Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book Review - Parisians : An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb (Picador 2010)

Paris is like the Parisians themselves – a fascinating acquaintance, but impossible to know intimately. For a city with such an elegant, sophisticated exterior, it has a dark underbelly. Its tree-lined boulevards are little distance from the fleshpots of Pigalle. It is synonymous with art and literature and metropolitan sophistication, yet in the 1960s its Police were capable of massacring unarmed Algerian protesters, whilst Portuguese and North African immigrants scraped a living in the bidonvilles, the unofficial townships of corrugated iron which circled the city itself.

I have lived in Paris myself, I have been charmed by its history, its sense of style, its vibrancy. But you are always conscious that you are an outsider, that no matter how much you have come to terms with the language (in my case, not much) you will never understand the way the city lives and moves and breathes like les parigots themselves.

Graham Robb has known Paris for many years and recognises this problem. So in writing about the city he loves, he doesn’t attempt to compile a chronology of Parisian development. Instead he focuses on a series of vignettes, each of which turns the microscope on some tiny aspect of the “adventure history” of Paris, some of which, à la Joyce, are written in a manner appropriate to the subject and the period itself.

It is an engaging if not entirely successful approach. We learn of the reasons for the construction of the Paris catacombs under the appropriately named rue d’Enfer; of the master-criminal Vidocq who became head of the Sureté and founder of the world’s first Detective Agency; of Proust and his relationship with modern technology (although Robb cannot keep up his initial Proustian sentences); of Juliet Gréco and Miles Davis in the manner of a Nouvelle Vague filmscript.

Yet, whilst lavishly praised in other quarters, I didn’t feel that this book entirely came off. The first reason is stylistic. One feels that Robb is trying too hard to ensure that his tales are “adventures”. Subjects are obscure until the point of revelation, which, in the tale of how Napoleon lost his virginity is not until the last page of the essay. Exposition can be clotted and difficult. One needs to read and reread in order to understand what exactly has transpired – not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it is superfluous. The stories stand by themselves. One of the best essays concerns the riots of 2007 and is written in a lucid contemporary style.

The second reason is structural. Motifs and characters, such as the rue d’Enfer or Baudelaire, recur and link the tales, yet there is a lack of a unifying theme. Paris does not emerge as a city, Parisians remain mysterious and unknowable. The stories focus largely on people of fame, power and influence – in other words, not true Parisians at all – but only on minute, peripheral, aspects of their lives. Add the mix to the stylistic variations and the result is a succession of fascinating tales, but the whole never exceeds the sum of the parts. Which is a shame since, highly engaging though this work may be, and beautifully written in places, a more conventional approach may have yielded some valuable insights.

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