Book Review: Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

By Graham Robb 

This was bought as a present for my good lady, who loves travel and history and who is always planning long weekends in Paris, our 'Paris Syndrome', therefore, had long been overcome when I picked up this book which I then became hooked on. 'Paris Syndrome', by the way,  affects a large number of tourists every year, mostly Japanese, for some reason. It appears to spring from the shock of the disparity between the popular image of Paris – of accordions, flowers and cobbled streets – and their subsequent exposure to the Banlieue at night. They do not know that, within our lifetimes, those cobble stones have been prised up and thrown in anger.

Price: £9:99
Publication Date: Picador (2010)
ISBN: 978-0330536233
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Graham Robb wrote a superb book about France two years ago, The Discovery of France, and now follows it up with an ingenious study of Paris since 1750. He has just about made sense of the history of the great city by confining it to a series of chronological character studies, casting light on celebrated or obscure moments. Most studies of places start from a geographical or a historical point. The author has focused on what really matters, the human beings who shaped, or who were occasionally defeated by, their city.

There are some famous episodes here, such as the Commune, the Terror, the Evènements – how easily Paris boils down its dramas into one-word labels with characteristic chic. With almost a novelist’s eye, however, the author prefers to take an oblique approach, focusing on the telling human detail. Many people before have told the story of Louis XVI’s and Marie Antoinette’s flight to Vincennes. How many have understood the significance of their getting lost as soon as they left their palace, that they had not only been perpetually immured from the city, but the city had no maps?

Post-war French politics is accounted for by an amazing tale of successive assassination attempts on de Gaulle and Mitterrand, some, perhaps all, staged by the apparent victim. We have already been prepared for the slippery connections between the Parisian underworld and official life by a superb chapter on Vidocq, the 19th-century master criminal turned corrupt head of the Sûreté. When he died, 11 separate women turned up bearing a will, each in their favour. Even so, Mitterrand’s shamelessness in staging a mock-assassination astonishes, as does the fact that his political career survived the episode at all. The account of the transport of the Jews from the Vel d’Hiv is heartrendingly good, and the author has some fun with the Soixante-huitards and their witty slogans: “Ici bientôt, de charmantes ruines”. It comes right up to date, with an angry account of the death, in the banlieues, of some immigrants running from the abusive French police, and Sarkozy’s unapologetic use of the word “racaille” , or “scum”, to describe them.

No doubt Graham Robb could have written a book twice as long as this one, without running the risk of repeating himself, and there is no shortage of subjects which must have been left out with some regret. Perhaps there is a whole book remaining to be written about visitors to Paris. And if I have one minuscule criticism of this marvellously entertaining, bouncingly energetic and original book, it is that Robb prefers the authentic, under-bellied Paris to the external one. The only tourist here is Adolf Hitler, shown on a hilariously surface-skimming tour of the conquered city in the company of Arno Breker and Albert Speer.