In his 2007 book, The Discovery of France, historian Graham Robb argued that the idea of a homogeneous people called "the French" was a myth carefully constructed to bring political and cultural unity to a "vast encyclopedia of micro-civilizations." Now, in his new work, Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, Robb depicts a Paris that is similarly "a composite place built up over the ages, a picture book of superimposed transparencies," where "even the quietest street is crowded with adventures."
Robb tells the tale of the city through a parade of key figures, from the infamous (Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and Baron Haussmann), to the obscure (Eugène-François Vidocq, the ex-convict who became head of Paris's centralized police bureau in the early nineteenth century; and Pascal, "The Black Prince," a mysterious 1980's motorcyclist who's rumored to hold the record for the fastest ride around the Périphérique—eleven minutes and four seconds). "The idea," Robb writes, "was to create a mini-Human Comedy of Paris, in which the history of the city would be illuminated by the real experience of its inhabitants."
Robb delves deep into the archives to dredge up stories like that of architect Charles-Axel Guillaumot, "the man who saved Paris," who, Robb writes, has not been mentioned in any history of Paris in nearly two hundred years. In 1777, when the many ancient quarries dug by "miners who had known nothing of the art of excavation" caused sections of the city to collapse, Guillaumot solved the problem by reinforcing the underground tunnels, creating the space that would eventually become the catacombs. Thanks to Guillaumot, Robb writes with a wink, "practically all of Paris . . . is officially deemed to be safe."
Robb's storytelling is enhanced by his keen sense of irony and dry commentary; after quoting Haussmann saying "there is more time than most people think in twenty-four hours," Robb writes, "since he grasped the reins of power in 1853, three Heads of Accounting have died of exhaustion." But this is an adventure history, and it is the absurd escapades of Parisians that take center stage. We are treated to a mini-history of French presidents' staged assassinations, observing François Mitterrand's midnight hurdle over the bushes in the gardens of the Observatoire during a faked attempt on his life (organized by Mitterand to boost his popularity). Robb situates this anecdote within a series of would-be de Gaulle assassinations, which included a gun battle at Notre Dame. There is much to learn, Robb writes, from de Gaulle's "masterly manipulation of what appeared to be a totally unpredictable event." Robb places the emphasis squarely on appeared.
But it is Robb's experiments with form that really shine, like a mini-screenplay featuring the French singer Juliette Gréco and Miles Davis chatting away with their friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir during an existentialist evening at the Café de Flore ("SARTRE: I say, 'glass,' and the glass is exactly the same as before. Nothing happens to it, except perhaps it oscillates, but not very much. . . . DAVIS: Heh! This is existentialism, right?"), or a report on the student uprisings of May '68 in the form of a rigorous course outline, complete with discussion questions and sample answers.
It is a twentieth century phenomenon that Parisians suppose they know anything about their city beyond their own neighborhood; there was no accurate map of Paris until the end of the eighteenth century, and even then, some of the narrow, twisted streets were omitted because they detracted from the maps' aesthetics. "In 1865," Robb writes, "no one is expected to go shopping in streets across the river." It is only with the arrival of the metro, in July 1900, could someone who lived on the Left Bank think of going for a stroll on the Right.
Robb continually circles back to certain key sites to create a leitmotif of Parisian landmarks as they are "transformed by events, obsessions, visionaries, architects, and the passing of time." He conceives of Paris as always evolving, and therefore, always enigmatic. Such is the revelation of Robb's study: below the surface of Parisian history lies an enormous mass of detail we can't see—and we don't even know where to start looking. Serendipity may be the best method; as Robb writes, much "knowledge can adhere to the accidental experience." "The discovery of Paris," he writes, "entails a degree of disorientation and distraction." Reading his charming history provides a welcome measure of both.
Lauren Elkin is a Paris-based writer who blogs about the city on Maitresse. Her first novel will be published next year by Editions Héloïse d'Ormesson.