Parisians is one of the best history books I have read and if you are a writer then you should definitely read it because the style is very unique and you’ll pick up a trick or two. It is fitting the last book review of the year stays with the French theme of the week as my last post was about Les Miserables and Parisians is a history of Paris written by Graham Robb who wrote one of the most definitive biographies of Victor Hugo, the author of Les Miserables.
This is NOT your basic chronological rundown of facts and historical figures that too often comprise history books. What brings this book to the forefront is the style used to relay the history of what is beyond a doubt one of the world’s greatest cities. While politically Paris has always been central to human history it is equally true that culturally Paris has influenced the rest of the world throughout the ages.
Robb takes a very simple but unique approach in covering the city’s history. Each chapter is a story from a decade or age in Paris’ history and told through first-hand accounts of people – often using obscure or unknown sources – that lived through major events in the city. This allows Robb to give the reader a sense of life in the city from the resident’s view.
For instance, the book opens with a first-hand account of an unknown army officer as he came to Paris for the first time. In the narrative and diary passages Robb uses we see how Paris looked upon approach and how the city seemed to an unimpressive officer from Corsica. We even find out from the diary who the prostitute was that took his virginity. Oh, did I mention that officer was Napoleon? The book also demonstrates the Emperor might have been outdone by his nephew Napoleon III as far as Paris is concerned.
We find out in succeeding chapters that Marie Antoinette getting lost leaving her palace led to a series of events that caused the royal family’s capture and beheading. There is the chapter about the man who created the infamous Paris catacombs because on his first day on the job a semi-natural disaster that destroyed a large section of the city and which hasn’t been written about in two centuries pulled him down that path.
It just isn’t political figures either in Robb’s book. Quite the contrary. There is the first photograph taken or the life of Marcel Proust, and the script based on the biographies of Juliette Greco and Miles Davis that outlines their love affair.
My favorite chapter though literally had me spellbound and I believe I would buy a book based on the story of that chapter alone. As it was the chapter is about an obscure confession that came from London to Paris and how an archivist saved the details. Some parts were made public and used by Dumas for a novel.
Robb tells us the rest of the true story how a practical joke on a groom-to-be landed him in prison. A fortune was passed to a man in prison who set out for revenge which was to be found in ruining lives through despicable and cold-hearted methods which eventually led to murder of two victims. The third in prison escaped only to himself get revenge on the would-be-avenger also through murder. Thus the confession from London. Real life is often better than fiction when it comes to drama and tragedy. I was absolutely glued to that chapter. Revenge can consume men.
When I finished the book I actually thought it would a great travel guide in the sense that I had an urge to go to Paris for a week and visit just the places mentioned in this book. It makes a great insider’s travel guide.
The only problem I had with the book really came in the last quarter of the book. In latter chapters Robb assumed the reader might know a bit more about Paris or events in France’s history than they probably do so that in a couple of chapters he is a bit vague about who was who and what their importance was. It would be the only reason I give this book 4 of 5 stars instead of 5/5.
Parisians is fascinating and I learned all sorts of things about French life and the city I had never heard before. The stories were riveting and the writing style so unique you had to marvel at the research involved. The reading public can only wish that every history book is as exciting as this one.