Biography of a River

Book review: The Seine, by Elaine Sciolino (Amazon / Book Depository)

I overcame anxiety and loneliness and moved forward in my life, like the Seine in its course. The river allowed me to begin a journey of discovery—of Paris, of the French people, of myself. Its energy pumped deep into my veins; its light gave me strength.
“Everything is going to be okay,” I said to myself.
And over time, it was.

By the time this book was released, I was feeling less enthusiastic because I’d read one of the author’s previous titles, The Only Street in Paris, and felt so-so about it. I lost some of the utter excitement I had for this one when I first heard about it.

But I’m glad I read it anyway, because The Seine, former New York Times Paris bureau chief Elaine Sciolino’s history, travelogue, and cultural study of France’s most famous river, is a treasure: funny, informative, heartfelt, and transportive.

Sciolino begins with some brief background about her own connection to the river, and it sets the format taken throughout these chapters, each one exploring a different facet of the Seine’s history and importance to various regions, professions, ideas, and people. Because I didn’t always enjoy her narration in the other book, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I did here. Sciolino arrived in Paris in 1978, “with no sources, no lovers, no family, no friends, no mission except to start fresh in a city all the world loves.”

She was 28 and newly divorced, her ex had quickly remarried, and embracing this new freedom to figure out who she was again, she “recounted the story of our breakup over and over until it became as smooth and harmless as a stone worn down by the sea.” This softly poetic tone is the one she takes when writing elements of memoir into this story; it works perfectly and always allows the focus to be on larger experience. I can’t emphasize enough how fitting and unobtrusive it was.

In exploring the Seine’s history, she goes on lots of boating adventures, like with the Sequana Association of rowers, who restore hundred-year-old boats made out of thin, fragile wood. Taking to the river on these flimsy things seems pretty daring, and we meet the people involved in the restoration work and see what traveling on one is like. This chapter was a perfect example of where Sciolino is at her best: she takes the reader with a panning camera-like view to a present location and then layers history onto it: architectural, cultural, literary, political. It’s a brilliant tying together of time and history and the current day.

Her other boating expeditions include a ride with “guardians of the peace” — police divers who she accompanies on a “training and surveillance mission” and a ride-along with the River Brigade for an emergency call, where the divers free a stuck tugboat on a windy day. “Just like Miami Vice, no?” a brigadier asks her. (The brigadiers are apparently big fans.) The interactions of the French with visitors and expats, and especially the French-American connection, is a big one explored throughout, from the lighter moments like this to the more meaningful. I never knew that a smaller Statue of Liberty also stands along the Seine in Paris, a gift from the American expat community.

There’s a look at the connection of sex and romance to the river, which boils down to: “Sex on the Seine sounds better in theory than in practice.” The cat-sized rats are mood killers, apparently. In this chapter she also examines threats and harassment, and of course the role of romance in Paris’s bridges and reputation.

On a flip side she looks at the role of death, as the river has drawn suicides but also poured meaning back into others’ lives. This chapter, “The Unknown Woman of the Seine,” is one of the book’s best. “Novelists have captured the magnificent contradiction of the Seine as a place that lures you to death but then redeems itself and saves you from its darkness, ” she observes, but also quotes those who view it as a peaceful final resting place, referencing the “lattice-worked Pont Mirabeau, the subject of one of France’s most famous poems, “Le Pont Mirabeau” by Guillaume Apollinaire… [with] a section about how love “goes by as water to the sea.” The poem conveys a sense of calm, ending: “Let night come on bells end the day / The days go by me still I stay.”

She also covers the roles of art, filmmaking, and photography, looking at some of the Seine’s appearances in each, and exploring the significance of specific views as backdrops. Or its history-making roles: “Among the first daguerreotypes to be publicly displayed were images of the Seine starring the Pont Neuf and the Île de la Cité.”

Here’s the painter Richard Overstreet on his passion for photographing the Seine’s bridges:

“The bridges came alive for me,” he said. “What got to me, really, was their beauty, their historic personalities, their character. They became the perfect artist’s model, still and constantly vibrant, stretched out in perfect repose across the Seine.”

The book closes with a look at how the Seine helped save Notre Dame, when the world’s most famous cathedral burned on April 15, 2019. Sciolino points out that the river helped build it, with barges carrying its materials from all around France. She quotes Jean-Claude Gallet, commander of the firefighters brigade of Paris: “Then, right in front of us, we had the Seine. It was as if the Seine were human. The Seine was an ally, but more than an ally. She was a serene, tranquil force supporting us against the chaos of the flames. It all sounds a bit mystical, but the Seine came to our rescue.”

This is an immense strength of this book, to show in myriad different ways what this river has meant and still means to so many different people. Exploring Paris, but also along its entire 483 miles throughout France, from the source to where it flows into the sea, Sciolino shows its personality, value, and facets of its history, major and minor. It’s not only fascinating but touching, impossible not to connect with all those who draw inspiration and livelihoods from it now and have done for a long time. The rich prose and gorgeous photos make this entertaining, well-rounded history even more enchanting. 4.5/5

Julien Green, in The Strange River, a novel of sadness and loss published in French in 1932, gives a human voice to the Seine. “I am the road running through Paris,” says the river. “I have carried off many images since you were a child and reflected many clouds. I am changeable, but as people are. . . . We have something in common, you everlasting passersby and I, the fleeing water, which is that we never go back: your time is my space.”

The Seine: The River That Made Paris
by Elaine Sciolino
published October 29, 2019 by W.W. Norton 

Amazon / Book Depository


13 thoughts on “Biography of a River

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  1. Great review, this sounds really interesting! I’m usually not into books about nature or specific places, but the way Sciolino uses the Siene to talk about history and culture sounds like a fascinating blend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nature writing was the most minor part of it, I’d say. It was much more focused on history, mythology, culture, archaeology, etc. It’s one of those I’d recommend to anyone, it ends up being interesting in ways you wouldn’t expect!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That sounds great! I actually haven’t read much about Paris, perhaps I will add this to my TBR! I don’t think I’ll get to it in any hurry, but I do like to read from around the world, and this looks a great contender for France.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds fascinating and I’m sure you’re glad you persisted when her other book had put you off. I would have felt funny about starting it in that position, too. It usually only takes me one book to put me off an author (so fickle!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thankfully I’d pre-ordered it before reading the other book, otherwise I was so unenthusiastic that I think I wouldn’t have bothered with this one anytime soon! Maybe a good lesson in giving second chances? I tend to be like you, it only takes one book that I don’t love for me to hesitate with the author going forward. There are just too many books I want to read to keep trying styles that don’t click for me! This one is so worthwhile though, totally fascinating and beautifully done.

      Liked by 1 person

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