When I travel, I like to take books with me that are set in my destination. Reading Ian Rankin mysteries in Edinburgh, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994) in Savannah, made those trips more memorable, bringing to life locations that otherwise might not have signified much. But when faced with the plethora of choices for Paris, how does one choose? After much research, I picked up Graham Robb’s Parisians: an Adventure History of Paris (2010).
Robb is a historian who previously made splashes with big biographies of Balzac, Hugo, and Rimbaud. For two recent books, he took on a new format, first making The Discovery of France and then Parisians. These two books play with literary styles, using various short formats to examine a setting over time through brief tales that are evocative of larger themes. Robb begins Parisians with a young lieutenant’s meanderings through Paris in 1787 (the lieutenant turns out to be Napoleon), then swims forward through time in various stories, finishing with Robb’s own bicycle visit through the Paris périphérique where the deaths of two young immigrants, chased into an electric station by police, set off riots in areas around Paris’s outer ring in 2005. Along the way he plays with format, approaching Baron Haussmann’s reconfiguration of Paris through a photographer’s remembrances, presenting Jean Paul Sartre’s encounter with Miles Davis as a screenplay, or the student riots of 1968 in the form of a college course outline.
Robb is always slow to reveal the names of the subjects of each tale, forcing the reader to come to grips with each story on its own merits before piling on the baggage of historical associations with the subject. Sometimes this can be frustratingly slow (I have to confess, I didn’t finish the book until well after my return from Paris), but it creates some nice aha moments when you finally discover the name of the young female royal, or the writer husband of the put-upon wife. His style immerses the reader in the moment, which can be disorienting at first, but ultimately forces more of a connection than the usual plain-Jane travel essay.
Paris offers a wonderful theme for a discussion in which
readers choose their own titles and then discover
connections between them.
My favorite chapter involved Charles-Axel Guillaumot, the now forgotten engineer who was tasked with solving the problem of huge sinkholes that were opening up in the Left Bank as more and more of the underlying limestone was turned into the city’s monumental buildings. Ultimately, he would create vast underground pathways and solved a second problem by moving Paris’s overflowing cemeteries underground and creating the now famous Catacombs.
Parisians invites a reader to explore other books, whether to re-read Proust for signs of the author’s terrible agorophobia, to search for more accounts of the irascible criminal-turned-police-detective-pioneer Vidocq (try Louis Bayard’s The Black Tower, 2008), to look at pictures of the inside-out Pompidou Centre, or to look into the murky career development of politicians like De Gaulle, Mitterand, or Sarkozy. Connections of setting echo outward in ripples, making frequently addressed places like Paris wonderful themes for book club meetings where readers choose their own titles and then discover connections between them through discussion.
I was lucky to make my own visit to Paris to see literary landmarks like the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, Victor Hugo’s house on the lovely Place des Vosges, or the cafe haunts of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and company, but any book group can make its own armchair adventure with the help of books like Julia Child’s My Life in France (2006), Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key (2006), Adam Gopnik’s memoir Paris to the Moon (2000), David Downie’s Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light (2005), or a variety of classics by Dumas, Hugo, Zola, the Baroness Orczy, George Orwell, or Guy de Maupassant.