Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

A magnificent stroll through Parisian lives.

Parisians By Graham Robb W.W. Norton 476 pp., $28.95

There is no bad way to see Paris, but if there were, it would be this: Run down a list. The Louvre, the Marais, Pont des Arts, Luxembourg Gardens, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Bastille (skip that one, there’s nothing there), Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, Pantheon, Bois de Boulogne, Invalides, Champs Élysées. Not only will you wear yourself out, you lose the point of the city, which is the unexpected.

Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb is about people: why they come to Paris, what they see, how they adapt, what they leave behind. Some have famous faces: Napoleon as a young artillery lieutenant “afraid of nothing except embarrassment”; Marie Antoinette, escaping from the guillotine if only she’d had a map; Marcel Proust, almost willing to get out of bed to see the Metro, Hitler taking in the sights, Madame Zola making note of her lionized husband’s secret, second family; François Mitterrand and Charles de Gaulle staging fake assassination attempts; and so on.

“Parisians” also covers lesser knowns, like the inspector of quarries, Charles-Axel Guillaumot, who faced a catastrophic sinkhole on April 24, 1777, the first day of his new assignment. The work shoring up the city’s vast, ancient foundations gave his genius – “stifled and confined” – a project of heroic scope. “Eighty feet below the Latin Quarter, he knew the silent joy of a man who devotes himself, body and soul, to a single passion.” His was the biggest building project in all of Europe, but no one would live there or, it turns out, remember. History books for 200 years omitted him. Maligned and even jailed, he saved the city.

For centuries, Paris, like all great cities, has drawn people to it. Paris just draws more of them than any other: super-rich and penniless provincials, now from all over the earth; ousted tyrants and, later, the revolutionaries who ousted them; priesthoods of food, fashion, philosophy, language, and would-be rigorous thought; artists; writers; students; collectors; and a constant surge of tourists. The buildings and monuments, soft-lit at night like film stars “of a certain age,” are only the backdrop.

The soul of this city are its stories – and Robb has found a new, unexpected way to tell them: facts mined from obscure archives or careful observation – each told in a distinctive voice – and all, incredibly, true.

In a neat plot device, places reappear. The cobblestones of Paris, weapon of choice in the various insurrections that tore through the city over time, are, by the end of the book, on sale as souvenirs on eBay.

Don’t skip Robb’s satirical retelling of the May ’68 revolt, laced with jabs at French literary theory. (When you notice the narrative getting heavy and self-important, it’s a joke.) “In streets and boulevards that were already saturated with commercial signifiers, the revolt carved out its own niche, and proved that the market’s ability to commodify ideas as well as products had been drastically underexploited.” Yves Saint-Laurent dedicates his 1968 collection of duffel coats and fringed jackets to the students of May ’68.

Like the city itself, there’s no required beginning to this book, though it helps to read the introduction. You can pick up a story anywhere. Robb, whose opus already includes classics on French politics and culture, such as “The Discovery of France” (2008) and biographies of Balzac, Rimbaud, and Victor Hugo, aims here to “create a kind of mini-Human Comedy of Paris,” showing the history of the city through the experiences of its inhabitants.

“A tourist who follows an uncharted course like a train of thought, only later, after retracing the puzzle of streets on a map, recognizes how much knowledge can adhere to the accidental experience,” he writes.

In French, verbs for strolling or wandering don’t mean drift: They also can imply purpose and, often, close observation. The strolling through human narratives in this book is in that spirit. “Above all, [‘Parisians’] was written for the pleasure of thinking about Paris,” Robb writes. It succeeds brilliantly.

Gail Russell Chaddock is a Monitor correspondent.

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