A Fortnightly Review of
Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris
By Graham Robb
496 pages. $28.95 W.W. Norton Co.
Reviewed by Harry Stein.
GRAHAM ROBB’S PARISIANS IS an unusually irritating book, in that it irritates in a number of distinct ways. Subtitled ‘An Adventure History of Paris’ – what exactly does that mean?, one ends up wondering by the end, in irritation – it is in fact a series of extended vignettes, arranged chronologically from just before the Revolution to the near-present. Each involves a notable personage or two and collectively they are intended to illuminate some of the City of Light’s hidden historical crevices.
To be sure, some of these episodes are fascinating – or, at least, could have been. But again and again, one finds oneself looking up from the page and asking some variation of “Huh?”
While Robb obviously loves his subject, and seems to have spent more hours in dusty archives than was good for his health, one problem, in a number of cases, is that he simply doesn’t have the goods.
Take, for instance, the section on Eugène-François Vidocq, an early-19th century career criminal who turned against his former chums with such brilliance and resourcefulness that he eventually became the city’s number one crime fighter – and, as such, the model for both Jean Valjean and his pursuer Javert – before retiring to open the world’s first modern detective agency. Great stuff, no?
Alas, the files of Paris’ centralized criminal bureau, the Sûreté, which presumably recorded his exploits in considerable detail, were reduced to cinder some decades hence, and the mastermind’s own files disappeared upon his death, leaving the author with literal scraps. “The exact truth of these and other tales is almost impossible to separate from the mass of rumour and misinformation,” he concedes, after having us wade through a chapter of nearly seven thousand words. Well, thanks a bunch, fella!
So how, exactly, does he use all those words? First, he takes what material he does have, and stretches it to the limit, and beyond. For instance, he has somewhere unearthed a handwritten note, in the hand of the criminal-turned-cop-turned-detective, written in his office at 13 Galerie Vivienne and dated 17 October 1840. He reproduces it in its entirety:
Having a matter to discuss that concerns you and that might cause you some unpleasantness and expense, please take the trouble to drop by my office on receipt of this letter.
So Robb vividly describes the recipient of this intriguing and rather menacing missive hurrying over to see Vidocq, records (from notations on the note) that she accepted his services and then….nothing. “No further information is available. The precise nature of the ‘unpleasantness’ to which the young woman was exposed must remain a mystery….”
In fact, what we mainly end up getting is a lot of stuff about the history of the Galerie Vivienne.
If I dwell on Vidocq, it’s only because the unfulfilled possibilities there seem especially rich. But, trust me, he pulls the same sort of stuff throughout the first two-thirds of the book – until we get, more or less, to a time when a good deal more factual material was readily at hand. And, even then, there’s a lot of pointless invention.
For example, there’s the chapter on the Dreyfus Affair, in which Robb oddly chooses to make Mrs. Émile Zola – Émilie – the star. Fair enough, I suppose, literary license and all that. So it’s 1891, before her husband’s gotten involved in the whole Dreyfus mess (and, as it turns out, just before she’s about to learn he’s been getting some side action with a certain Mlle. Rozerot over on the rue Saint-Lazare). M. and Mme. Z are off in the Pyrenees on a well-earned vacation, and Robb has Émilie leafing through the newspaper, reading specific stories and bits of gossip, as if he had the slightest clue. “She read on, through the advertisements for false teeth, hair restorer and soap” and “the art of remaining forever young. Émilie had no need of such lessons…”
Robb’s book certainly has its moments, and along the way he drops some terrific bits of information. Who knew, for example, that the Breton bonnet Charlotte Corday wore in the tumbrel en route to the guillotine would give rise to a fashion craze? (And, yet, knowing, who can truly be surprised?) But after a while, even such details become suspect. In the section on the Paris Commune, for instance, Robb gives us a guy picking up a newspaper from a kiosk, standing on the street reading it and suddenly peeing in his pants. Why? In due course we learn it’s because he’d found his name on a list, released to the press by the vindictive Communards, of those who’d offered their services as spies for the deposed regime of Louis Napoleon. While the poor fellow’s name is certainly real, the peeing is outright invention; indeed, it is clear the author knows no more about who he was or what became of him than we do.
The writing, too, often irritates, for whole pages are consumed in saying what could be said better in a brisk paragraph. Robb also has the highly annoying habit of not telling you who he’s talking about at the beginning of chapters, even when it’s patently obvious. Yes, stop already, we get that the young, rather prissy artillery lieutenant, footloose in the fleshpots of the Palais Royale and about to lose his virginity to the young prostitute from Nantes is, in fact, Napoleon!
Harry Stein is a contributing editor of City Journal and was a founding editor of the Paris Metro.