Graham Robb is an author and Francophile who has collected a shelf-full of awards for his books and it easy to see why as this book is an absolute delight.
Robb has taken episodes from the lives of Parisians, as well as those who may have been temporary inhabitants, and crafted these into a series of short stories in which the known facts are elaborated upon with a realistic imagining of scene and dialogue. The results are by turns entertaining, exciting moving and, often, just incredible.
Many of the characters are famous, for example Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie Antoinette, Emile Zola and Francois Mitterand. However, Robb has chosen tales from their lives that may not be so well known to the average reader. I found myself relying on Google extensively to find out more about many of the historical references.
Each chapter is a perfectly encapsulated distillation of history, drama and the changing face of Paris over the centuries. Each one can be read as a stand-alone short story, but the reader will be eager to move on to the next chapter and the next in one sitting.
In the very first chapter, we meet a young Napoleon Bonaparte experiencing the delights of the Palais Royal for the first time whilst in Paris to petition the government on behalf of his family.
The second chapter follows Marie Antoinette, lost in the streets around the palace whilst trying to escape with the King in one of a series of disasters that blighted the ‘Flight to Varennes’, in which the Royal Court attempted to seek a safe haven in the face of growing popular unrest.
The story of the deathbed confession of Francois Picaud, a humble cobbler who was wrongfully imprisoned but made powerful friends and became unfeasibly rich is a spectacular tale of complete and devastating revenge. This was one of my favourite chapters of the book and I was swept along with the adventure and amazed by the audacity and vindictiveness of Picaud. Alexandre Dumas based The Count of Monte Cristo on a second hand account of the confession of a man who said he had murdered Picaud.
Another highlight is the chapter telling the story of Emile Zola’s wife. The writing is expressive and atmospheric. We feel Madame Zola’s disappointment with how small Paris appeared when viewed from the top of the Eiffel Tower. The great city did not appear so all encompassing when viewed from a different perspective and if Paris is small, what does that make its inhabitants? This chapter contains one of my favourite descriptive images. Zola’s cottage is ‘squeezed between two tall towers like a victim of mistaken identity being marched to the commissariat by two hefty gendarmes.’
The chapter entitled ‘Occupation’ gives a child’s eye view of Nazi controlled Paris and is both eloquent and heartbreaking.
A more recent historical oddity is based on a hoax assassination attempt on Francois Mitterand. The almost farcical, embarrassing drama contrasts with the experiences of President De Gaulle who routinely faced genuine assassination attempts.
This is a very well written and immensely interesting book that I would strongly recommend. Not every chapter Is a jewel but there are enough gems to reward most readers.