Magazine article The Spectator

The People and the Place

Magazine article The Spectator

The People and the Place

Article excerpt

PARISIANS

by Graham Robb

Picador, £18.99, pp. 462,

ISBN 9780330452441

£15.19 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Where to begin? Graham Robb, like all dedicated Francophiles, begins early, when his enlightened parents made him a present of a trip to Paris and sent him off with a map and a voucher for a free gift at the Galeries Lafayette. For a week, and then two weeks, and then six months, he did what all visitors do: he walked the length of the city, he bought books, he sat in cafes and listened to the conversations of strangers.

This apprenticeship made him the historian and biographer he is today, and this book is a form of homage to Paris and to those who choose to see it as their home.

To adapt Simone de Beauvoir's dictum, one is not born a Parisian, one becomes one. Many of the characters in this chronicle were not born in Paris: all they had in common was the language and the agility that denotes the true Frenchman. As of right, Robb's survey, which runs from the 18th century to the present day, begins with Napoleon, as a young lieutenant, lodging at the Hotel de Cherbourg and enjoying the freedom of the Palais Royal. It is arguably Napoleon who is the tutelary genius of Paris, and whose vision of the world without ambiguities was responsible, many years after his death, for Baron Haussmann's great boulevards which replaced the secretive streets so conducive to conspiracy and violence.

This is the method that informs the book, to twin a personality with an architectural construct, a person with a place. Thus a topical history is established in which people and places play an equal part. This makes for an ever-expanding canvas in which the author is completely at ease, although the reader may protest at the proliferation of anecdote, rather like a novice arriving in the city for the first time.

This is apposite, since Paris was originally a city without maps, so that, on her escape from the Tuileries, Marie-Antoinette instructed her coachman to take the wrong turning, but nevertheless ended up in the Place de la Revolution, as she was destined to do. Through the various narratives that make up Robb's book, the largely unsung heroes are the mapmakers, whose feats of observation are truly extraordinary. With a map, had such a thing existed, Marie Antoinette could have joined the King and perhaps have survived a little longer.

Not all the names in this chronicle are so well known; indeed many of them, dredged from police files, are obscure. Crimes, faithfully recorded, are left unsolved. The real story, it seemed to be agreed, was in the foreground. Thirty years after the death of Napoleon, the city was taking shape, losing its connection with the semi-rural hinterland and becoming professional. Even the police force, benefitting from the example of Vidocq, was becoming professional, although Vidocq was more thief-catcher than agent of the law. Like many of the characters in Robb's account he enjoyed semi-mythological status, although the Surete was to become a powerful institution.

The mythology, or mythologising, of Paris was furthered by Henri Murger's collection of loosely related stories, La Vie de Boheme, which engendered so may useful fantasies and enhanced the status of the Latin Quarter.

Indeed by the midddle of the 19th century it was possible to descry the face of modern Paris.

The newly invented art of photography played its part, particularly in the role of advertising. 'Immense nausee des affiches', Baudelaire recorded in his notebook, anticipating his own invention, 'the Heroism of Modern Life'. …

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