Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Book Review ~ "Parisians - An Adventure History of Paris" by Graham Robb

POSTED IN:  ~ PublicationsReviews ~ Books

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An Adventure History of Paris

by Graham Robb
Picador 2010
ISBN 9780330536233

Book Review

I see that a lot of people have already written some pretty in-depth reviews of this book, which makes me wonder what I could have to add.

But then I remember - silly me - that they are not me, and that you probably haven't read them, and that a lot of people have also set up blogs and written about Paris and typed at keyboards, but that doesn't mean that I can't too.

And so it came to pass, that in my life-long search for the perfect Paris book, or at least an attempt to read as many of them as I can, Mr. Robb's chunky pavé crossed my sweaty palms.

Pavé can mean paving stone or cobblestone, and you'll see the significance of that in a minute, but I also notice that it can be used pejoratively in French about a book or thesis, and that certainly wouldn't be the case here. I was simply trying to be as clever as Graham Robb actually is, and failing miserably.

So has he, then, managed to write a book which is explicitly about this great and much-written-of city which breaks the mould for once? And can I write a review about it which is worth reading? Yes I think so, and I hope so, respectively.

What he's done is write a series of chapters, or more properly vignettes, of various events over the last couple of centuries as seen through the eyes of key personages enacting them. Although there isn't that much dialogue like in real fictional stories, we are made to get under the skin of many of the main characters, as seen through their own eyes or thoughts, or those of a close observer. And he claims they are all true.

And it works, for me at least. In a nutshell, you've got chapters on subjects as diverse as Hitler's early morning jaunt around Paris, and a guy who saved it from literally collapsing; a famous writer's wife's trials and tribulations (Zola), and a famous detective's unorthodox ways of conducting criminal investigations (Vidocq); a French war hero's almost miraculous assassination escapes (de Gaulle), and the gory deaths of two youths from the banlieue (suburbs) in an electricity compound, allegedly chased there by the police. As well as the epoch-defining student protests of May '68, complete with passionate pavé tossing and all the intricate threads laid bare for us to pick over. Great for someone like me, who needs their history to be heftily human.

For most of the book, to be honest, I was simply in awe of the detail, and the scope of the work, as well as getting quite engrossed in each of the individual stories, which did crisscross each other from time to time to keep a certain coherence in the narrative.

Robb's approach is daring, backed up by the success and confidence of a bunch of other accomplished works in the same field (France itself, Balzac, Hugo, Rimbaud..), and although I'm right at the start of my French history reading adventures, I can appreciate the skill with which he's woven a ton of historical facts and stories together in this original way. My biggest fear is that the more straightforward histories sitting on my shelves waiting to be read will seem rather pedestrian in comparison.

If I were to be picky, I'd have to say that two or three of the chapters were a little bit of a struggle, due mainly to sudden switches in style which threw my Very Little Brain somewhat.

Among the rather more leftfield items are an imaginary screenplay recounting the existentialists of the mid 20th century (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Gréco..) which was a bit hard to get my head around, a slow-starting piece about Haussmann's monumental changes to the city, and a attempt at a Dan Brown-style symbols-and-superstitions tale about alchemy and stuff which had me completely lost for the first few pages. But full marks to Robb for going for it, and my interest certainly seldom faltered despite my own difficulties along the way. He obviously need a change and tried it out, and he really can write too, superbly. I'm surprised he hasn't already gone into fiction. Maybe that'll his next step. And I really did enjoy the challenge of this book, on a topic which I have, after all, determined to fill my head with from whatever sources I can find, including those which require a bit of intellectual effort.

Oh, I should also mention that there are two sections of colour photos in the book, and some frightfully serious looking references to all his research material, and a far more interesting (for me) chronological list of Big Paris Happenings - nice one, just what I need to get everything in context. It's also a bit of a relief for a slacker like me to be able to take a sneak at the back of the book and realise you don't have to read the last 40 pages or so. Don't worry, there are over 400 you do need to read so don't get complacent!

In the end I'm just terribly jealous that our Graham found a great new way to cover a tired old subject. So that's another possibility I can cross off my list for my own 'Sunday Times Bestseller' of my dreams... (sigh)

There, I think, for once, I'm not going to ramble and leave it at that. I thoroughly enjoyed the author's approach and to quite an extent felt that I was following him on his adventure around Paris. I particularly enjoyed the short introduction and the closing pieces, which had Robb telling a personal story of his own about the city and his search for the soul of the suburbs, and an elusive col, between the Montmartre and Butte Chaumont hills which the cyclist in him wanted to officialise. This added a nice personal touch, rarely present in the heavy historical tomes of this genre, I suspect, and which is just what I needed to finish off a very satisfying read.

© 2011 Sab Will / Paris Set Me Free - Contact me directly with suggestions, questions and requests, thanks.

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