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Parisians [Paperback]

Graham Robb
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

April 12 2011
This is the Paris you never knew. From the Revolution to the present, Graham Robb has distilled a series of astonishing true narratives, all stranger than fiction, of the lives of the great, the near-great, and the forgotten. A young artillery lieutenant, strolling through the Palais-Royal, observes disapprovingly the courtesans plying their trade. A particular woman catches his eye; nature takes its course. Later that night Napoleon Bonaparte writes a meticulous account of his first sexual encounter. A well-dressed woman, fleeing the Louvre, takes a wrong turn and loses her way in the nameless streets of the Left Bank. For want of a map there were no reliable ones at the time Marie-Antoinette will go to the guillotine. Baudelaire, the photographer Marville, Baron Haussmann, the real-life Mimi of La Boheme, Proust, Adolf Hitler touring the occupied capital in the company of his generals, Charles de Gaulle (who is suspected of having faked an assassination attempt in Notre Dame) these and many more are Robb s cast of characters, and the settings range from the quarries and catacombs beneath the streets to the grand monuments to the appalling suburbs ringing the city today. The result is a resonant, intimate history with the power of a great novel."

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Review

Robb, in employing the techniques of the novelist, animates his characters mainly for 'the pleasure of thinking about Paris.' That pleasure is also the reader's. --Brenda Wineapple"

About the Author

Graham Robb was born in Manchester in 1958 and is a former fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. His most recent book, The Discovery of France, won both the Duff Cooper and Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prizes in 2008. He lives in Cumbria.

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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
"For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust." -- Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 (NKJV)

Parisians is the most unusual look at a major city that I have ever read. Graham Robb knows Paris well for someone who isn't a Parisian and builds a verbal picture of the city through describing layers of change during which many things don't really change all that much. You have to use your imagination and a good sense of French history to fully appreciate the book. If you have only a slight knowledge of both, you'll probably be a little puzzled by the book. If you are a regular traveler, you'll probably find yourself wanting to visit the locales that he describes over the last two centuries.

Some of the book will seem gratuitous in terms of their shock value. I couldn't quite make up my mind about whether those parts could have been skipped.

In other places, the story telling is fascinating, and the contrasts are portrayed with winning irony that will amuse and delight most readers who don't have a political ax to grind. In that regard, I was especially pleased with the following sections:

- The Man Who Saved Paris
- Lost
- Restoration
- Files of the Sûreté
- Marville
- Madame Zola
- The Notre-Dame Equation
- The Day of the Fox
- Terminus: The North Col

The photographs in the book also add a lot of depth to the story-telling. Look at them closely!

The book's subtitle is a little misleading.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  48 reviews
97 of 100 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Paris for the Flaneur April 14 2010
By Izaak VanGaalen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Graham Robb is a modern-day flaneur. The concept of the flaneur was popularized by Charles Baudelaire who defined it as someone who strolls about the city in order to observe it and experience it, someone who might also be an esthete and a dandy. This book contains 19 anecdotes that are meditations on historical characters and the geographical locations with which they are associated. There is of course no better city to be a flaneur than Paris, a city where every street and building has a story to tell.

Robb has a novelist's imagination and eye for detail. The first episode is set in the late 18th century and concerns a young man coming to Paris from Corsica. The lad makes his way to the Palais Royal to experience to the pleasures of the flesh for the first time. The young man we find out later on was Napoleon. Apparently the residence Cardinal Richelieu and French Royalty had become the place to go for nightlife in Paris.

Before Baron Haussmann cleared whole neighborhoods to lay out wide boulevards along straight lines, Paris was a network of convoluted, narrow streets. It was a city without maps. Robb tells the story of Marie-Antoinette as she was fleeing the mobs during the French Revolution. She was trying to get to Vincennes but accidentally gave her coachman the wrong directions and ended up in the hands of her enemies.

One of the most interesting and little-known figures brought to light by this study is Charles Axel Guillaumot. In the late 1700s the streets of the Left Bank were starting to cave in as a result of many years of quarrying below the city. Guillaumot, who was an architect and surveyor, decided to reinforce the caverns underneath the city and use them as a place to bury the dead, thus creating the infamous Catacombs.

There is also a chapter on Hitler's one and only whirlwind tour of the city with his sculptor Arno Breker and architect Albert Speer. The tour lasted only two and half hours but apparently Hilter beside himself after absorbing the splendor of the city. It reminds us that he was an artist before he became a politician.

Every chapter is beautifully written and full of surprises. One can imagine that there are many more stories such as these. They seem arbitrary but nevertheless insightful. Robb has repeated the succuss of an earlier work, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geographyin which he does for rural France what he does for Paris in this volume.
59 of 63 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but also frustrating Aug. 30 2010
By Timothy Riordan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
If you have a passion for Paris, or France in general the Parisians is likely worth the read. There is much to enjoy about Robb's book. Bits about the construction of the catacombs were fascinating, Marie Antoinette getting lost for half a night just feet outside the Royal Palace added to the legend of her general cluelessness, the story of Emile Zola's wife was heartbreaking, and there's a bit about Alchemy's influence on chemistry, physics and one particular Alchemist's knowledge of the nuclear energy well before it was harnessed for the atom bomb.

But there were many times I found myself frustrated with the book. Robb clearly knows his Parisian history but chooses to play coy often not telling us who the chapters are about until the last few paragraphs. Moreover he writes as if the reader should know many of facts and dates of Parisian history. My Parisian history is rather weak (why I was interested in the book) so I muddled through as best I could. In one chapter the two unnamed major players of the story were both men and I found myself realizing that the "he" Robb had started to tell me about, was no longer the "he" I was now reading about--you see the difficulty? It's not like this is Faulkner or Joyce we're tackling here. I don't feel it's too much to ask to feel secure in repeating a fact or two of history after I'm finished reading some historical non-fiction.

Other nit-picking:

*Robb makes much of the fact that there wasn't a decent map of Paris up until a certain point but couldn't a *readable* one have been included in the book for reference? (There is a quaint little map included at the beginning of the book--it just wasn't terribly helpful)

*There is an entire section talking about Marville's photographs of the city which sounded lovely but the photos reproduced in the book were so small as to make all the details Robb discusses nearly impossible to see. [Three years later I've finally realized this is exactly the sort of thing Google images was invented for].

I admit to not finishing the last 100 or so pages of this book. With two other books on my shelf and other Amazon reviewers claiming things got less cogent as the book went into it's final pages I felt like I'd done what I could with The Parisians.

On the other hand, the Parisians has piqued my curiosity about reading some classic French literature and looking more into the lives of some of the character in this book. I'd say all and all I've come out better for having spent time with it.
44 of 49 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Wordy, frustrating, and disappointing July 25 2010
By Shawn Duffy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I wanted so much to like this book. The format and concept of the book are brilliant: short vignettes describing the characters (some well known, others not) that have made Paris what it is today.

However, the execution is terribly lacking. Mr. Robb is, no doubt, a gifted writer. One gets the sense, however, that he's trying TOO hard here. While a couple of the stories are somewhat interesting, the bulk of them are barely readable. The author gets so caught up in extraneous metaphors, flowery language, and coy pronouns that it becomes difficult to determine if two consecutive paragraphs even belong in the same story. More often than not I found myself finishing a story only to wonder "what the hell was that even about?"

The book is 436 pages long. I'm finally giving up on page 400. Had this book been one continuous story instead of short vignettes, I probably would have given up a lot sooner. But each vignette is only 15-25 pages long. Every time I finished a story, I found myself desperately hoping that the next one would knock my socks off and would make this painstaking effort worthwhile. And, again, more often than not, I found myself disappointed and frustrated.

I rarely take the time to post a review on Amazon but that's how frustrating and disappointing "Parisians" was. I am giving it two stars because the _idea_ was excellent. Unfortunately, the author and his writing did not live up to it.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A successful self-sabotage July 23 2010
By slow thinker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
After the fabulous Victor Hugo's biography and the Discovery of France masterpiece, I was impatiently awaiting the latest book from my favourite historian. Alas, for a reason known only to himself, Mr. Robb opted for a new literary style. His attempts at confusing the reader begin early and, toward the end, they intensify to the point of incomprehension. I don't even want to know the purpose of the Black Prince segments - it seems to me that they belong to a surreal manuscript accidentally combined with Mr. Robb's effort.

Frustration frequently follows confusion. Consider the following excerpt (pages 340-341):

The OAS has discovered that, between eight and nine o'clock every evening, the old painter who lived above the antiques shop at 86, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore closed his shutters for the night. The windows of his living room looked directly through the gateway opposite and, in a slightly descending line, at the entrance of the Elysee Palace. On 23 May, de Gaulle was to receive the visit of the President of Mauritania. The protocol for such visits never varied. When the visitor's car entered the courtyard, de Gaulle emerged from the palace and stood still at the top of the steps for at least ninety seconds. On 21 May, the plot was discovered; on 22 May, the painter closed his shutters and went to bed as usual; and on 23 May, de Gaulle stood on the steps and welcomed the Mauritanian President into the Elysee Palace.

What are we supposed to do with this information? Is it the reader's duty to fill in what happened between 21 May and the 23 May?

Dear Graham, if you continue on this path, you'll end up alienating your base which consists of readers accustomed to clarity and dependable information. While the book still offers a quantity of interesting facts, your attempts at artistry and mystery produce nothing except irritation. Please don't do it again.
29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hidden Gems of Paris History May 6 2010
By Robert B. Stevens - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I could not put this book down. I love not knowing who the protagonists are. For instance, in the story Restoration, I like not knowing for sure who is getting revenge though I have a feeling I know where the story was going.

There are so many history books about Paris, done in various ways. I have studied Paris for years and am tired of the same old stories of famous people and landmark events. The stories in this book are a welcome relief. I also enjoyed the narrative that puts us there at the moment. I am sure that the information has been gathered from accounts of the time. The Man Who Saved Paris is a wonderful story I never knew.

All in all, I would recommend this people to anybody who wants a fresh view of the city. No wonder it is at the top of the seller lists in the U.K. and U.S.
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