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This review is from: Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (Paperback)
Graham Robb is an Englishman who loves his France, and knows it well. I first read his The Discovery of France whose title begs the question: But wasn't it always just there? It was Frenchman (and the other European nationalities that "discovered" all those other places on the globe. Or, so they claimed. Robb convinced me that France too, was also "discovered," in terms of a concept, as well as a nation, and if memory serves me correctly, I retain the factoid that less than half the inhabitants of "the Hexagon," (Metropolitan France) spoke French sometime in the early 19th century. Robb acquired his French erudition a number of ways, with a most appealing one being riding a bike around the countryside, every chance he got. Thus, when I saw this work I knew it was a "must" read, and found it even more impressive that "Discovery."
It is a series of 20 vignettes, all, as the title would have it, concerning Parisians, or those who did some serious passing through. Robb's style varied among the vignettes, but one technique he used a few times I found impressive. Who is he talking about? He uses pronouns to tell the story, and drops a few hints as to the identity of the person along the way. In the first vignette, entitled "One Night at the Palais-Royal" which, regrettably, I have only known as a Metro stop, concerns Napoleon losing his virginity at the age of 18, thanks to some professional assistance. Only a couple pages before the end, when Robb mentioned his work on Corsica, did I suspect it was Napoleon. The one technique I thought was not working was the screenplay "Lovers of Saint-Germain-des-Prés." But I learned of Juliette Greco, a singer still with us at 87, her relationship with Miles Davis, and how she had been called "the muse of existentialism." The Café de Flore, and Hotel La Louisiane were scripted in, and resonated to one who has been accused of having his mouth stuffed full of Sartre (but only in my wild and crazy youth.)
As my subject title indicates, it is a panoramic view of Paris, aptly conveyed by the cover: the famous, and the not so famous. "The Man Who Saved Paris" concerns the engineer, Charles-Axel Guillaumot, who in the late 1700's, resolved the subsidence problems in the city (some were rather dramatic) since the city was built, rather haphazardly, on old quarries and mines. There was the story of Vidocq, a criminal who became the head cop at the Surete, and still played both sides. Charles Marville was the first photographer of Paris, preceding the better known Eugene Atget by 30 years. Robb traces the photographic history of the square, Saint-Andres-des-Arts, not far from where Boul Mich hits the Seine. Baudelaire and Jack Kerouac were one-time residents. The author also tells the story of Henry Munger, who wrote "La Vie de Bohemie," and his muse, a 25 year old "flower girl." "The Notre-Dame Equation" was a Pychonesque romp, featuring an intriguing mixture of religious symbolism at Notre Dame cathedral, obscure alchemist tracks, and some very hard science from the Curies, and the atomic bomb. Whew!
There are a couple of stories about the Nazi occupation, including the deportation of Jews through Drancy, and another on Hitler's one and only visit to France, before there was even a ceasefire. Did DeGaulle fake an assassination attempt on himself immediately after the Nazi occupation is one intriguing question raised in another story, and there seems to be no question that Mitterrand DID fake one against himself, in 1962, the subject of yet another story. The story of the soixante-huitards, the student revolt of 1968 is also deftly handled in another vignette. Literature also provides the basis for stories on Madame Zola and Marcel Proust. The latter once said that he did not write novels that could be read "between one (Metro) station and the next." A bit of British understatement, that. Then Robb describes how Metro riders would be so engrossed in his novels that they would miss their Metro stop. Could that have been possible in the pre-Twitter age?
The most heartbreaking was the one that touched me personally, and is entitled "Sarko, Bouna, and Zyed." It concerns life in the "banlieue" the suburbs that ring Paris with dreadful high-rise where so many immigrants are "stored." The latter names in the title were immigrant kids, with their heads full of images of Zidane and Thierry Henry, coming home from soccer, taking a short-cut, chased by the police, and sought refuge in an electrical high-tension substation where they electrocuted themselves, setting off riots that rocked France. Sarko is Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of Interior, and later, for five years, the President of France. He went to the banlieue, and used THAT word, a word that I had learned only five years earlier. My daughter, age 15 at the time, in a boarding school at Sophia Antipolis, was attacked, along with some fellow students, in a "town v. gown" sort of affair. She later had to testify in Court concerning the incident. She told me on the phone that the perpetrators were the "racaille." A word I had to look up, and stored away, with a fair translation being "scum." The same explosive word Sarko used, and may have earned him the Presidency. Robb tells the story well.
More lightheartedly, for a bicyclist, he ends with a story about "cols" (passes through the mountains or hills), and his efforts to have the Club of 100 Cols have its "Ethics, Reflection and Proposal Committee" recognize a "col" in Paris. All the stories come with an impressive bibliography, that Robb has mastered well. He has also written several biographies, on Balzac, Hugo, Mallarme, and Rimbaud that now appear must reads. 6-stars for this essential work for any Francophile.