four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
47-July-Aug-2010
By: 
Graham Robb
user_rating: 
0

A-Parisians.epsBritish writer Graham Robb is the award-winning biographer of Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Arthur Rimbaud. Parisians is, in some sense, a companion piece to the author's The Discovery of France (2007).

The Topic: In Parisians, Graham Robb "create[s] a kind of mini-Human Comedy of Paris, in which the history of the city ... [is] illuminated by the real experience of its inhabitants." Robb covers all the basics, of course--from the French Revolution to the present, from Marie Antoinette to Charles de Gaulle, and even Nicolas Sarkozy. But Robb also explores lesser-known and forgotten figures and histories. He recounts Napoleon Bonaparte's first sexual encounter--with a courtesan, no less--as well as adventures in the lives of "literary pimp" Henry Murger, author of La Vie de Bohème; manipulative criminal Eugène-François Vidocq; Adolf Hitler; and Victor Hugo's wife. The style of each sketch echoes its subjects to provide a compelling portrait of the City of Light.
Norton. 496 pages. $28.95. ISBN: 9780393067248

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"As the apparently random narratives begin to connect, a kind of mapping of Paris past and present emerges, all shaped by real human experiences in the city. ... The great and daring trick Robb pulls off is to make the familiar so unfamiliar that in every sense it is like seeing the city anew.'" Andrew Hussey

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"The subtitle of Parisians ... 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. ... 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.'" Patricia L. Hagen

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Robb] has proved himself to be one of the more unusual and appealing historians currently striding the planet. ... In Mr. Robb's new book one chapter is written like a screenplay, while another employs witty question-and-answer sections that function like lemon juice squeezed over a platter of oysters." Dwight Garner

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Although Robb often narrates various sections from the point of view of his characters, inhabiting them and fudging, to a certain extent, the line between traditional history and make-believe, his characters don't sound alike, which can be a hazard when a historian affects the pose of a novelist. ... [Yet] Robb, in employing the techniques of the novelist, animates his characters mainly for ‘the pleasure of thinking about Paris.' That pleasure is also the reader's." Brenda Wineapple

Spectator (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"The Zola episode is at the heart of Robb's book, and its transparency is a welcome oasis in a narrative which is, if anything, too full of matter. ... If his love of the picturesque detail threatens to overwhelm the reader, the book is nevertheless an act of homage on the part of the author, whose initial visit lies at the heart of his exploration--even if we never find out what he got in exchange for his gift-voucher at the Galeries Lafayette." Anita Brookner

Sunday Times (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"[Robb] has the passion of a naturalist displaying a wall of rare butterflies or a cabinet of exotic corals, but his specimens are all human and walked the streets of Paris at some point between the dawn of the French revolution and now. ... The chapter on Henry Murger, the author of Scenes of Bohemian Life, evokes as enticingly as Murger did himself the bohemian world of starving poets, painters and philosophers and the bric-a-brac they brightened their garrets with: hookahs, skulls, the works of Shakespeare, window boxes of geraniums." John Carey

Critical Summary

There is nothing traditional about Graham Robb's approach to history, and Parisians, like his previous works, reflects his exceptional creativity and wonderful writing. Robb introduces each personality as a mystery for readers to unravel, all the while evoking the sights and sounds of Paris. Although he narrates many of the sections from his characters' perspectives, he also presents each in different form; the tale of the student revolt, for example, takes the shape of a course outline, and the encounter between Sartre and Miles Davis is a screenplay set in a café. The only complaint? A plethora of detail. Yet, as a mosaic of a city, it is an embarrassment of riches, indeed.