This amazing novel, which I'd give six stars to if I could, tells of the life of a Russian emigre taxi driver in pre-WWII Paris, where he sees the same foul underbelly of the city as did Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, but describes it with the beautiful prose of a Nabokov. The contrast is fascinating.
Nocturnal Paris is the real subject of the novel, with its lights and loneliness. The characters range from an alcoholic philosopher and aged courtesan to a former street prostitute and factory worker. The main character is a man of high culture but no money and no way to get out of his life as a taxi driver. He's tried everything else and knows that even if he quit driving, he'd have to come back for the money. The characters come into his cab in a stream of people looking for a way out of their loneliness. The other major setting is at a small cafe in a down-and-out part of Paris where we see other people trying to make a living.
The narrator is accepting of the imperfections of his fellow night dwellers, but sometimes his underlying sense of futility shows through. For example, he tries not to get involved with the problems of the people around him because he feels it won't make any difference. And yet, there's something very attractive about the narrator. One understands why people are always trying to get his attention and his help. One character says of the narrator: "Someone who I know and who's not insane, what joy!" (113) Unlike Bickle, the narrator never does go insane, although plenty of people do around him.
The sense we get of nighttime Paris is so real as to be almost overwhelming. This is a true city of the plain, ever darkening and further spreading. Although the lives of the characters are by and large hopeless, the writing is so beautiful that it creates a sense of driving through an ever-changing, dirty, transcendent Paris.