Saturday, June 18, 2011

Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb

I feel like I am cheating slightly by including this in my Paris: The Luminous Years challenge, as very little of this book takes place between 1905-30.  I'm grandfathering this book in because who could be a bigger player in Paris' Luminous Years than the city itself?  Plus, this book is good.

I think I can safely say that I have never read a history of a place like this one before.  The idea of an "adventure history" piqued my interest, & I have not been disappointed by Parisians.  Author Graham Robb has taken incidents in the life of Paris between 1787 & the present day, using French historical figures from Napoleon to Marcel Proust to François Mitterand as narrators, & has woven together a very illuminating read. Different sections take different forms-"Expanding the Domain of the Possible", about the student riots in May 1968, takes the form of an examination, & "Lovers of Saint-Germain-des-Prés", starring Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Juliette Gréco & Miles Davis, is written as a script-without being annoyingly gimmicky.

I really felt like I learned something about the city & its people from this book & its judiciously chosen snatches of history. From Charles-Axel Guilliamot & the beginnings of the Catacombs to the files of Sûreté to the alchemists of Notre Dame, from the real-life Mimi who has been immortalized in La Bohème to Baron Haussmann to Madame Zola to the creation of the Paris Métro (or Métropolitain), Robb takes highlights & sideshows & scandals over history to create, perhaps not the most complete portrait of Paris, but one of the most entertaining you will ever read.

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