This is the Paris you never knew. From the revolution to the present, Graham Robb has distilled a series of astonishing true narratives, all stranger than fiction, of the lives of the great, the near-great, and the forgotten.
I’m not really quite sure where to begin with this book. One, I picked this book almost entirely based on its cover, and the title of course. This is the last book I read for Paris in July, although I only finished it last week. I picked up the book because of the cover, but once I read the first couple of pages, the prologue explaining why and how Robb first ended up in Paris, I was hooked.
Robb is an incredibly gifted author, able to weave truth with fabricated dialogue and imagined scenarios of things that might have been. His work is well researched and many of the people and subjects he covers in this book would not be easily found elsewhere.
The chapters that stuck out particularly to me was the tale of Marie Antoinette, wandering lost through the city with a guard too naive or too scared to inform his queen that she took a wrong turn. There was also the haunting chapter of Hitler’s occupation of France, of his wandering the streets of a city whose map he memorized, and knew inside and out. Although the chapters can be read on their own, they are placed in chronological covering hundreds of years of Parisian history. This is the type of book that requires either a really carefully concentrated first reading, or continual rereadings. Each chapter is packed with details, description, dates, facts and figures. I made a number of notes of people and places to look into for further research, movies to watch and philosopher and political movements to explore. Some chapters were hard to keep track of, some were boring and I’ll admit I skimmed the last chapter because I just wanted to finish the book. My head was swimming with Parisian facts that I couldn’t quite visualize because I wasn’t in the city, walking along the canals or looking at the buildings that Haussman constructed.
Graham Robb is somewhat of an expert on France and French history. He has written a number of books or so on the subject: Balzac; Victor Hugo, Rimbaud, Strangers, The Discovery of France. With his wonderful ability of connecting the reader to the character, no matter how minor, I’m sure the rest of his books are just as descriptive, entertaining and unique as Parisians.
Book 37 of 2011