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on 4 August 2017
Graham Robb writes about France like noone else, with wit, erudition and an all-encompassing love of his subject. This book is a delightful and entertaining follow up to his previous gem "The Discovery of France".
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on 19 October 2013
I bought this book quite soon after having read the marvellous The Discovery of France, but then it took me quite a while before I actually began reading it. Was my timing perhaps not ideal? Was I more in the mood for 'The Discovery of France' at the time? I'm not sure, but sad to say I liked 'Parisians' not as much.

Whereas 'The Discovery of France' was a collection of stories about unfamiliar, often quirky individuals with often quite an impact on the future (in whatever field they happened to be working in) but somehow forgotten and/or largely ignored, in 'Parisians' several chapters are devoted to well-known people (Giscard d'Estaing, Sartre, Proust, ...), and although Robb describes little known things about these people, this somehow didn't fascinate me as much as the 'thoroughbred' nobodies of 'The Discovery of France'. Truth to say, the first chapters of 'Parisians' I found quite captivating, written in Robb's easy-going and slightly tongue-in-cheek style I had come to like so much. But about halfway through the book I found it harder and harder to keep an interest, partly perhaps because of Robb's experiments in style as well (there's a whole chapter written as a film scenario).

So all in all, not a 'bad' book or a complete waste of time by any means, but I thought 'The Discovery of France' a lot better.
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The scholarship is 'larvé' (below the surface). There's a little autobiography, charming enough, to entice us in. From then on, infuriatingly, we're kept teasingly in ignorance of the subjects of his novelised segments. I guessed the first. On the first page proper (page 11) we meet 'a poet'. We turn to the notes - to find there are none! Ca alors! A little on the hefty side for the 'fun read' this aspires to be - let's hope the paperback's more backpacker-friendly
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on 24 April 2010
I read the reviews in last Sunday's newspaper and shied off buying this book in favour of Hazan's book The Invention of Paris. I was really put off by the Hazan book as the maps are non existant or poor sketches and with all the names of the streets flying round at odd angles to the descriptions on any page I was totally confused - even though I used to live in Paris! And so I went back and bought Robb's book. Thank goodness. Here is something I can read and enjoy. The nuggets of history are beautifully framed, paced and recounted as if to a friend. Thank you for another delightful book - I should not have lost faith and should have bought Parisians first!
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on 20 April 2010
I was hooked on Parisians from the first page, and found it difficult to drag myself away from the many amazing true stories from the history of this marvellous city portrayed in its pages. Graham Robb uses a style of writing which gradually places a story together,keeping the reader ever so slightly in the dark and leading him/her on, so that quite often the twist of the tale does not become apparent until the final page of the chapter (see the true story of the Count of Monte Cristo, for example). The tale of the alchemists, the tableaux in Notre Dame, and the splitting of the atom was particularly intriguing, although I had to read it twice in order to appreciate all the nuances. The only chapter I found totally baffling concerned Juliette Greco; so perhaps I'll have to read it a couple more times!
I'm looking forward to reading more of this author.
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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.
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on 21 January 2014
Such a sad letdown after his gripping 'Discovery of France', Graham Robb has produced a book which stumbles along, repeating many rather obvious facts about famous Frenchpersons in a slightly fey 'guess who this person is' style that is simply frustrating. I don't want history as regurgitated pap, I want to hear new and intriguing facts. None were forthcoming and eventually I gave up hope of reading anything either new or entertaining. I bought this as an ebook, didn't finish it (unlike his first book, which I have re-read,and would recommend to everyone) and have deleted it from my kindle.
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on 3 May 2010
Robb is rapidly establishing himself as the 'must-read' writer on France and the French. His latest book certainly merits the glowing criticisms it has received in the literary press: it is quirky, infornative and entertaining - what more can one ask of popular history? My one minor quibble is the rather misleading title in that it is only a partial history, starting as it does in the late 18th century. Let us hope that the earlier history is in the pipeline!
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on 5 March 2014
I like others bought this on the strength of having read and enjoyed The Making of France.
The style of writing which varies from anecdotal to factual confused me at first.
That being said it was full of information, which whilst not necessarily applicable to todays Paris makes for interesting reading if you have been or intend going there.
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on 6 November 2010
I absolutely adored 'The Discovery of France' (see my review) and was therefore so keen to read this book that I didn't wait for the paperback to come out. First mistake: the hardback is heavy and cumbersome.
But Robb's writing style in this book is likewise heavy and cumbersome. Moreover, he uses that tiresome intellectual device of keeping you in (irritated) suspense before he lets you know who he's talking about, by which time you've lost the plot.
I'm only halfway through the book at present. I'm not going to give up, because when you persist there is a lot of interesting stuff here. But I shall think long and hard before buying a third book by this author.
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