With a novelist's eye

  • Article by: PATRICIA L. HAGEN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 15, 2010 - 2:34 PM

A history of Paris, told through a multitude of characters and in an array of styles.

Parisians by Graham Robb

Some writers fit seamlessly into established genres; others, like Graham Robb, must invent their own. The subtitle of "Parisians" ("An Adventure History of Paris") does only scant justice to the richness of the clever, quirky genre that Robb creates in this mosaic of a book, in which individual pieces, complete and delightful in themselves, absolutely dazzle as part of a larger whole.

"Parisians" is a distinctly nonlinear history of the city since 1750. The Big Events are all there -- the Terror, the Commune, the Occupation, the student revolt of 1968, even the suburban riots of 2005 -- as are many of the Big Personalities: Napoleon, Mme and M. Victor Hugo, Proust, Hitler, De Gaulle and Mitterand, Sartre and De Beauvoir and even Miles Davis. But Robb comes at each of these subjects (and many, many more) obliquely, through a dazzling variety of narrators and forms. The tale of the student revolt is presented as a course outline, with discussion questions and sample answers. Sartre and Miles Davis encounter each other in a screenplay set in the Café de Flore. The sections on Mme Zola and Proust are narrated in styles that wittily echo their subjects (and what a great touch it is to use Proust as witness to the great outburst of modernity signaled by the Metro, the telephone and even telephone broadcasts from the Opera).

"Parisians" is a collection of real human experiences in the city, but particularly in the case of the rich and famous, told from unusual perspectives. We see Marie Antoinette attempting to flee the city but getting lost a few yards from home -- helpless, because the city had no maps. We see naive Lt. Napoleon losing his virginity to a prostitute at the Palais Royal, an episode that left him so ashamed that when he became general (and emperor) he insisted that the Palais Royal be emptied and the brothels cleared whenever he visited that part of the city. We encounter the alchemist Fulcanelli, who claimed not only to have interpreted the secrets of Notre Dame but also to have been the first to discover the secret of nuclear fission. We learn of Charles-Axel Guillaumot, "the man who saved Paris" from collapse by reinforcing the underground quarries that run under the city. The cast of characters and list of incidents just won't quit.

And who would want them to, given how well Robb can write? With a novelist's eye for detail, a passion for the right word, and a chameleonic style that adapts to the demands of the story line (from a dry, witty approach to the French presidents' staged assassination attempts to a heart-rending narrative of the transport of the Jews from the Vel d'Hiv), Robb creates "a kind of mini-Human Comedy of Paris, in which the history of the city [is] illuminated by the real experience of its inhabitants." If you're interested in Paris, or history, or just flat-out wonderful writing, read this book.

Patricia L. Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

  • PARISIANS

    By: Graham Robb.

    Publisher: Norton, 476 pages, $28.95.

    Review: Robb's delightful nonlinear history covers all the big names and big events, and then some, focusing on the human experience and the quirkiest stories.

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