Parisians: An Adventure History Of Paris by Graham Robb
Graham Robb has that rare gift of storytelling that compels riveted attention from readers of non-fiction as much as fiction and he understands that stories may spring emotionally from places but inevitably embrace the lives of people.
Parisians is not a chronological history but rather a series of great tales of its people as the City of Light grew from a small settlement on an island in the Seine to the great sprawling metropolis of today.
Robb is an Englishman whose parents gave him a week in Paris as a birthday present when he was a young man. It captivated him and this relationship became an obsession. He has written much- praised biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud and The Discovery of France, all published between 1994 and 2003. He is a former Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, and still lives in the great university town.
Robb is an intelligent yet racy writer, employing the techniques of a novelist as he structures stories around famous Parisians, gradually unravelling the identity of his heroes, embellishing them with descriptions that will pull in any reader. For example: "He had the good looks of a man who, though well into his 40s, is cheered by the sight that greets him in the shaving-mirror every morning. In the evening (as on that evening), the merest hint of dilapidation - a kink in his thin black tie, a slightly rumpled collar, the five o'clock shadow on his upper lip - suggested a day devoted to matters that transcended personal appearance without posing any serious threat to elegance."
With this sort of skill he tells of the first mistress of the young Napoleon, of the man who saved a city that may otherwise have slumped into its sinkholes and catacombs, of a great sleuth, of a time of tragic events that reached as far as New Caledonia, of how getting lost on the streets of Paris foiled the escape of Marie-Antoinette.
One story is of a man about to be married who was sent to prison for many years on the casual whim of some friends. He came into a fortune as the result of a prison association, then escaped and his carefully orchestrated revenge was truly terrible.
The assassination attempts on de Gaulle and the extraordinary tale of the rise and fall and rise of Francois Mitterrand could only have happened in France. Mitterrand set up his own mock assassination, achieving what seemed a James Bond-style of escape. Or was it even more convoluted than that? So many renderings of the event have been aired no one can safely believe any of them.
Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland writer.