Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book: Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

Though I’m a great lover of French cinema, I must confess that I’ve never been to Paris. It’s a trip I still intend to take some day. Having just finished reading Graham Robb’s fascinating Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (W.W. Norton and Company), he's helped to firmly cement that desire. In Parisians, Robb, an Oxford-based Englishman who writes on all things French (Balzac: A Biography, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War), has crafted a gripping, rich and provocative history of the city and its inhabitants. It begins around the time of the French Revolution in 1789, right up to the present reign of President Nicholas Sarkozy and the part he played in the city’s recent race riots. Robb’s does this in 20 chapters, roughly corresponding to 20 different arrondissements (districts) of the city. In the process, he describes the intricacies of the City of Light in a way that has a novelistic veneer to it. In short, it’s a history that almost feels like a fiction, which incidentally is a good thing.

With 16 pages of source notes, you can be sure that Robb has done his homework. It’s a fact that shows in the small and large details he unfolds as he focuses on the many outsize folks who have added to the luster of the city’s legend. Chapters on Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, Marcel Proust and Emile Zola bring these famous figures to life in a fresh and never obvious manner, even as Robb situates them among the complicated alleys and unique buildings of Paris itself. But he also concentrates on lesser, or unknown personalities, who are just as important in their way to the development of the city. Those people include Eugène-François Vidcoq, the notorious early 19th century crime fighter and ex-con, who worked for the Sûreté, Paris’s official police force, but may have committed many of the crimes he ostensibly solved. Then there was the photographer Charles Marville, who created so many stunning photographs of late 19th century Parisian street life, minus the human beings whom he preferred to leave out of his pictures. Baron (Georges-Eugène) Haussman, the civic planner who re-built much of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, but wiped out much of its medieval presence in the process, is another unique individual in Robb’s book, which also touches on the Roman catacombs beneath the city that Haussman unearthed – another city in itself, and also the subject of Critics at Large’s David Churchill’s new novel, The Empire of Death.

Author Graham Robb
Most interesting of all are the ‘ordinary’ people whom Robb unveils. That’s often because of their interactions with historical personages, or because they lived in particularly tumultuous times, which is why we know of them at all. There was the tragic Lucile Louvert, who died young of cholera, a common enough occurrence in the 19th century, but who comes to sad life in the few surviving letters she sent to playwright and lover Henry Murger ( Scènes de la vie de bohème). The story of the grievously wronged François Picaud, and his later revenge, is like something out of a novel by Balzac or a film by Chabrol, for that matter. Even the brief mention of one Léon Bigot, a baker revealed as a supposed spy in the tabloid press and thus effectively sentenced to death during the violent tumult of the 1871 Paris Commune, carries a piquant aura; as does Robb’s view of the revolutionary student riots of 1968, which he pens in the clever form of a sociological treatise.

Underlying all these stories is Paris itself, where the events take place and which functions as a character herself. Much of Parisians could/would not happen anyplace else. And that is where the book really stands out, as Robb brings an almost painterly approach to describing the way the city has grown (and shrunk) over the years. He deftly illustrates how its inhabitants have made their place (and peace) within its environs and how Paris has come in a significant way to symbolize the vagaries of France itself. His writing is so skilled and gripping that Parisians is a page turner as much as any murder mystery could be. (As an apt corollary to the book, you might want to rent the DVD of Paris, je t'aime, the 2006 omnibus movie wherein various directors, both local (Sylvain Chomet, Olivier Assayas) and foreign (Joel and Ethan Coen, Tom Tywker, Gurinder Chadha) pay a cinematic homage to their favourite arrondissements in Paris. The quality of this compilation is quite high.)

Mysteries, in fact, figure in much of the history displayed in Parisians. Was writer Emile Zola murdered by his enemies because of his courageous stance in the infamous Dreyfuss Affair, when he came to the defense of the railroaded Jewish army captain? Did Charles de Gaulle stage a fake assassination attempt when he returned to Paris in1944, before all of France had even been liberated from the Nazis, in order to command more support among the populace? (In that same chapter, Robb shows how de Gaulle’s actions influenced those of a later French President, Francois Mitterrand, who in 1959, staged and admitted to the same act in a bid to improve his own political fortunes.) And who was the mysterious stranger visiting Paris just before World War Two and meeting with scientists who may have cracked the (alchemic) codes that later led to the invention of the Atom Bomb? You don’t often think of cities as containing myriads of secrets (Toronto certainly would not fit that mold) but it seems apropos to Paris. Robb also salutes the French love of cinema in an inventive chapter, Lovers of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He writes it in screenplay form, which creates a movie that never existed, yet one that presumes that actress and resistance fighter Juliette Gréco had a doomed love affair with jazz musician Miles Davis, whom she actually knew.

I was particularly gripped by the four chapters, including Lovers of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, that Robb devotes to the occupation of Paris in 1940. These chapters suggest that he at least considers that the pivotal fulcrum anchoring the city’s history before and after that grim time. His take on Hitler’s pre-dawn visit to captured Paris, viewed through the eyes of architect Arno Breker, who accompanied the German dictator on that tour, is insightful and illuminating in equal measure. Robb’s profile of three Jewish children, identified only as Georges, Nat and Anna, highlights the unique suffering of the Jews in occupied Paris. He traces how they were slowly stripped of their rights, position and later their existence, bringing the experience to horrifying, indelible life. (His work on this subject is equal to anything already written by Holocaust survivors Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi). That’s quite an accomplishment for any author, in any genre or field. But it's also a reminder that even history has rules when it’s committed to paper, in terms of respecting and not exploiting whom it’s about. Ultimately, the best historical works should be entertainment of the highest order.

Parisians also put me in mind of Erik Larson’s equally fine 2003 book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, which also brought together figures from history, known (William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Susan B. Anthony) and unknown (architects Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted) in a novelistic and exciting tale that dealt with the 1893 groundbreaking World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the concurrent rise of America’s first serial killer.

Histories like Parisians, The Devil in the White City and Randy Shilts’ 1987 superb book on the AIDS crisis, And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, are not all that easy to pull off. In fact, they’re not even the norm. You’re much more likely to get stuck with a failed account like Daniel Okrent’s 2010 book on prohibition, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Okrent’s tome is, and there’s no other word to describe it, dry. It brings forth the complexity and contradictions of America’s 1920 attempt to ban alcohol, in its revelation of such facts that Catholics and Jews were allowed by law to request and posses wine for their sacraments. This also led to no shortage of priests and rabbis who profited by this loophole to go into their own bootlegging business alongside the gangsters like Al Capone and ‘legitimate’ businessmen like the Bronfman family. But Okrent doesn’t have the ability, despite his journalistic background, to bring this original history to pungent life or to allow the larger than life characters who were deeply involved in its machinations, to reverberate beyond the printed page. Last Call is an intellectually satisfying read but nothing more than that.

Parisians, by contrast, functions successfully on all its levels, educating even as it entertains. No doubt, some historians will frown on histories like that of Robb’s, since he imagines the words his true life ‘characters’ might say, or what they’re thinking. But since he doesn’t stray from the historical facts, I’d argue that his is a legitimate approach to his subject. I’ve always been a big history buff. But if history had been taught like this when I was in school, I suspect a lot more people would love it, too.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He is teaching a course on significant contemporary film directors this fall at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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