding, The New York Times

"Hussey highlights the ‘marginal and subversive' in this entertaining cultural history. Chronicling the city's development ‘in space, in time and on the street,' he pays keen attention to traces of the past that persist in the landscape of the present, and delights in detailing the ‘hustlers, whores and heretics' who fuel the beguiling chaos he portrays as endemic to the city . . . through his focus on ordinary inhabitants he manages, without being tendentious, to find unconventional perspectives on familiar Paris institutions and sights."The New Yorker

"A compelling history of the city on the Seine. Hussey observes that once humans arrived in Europe, the site on the Seine appears to have been continuously occupied. He discusses the Romans and their predecessors (Julian was the first to call the place ‘Paris,' for the Parisii—of Celtic origin—who once lived there) and takes us through centuries of ensuing history in entertaining and enlightening fashion. All the familiar names are here: Clovis, Sainte Genevieve, Charlemagne, Abelard and Heloise, the Charleses and Francises and Henris and Louises (Louis XVI was, says Hussey, ‘a man without qualities' with a ‘silly Austrian wife'), Napoleon, de Gaulle. And countless artists, novelists, poets, playwrights, philosophers and prostitutes. Hussey sees the ancient conflict between ideas and desires as key to understanding the city. He guides us through important French poetry, novels, films, music—but also along the rivers of blood running in the streets in just about every century. He examines the long history of North Africans, Jews and other immigrants to the city. He wonders at the foul collaborations of many Parisians with the Nazis. Throughout, he endeavors mightily to focus on ordinary life, but he spends much time recalling the city's cultural history, as well—e.g., the building of Notre Dame, the arrival of the railway and Metro. An immensely readable, richly detailed and sometimes disturbing chronicle that explores much of the darkness in the City of Lights."Kirkus Reviews

"In this impressive, fascinating, and highly readable work of cultural history, Hussey traces the history of Paris in chronological fashion through the lens of the ‘underclass,' i.e., what the 19th century called the ‘dangerous classes'—insurrectionists, day laborers, criminals, gypsies, prostitutes—and the ‘bawdy and rough' areas they called home. He dispels certain popular myths, showing that there has never been any such thing as a ‘typical' Parisian and that for its first 1000 years Paris was not a great or beautiful city. These two themes shape his history. Though Hussey eschews the salons of the Enlightenment, he nonetheless draws connections between ‘high' and ‘low' Paris, demonstrating how insurrectionary hatred and bitterness developed in the lower depths. His familiar stories of the 1789 Revolution, the reconstruction activities of Haussmann, and the passions of the Commune are enriched by his argument that palpable class and geographic divisions became a powerful psychological factor driving such events. This is a timely book, for Hussey observes that Paris is still being shaped by new arrivals who are playing a role in remaking the city yet again. Recommended for academic collections."—Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell College, New Jersey, Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Andrew Hussey

  • Andrew Hussey is a cultural historian and biographer. His acclaimed biography of Guy Debord was published in 2001. He is the head of French and Comparative Literature at the University of London Institute in Paris.

  • Andrew Hussey