By John Baxter. Harper Perennial, 2011, 298 pp.
“After eating and sex, walking is Paris’s preferred activity,” says John Baxter, an Australian writer married to a Frenchwoman who has lived in Paris for more than 20 years and gives “literary walking tours” of the city. In The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, he treats readers to a walking tour.
Baxter became a guide almost by chance, replacing a boring guide in the Paris Literary Seminar and proving so successful that he continued on his own. His popularity as a guide is easy to understand. He has a talent for combining interesting information with entertaining anecdotes, enabling listeners—or readers—to feel that they are at once learning and knowing, initiates, already insiders.
Baxter’s short chapters move breezily along, drawing upon personal experience, history, and visualization as he visits various parts of the city. He comments on the art of walking—flanerie—describing his own discovery of its rewards after living in Los Angeles, where no one walks. Individual cities, he says, make their own demands on the flaneur. Walking in New York, Baxter says, he looks up. In London, he looks around. “Paris,” he says, requires “not only a different way of walking but a different way of looking.”
I enjoyed Baxter’s various excursions, especially his trip to the catacombs and his exploration of the Cour du Commerce, where the French Revolution took shape, and I appreciated his cultural insight. I was disappointed, though, that the literary aspect of the tour focused so heavily on the expat writers in the 20s—so much Hemingway! This is well-worn territory, and I would have liked to hear more about French writers.
For all its conversational style, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World offers a good deal of information. One of the book’s main virtues is how manageable the author makes Paris seem, while at the same time doing justice to the complexity and historical depth of the city.