What bookstore doesn’t offer numerous new volumes with Paris in the title? Thus the inevitable question arises when handed a book such as Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris: “So?”
Parisians is an odd book. Its chapters tell stories, in rough chronological order, of people who have lived in the City of Light, but this is no “Who’s Who” of Parisians. Graham Robb describes it as a “history of Paris recounted by many different voices”; it’s a history primarily in the sense that the narratives are true, though told in novelistic fashion. And Robb’s book details the lives of a strange collection of people, from future presidents to dictators, courtesans, and criminals.
The stories themselves were clearly chosen less for their historical significance than for their queerness, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. The tale of how a young Napoleon lost his virginity to a courtesan, contrasted with his relentless persecution of such women later in life, makes up one chapter. Another examines how Queen Marie Antoinette’s carriage got so lost on the Left Bank that the delay resulted in her capture in Sainte-Menehould, when a postmaster’s son recognized the king from his face on a coin.
Such odd stories could only take place in a city as large and as historically rich as the French capital. Robb has an eye for detail that turns the most banal subject into an excursion into lived experience: his detailed investigation of a photograph from 1865, for example, leads to the assertion that “So much information is contained in that split-second burst of photons that if the glass plate survived a holocaust and lay buried for centuries in a leather satchel, there would be enough to compile a small, speculative encyclopedia of Paris in the late second millennium.” Or we could just put this book in a time capsule and hang onto it.
What makes the collection work is Robb’s novelistic sense, his feeling for plot and the rhythm of language. The fact that the stories he tells are true is an additional pleasure, but not one surmounted by this chapter opening: “As far as anyone knew, the head had last been seen in the attics of the École de Médecine. It was an unusual item, not the sort of thing that would have been easily mislaid or confused with something else.”
And the stories themselves are unforgettable. I was fascinated by the tale of how Madame Émile Zola discovered her husband’s infidelity and summoned the courage to create an unusual family (with 21th-century outlines) with real kindness and without rancor. Likewise, Hitler’s visit to Paris, juxtaposed with the experiences of Jewish children during the war, kept me awake thinking about the kinds of facts we label history. Another chapter tells how Senator François Mitterrand won fame in 1959 (some twenty-two years before being elected president of France) as a leading champion of the fight against right-wing terrorism, after he survived an assassination attempt—only to be exposed as a fraud who made up the bogus assassination himself. Not for the first time, I found myself thinking, “Who knew?”
Frankly, these stories often read as if O. Henry had been let loose in the Paris archives. I like reading O. Henry’s stories, and I daresay that most people curious about history, Paris, or mysterious tales will love this book. Like Paris itself, it’s intoxicating, and hard to leave behind.