a conversation with Alistair Horne      


Bold Type: Why France?

Alistair Horne: The short answer is that I was a foreign correspondent in Germany in the 50s. I used to go, quite often, between France and Germany following Dr. Adenauer when he was the Chancellor of Germany. In the course of doing this, I suddenly came to think the source of all the evil in the world in which I was brought up in was Franco-German conflict, endless wars. The First World War happened before I was born and I was in the Second World War briefly.

BT: Where were you?

AH: I was in school here in Millbrook. I joined up on Park Avenue at the British consulate in 1943, in the royal air force and went back to England. I didn't go back to France until the war was over, I was still in the army, and it was very sad and morale was terribly low. It was twenty years later that I started thinking about why it was we had had all these wars, all this started between the French and the Germans. So I had a great French friend and I asked. She was in Breendonk concentration camp with the resistance and she said if you really want to study the subject you should go to Verdun. It was the most terrible battle in French history and indeed in German history as well. And that was how I started and the first book I wrote was called The Price of Glory, which is about the Battle of Verdun in 1916 when in a small area not much bigger than Central Park, three quarters of a million men were killed in one year. That took me backwards to the siege of Paris in 1870 and in turn that took me forward to the 1940s. It is a sort of triptych three-volume collection. Then I laid down. I gave up. I got fed up with France for a while and I went off to Latin America to write about Allende in Chile 1971.

BT: Certainly a fascinating subject but you returned to France.

AH: When I came back my publisher, Harold Macmillan, who had been Prime Minister and when he retired he went back to the publishing house, called me and said, "you cannot write books on Latin America. No one wants to read books in England about Latin America, it's a dead subject. You must go back to writing about France, that's what you shine at." So I said well, do you have any ideas and he said, "Yes, when I was Prime Minister of England and I had to deal with de Gaulle who was President of France I always saw the shadow of the war in Algiers behind him." It fascinated me and he said, "So, why don't you write about it?" and I thought about it and I did. One almost always tends to get into things by mistake. I was then invited after this, to my amazement, to write Macmillan's official biography which took the best part of ten years. It was two volumes. Then I went back to write books on France and wrote a couple of books on Napoleon. I have dealt with a big part of French history.

BT: Do you look back on any of your books more favorably?

AH: I imagine what I would most like to be remembered by is, first, The Price of Glory and then secondly The Savage War of Peace which is about the Algerian War. They probably, certainly The Savage War of Peace, have very important overtones today. I have just done an update of the preface bringing it up to the relevance of Afghanistan and 9/11 for a reissue that was put out by Penguin.

BT: What sparked Seven Ages of Paris?

AH: I had kept a kind of box all the time I was working in France, over about 25 years, where I would put discards—notes and things about Paris that fascinated me. I always thought I would write about Paris one day. That was the genesis of it.

BT: A real box with real notes?

AH: Real box, real notes.

BT: A treasure box!

AH: I thought I would build this as something of a treasure box and also something of a rest. It turned out to be the hardest book I have ever written. There was so much material and I couldn't stop researching.

BT: Why do call the contents discards?

AH: This is an expression Churchill used. He talked about a discard box and these were things he had picked up during the war, speeches and so forth, which he put aside for his future history of the Second World War. It is a discard box in that sense.

BT: I didn't know Churchill made such plans.

AH: Well, there's a certain air of a mischief about it but I have no doubts. He was a professional writer and knew the value of the pen. And how little money he had himself.

BT: When you initially embarked on this project and sorted through the box, did a shape take form from your collection?

AH: It did and then I came up with the idea as a working title of Seven Ages of Paris and it stuck. I then had seven files that material went into. Critics in England had asked why I stopped in 1969. The short answer to that is it was seven ages and not eight ages. Secondly, I don't have the highest regard for what de Gaulle's successors did to Paris. It's been terribly wrecked since the 1970s by Giscard and Pompidou and particularly by that rascal Mitterand. He was always playing up to the gallery, the electorate, and he built what he called a people's opera house, at the Bastille. It's a disaster. It's all falling apart already and there's a big joke in France: What is the difference between the Bastille and the Titanic? In the Titanic, the orchestra played. They're always on strike in the Bastille. That's why I stopped then. There is a time when history becomes contemporary events. The tragedy of the book is that I promised it to Ash Green at Knopf three years ago and it was supposed to be about 200,000 words and it turned out to be 350,000 words so we had to cut 135,000 words.

BT: What did you remove?

AH: Fortunately, I had a wonderful editor in England who's a real star and we sat down together and he said I think you have to be absolutely ruthless and cut out everything which doesn't strictly relate to Paris. Everything that is general French history is out! That was the principle we adopted. Then I had to cut out a few good stories about Napoleon's love life and a bit about Josephine Baker and her love life and I hope I haven't lost too much of the spice, it was very sad and difficult.

BT: Well it doesn't read as if it's been cut up at all, it certainly flows apace. It is clear you have made choices about what area of history you will discuss at length and what is more quickly dispatched.

AH: It is very personal. I have been criticized that I cut the French Revolution. Someone said there are the same number of pages on Josephine Baker as on the French Revolution. I explain in the beginning, for heaven's sake, this is my book it's not your book, it's not some damn critic's book. It's my book and it's my choice. I think the French Revolution is terrible and ghastly and did nothing for Paris except destruction. Would you rather spend an evening with Josephine Baker or with Madame La Farge at the guillotine? I wouldn't have any doubt about that and I am quite unashamed and unrepentant.

BT: Speaking of the revolution, the people stood up, seized power to topple the government, and never benefited from their struggle.

AH: It's quite true. The great revolution of '89 was supposedly done in the name of the people and it wasn't the people at all, it was the bourgeoisie who came out tops out of it. It is the same with the successive revolutions of the nineteenth century.

BT: If the French cannot care for their own, what can sustain their empires?

AH: It doesn't really apply any more though there are factions of the French population which are underprivileged. Take the last time event in my book in 1968 when the students revolted and nearly overthrew de Gaulle. I thought they had every reason to revolt. Because the classrooms were so boring, miserable and wretched.

BT: And that was the most prestigious university there.

AH: It still is. The thing about France is that you get this constant waveform, like an electronic graph. It is constantly up and down and you reach a peak and then there is a disaster, there is authoritarianism versus revolution and it ends up somewhere in the middle. The French revolutions are not reformist, which is one of the differences between the French and the Anglo-Saxons. I think part of it goes back to the geography of Paris. Unlike New York, Washington or London, it has always been terribly exposed and there are a number of days when it has had foreign conquerors at its door so it is natural for France looking toward Paris as its center to go for an authoritarian and absolute ruler and then, when he is proved to be too authoritarian, too absolute, for things to go wrong and then to have a revolution boiling up from below. I think one of the things that makes Paris fascinating is it is never boring, there is always something seething away. A couple of years ago I was in Paris having a coffee outside the Louvre, suddenly there was a procession of strikers, and these were bankers, bankers on strike!

BT: Wasn't it in May '68 that the mint went on strike?

AH: Yes, that's right, I guess you can live without coins for a little while. One thing that makes it difficult about Paris separated from the general history of France is, really, Paris is France.

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    Photo credit: Jerry Bauer