Graham Robb must have had a wonderful time writing Parisians. I don’t mean to imply that it wasn’t a lot of work: this book is incredibly carefully researched. It’s subtitled “An Adventure History of Paris” and it consists of eighteen episodes (with a prologue and an epilogue) each of which focuses on one telling event in the city’s history. We get Napoleon losing his virginity; the debut of the straight play of La Vie de Bohème; Marcel Proust not taking the subway; assassination attempts on François Mitterand and Charles de Gaulle, and so on, right up to the riots in Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005. The book would have been good if Robb had simply written it straight. He has a novelist’s imagination, and though strict historians may balk at his lavish supply of speculative detail — for, after all, can we really know what the Palais-Royal smelled like in 1787? — I drank it all in.
But what makes The Parisians as entertaining as it is informative is Robb’s choice to assume the voices and forms he deems appropriate for each part. I have to admit to some annoyance with the screenplay format of the section about Juliette Gréco and the Existentialists, but that was more than redeemed for me by the account of May ’68 which Robb delivers in the form of an academic essay. On the new swimming pool at the University of Nanterre, he writes “On one level, it was a place where boys and girls could enact a visual exchange without implicating themselves in a contractual obligation. Swimwear exposed up to nine-tenths of the body, and packaged and commodified the remaining parts.” This chapter includes a discussion on the symbolic use, in 1968, of the famous French cobble stones, or pavés, as weapons. Since I’ve thought a great deal about this (is there not a French pastry called a pavé? Something like a scone?) I found that intensely gratifying.
The segment on the Occupation is narrated in part from the point of view of French children. The part called “Marcel in the Métro” mercifully does not attempt Proustian complexity but compares À la Recherche ... to other artifacts of modernity “with its gleaming inscrutability, the flawless circuitry of its sentences and its bewildering modes of efficiency…” The section called “Regression” (about the Commune and colonialism, among other things) is written more or less backwards.
Other chapters are written in a straightforward manner with all the grace one could hope for. Robb is generous, funny, and always looks for both the narrative impulse and the wider significance of each story he tells. I was enchanted by the chapter called “Files of the Sûreté” which summarizes, to the extent possible, the career of that eminent nineteenth-century criminal/policeman/detective/crook (that’s a chronological summary) Vidocq. The sources are as slippery as the subject.
Robb’s main point is that Paris, as a great city, is in constant flux. Its stories exist and vanish, as do its buildings and even its underpinnings. I can’t help wondering if this is true of all great cities, or if it isn’t an especially a Parisian characteristic?