Graham Robb

Graham Robb’s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris came out last year.

In the summer of 2007, Jay Smith, who teaches history at the University of North Carolina, was in Paris collecting information for a book about a mysterious beast that terrorised the remote French province of the Gévaudan between 1764 and 1767. One day, while lunching on the place de la Sorbonne, he was warned of a terrible danger. His companion, a French academic, told him that if he...

Hugolian Gothic: Gargoyles of Notre-Dame

Graham Robb, 25 February 2010

It was Victor Hugo who first brought the water evacuation system of Notre-Dame cathedral to the world’s attention. The central character of Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) was like a living gargoyle, a tortured ‘bundle of disordered limbs’ swinging furiously on bell-ropes, scrambling over the face of Notre-Dame, dislodging the crows, as he leaped ‘from projection to...

Water me: Excentricité

Graham Robb, 26 March 2009

The word excentricité was first used in its figurative sense by Germaine de Staël in her Considérations sur les principaux événements de la Révolution française (1817). Until then, it had been an astronomical and geometrical term. In its new sense, it was an anglicism, expressing ‘a wholly original way of behaving which pays no heed to the...

The first reports of a gruesome disaster reached Paris on 5 September 1816. A French frigate, the Medusa, had run aground on the notorious and poorly mapped Arguin Bank off the coast of West Africa. It was the flagship of a small expedition sent to repossess the settlement of Senegal, which had been handed back to the French by the Treaties of Paris (1814 and 1815). The captain, Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, was, in Jonathan Miles’s words, ‘a rusty relic from the Ancien Régime who had not put to sea for about a quarter of a century’. When it ran aground, the Medusa had become separated from the rest of the expedition.

In September 1814, the European powers were meeting at Vienna to carve up the continent after the fall of Napoleon. The delegation from the Grand Duchy of Baden was hoping to consolidate the territorial gains it had made under the French empire and to prove itself worthy of a major role in the new Europe. Duchy officials were alarmed, therefore, when they heard that Baron Karl von Drais, a...

A City of Sand and Puddles: Paris

Julian Barnes, 22 April 2010

Like many Francophiles, I’ve never read a book about Paris. Not a whole one, all the way through, anyway. Of course, I’ve bought enough of them, of every sort, and in some cases the...

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Oui Oyi Awè Jo Ja Oua: The French Provinces

Michael Sheringham, 31 July 2008

As Graham Robb points out, the ‘discovery’ of France – by politicians, bureaucrats, map-makers, statisticians, engineers, folklorists, tourists and, until fairly recently, the...

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Graham Robb, who is well known for his biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud, has written a history of what he calls a ‘vanished civilisation’, his theme being that in the...

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Fleeing the Mother Tongue: Rimbaud

Jeremy Harding, 9 October 2003

Arthur Rimbaud, the boy who gave it all up for something different, is a legend, both as a poet and a renouncer of poetry. He had finished with literature before the age of 21. By the time his...

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Monsieur Apollo

John Sturrock, 13 November 1997

The 22-year-old Flaubert, as yet only a bored law student in Paris, writing to his sister in Rouen to tell her of the evening he had spent with, among others, Victor Hugo: I took pleasure in...

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A Passion for Pears

John Sturrock, 7 July 1994

If Balzac had had his way, the real Paris would have become a little more like the visionary Paris of his novels. He thought a spiral staircase should be built, leading down from the Luxembourg...

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