Paris Personified

In an established literary conceit, houses become people, and people become houses: Roderick Usher and the House of Usher, Quasimodo and Notre Dame.  Similarly, people become their cities, and cities their people.  Parisians is not an “important” book like Graham Robb’s magisterial work of the historians’ art, The Discovery of France.  But it is indisputably a work of art by a master observer, historical researcher, and poet, and that work’s beauty is matched by its qualities as an entertainment at a high level.  If Robb, an Englishman resident in Oxford, did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him as evidence that the stereotype of the English traveler as the awkward, ignorant, philistine enemy of France and all things French is not be taken at face value.  Graham Robb has been in love with France and the French since his student days.  If one were willing to risk offending the equally stereotypical xenophobic Frenchman by suggesting that Robb understands France better than do many of the French themselves, then one would go ahead and say it.  And I do say it.

Some of Parisians’ chapters are sketches; others are stories selected from the history of Paris.  One is a mystery tale whose themes are Notre Dame, alchemy, and the making of the atom bomb; another is a screenplay; yet another (about the student revolt in 1968) is presented in the form...

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