A City of Sand and Puddles

Julian Barnes

  • Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb
    Picador, 476 pp, £18.99, April 2010, ISBN 978 0 330 45244 1
  • The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps by Eric Hazan, translated by David Fernbach
    Verso, 384 pp, £20.00, February 2010, ISBN 978 1 84467 411 4

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 hope of their being read has extended over several years. For instance, I was almost sure I would tackle the distinguished art critic John Russell’s Paris (1960), ‘with photographs by Brassaï’, but never got past the pictures. I had slightly less confidence about Maxime Du Camp’s six-volume Paris, ses organes, ses fonctions et sa vie dans la seconde moitié du XIXe siècle (1869-76), bought partly for its Flaubertian connections, or rather disconnections. (Flaubert always saw himself as being betrayed by the literary friends of his youth: one betrayed him by marrying, another by dying, while Du Camp, in the worst treason of the three, betrayed him by becoming a journalising littérateur – of which this massive work is a triumph of that form, or, for Flaubert, non-form.) More practically, I bought Paris à pied – published by the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre – after discovering from a browse that there is a red and yellow waymarked path running west-east across Paris, that the GR1 crossed the Bois de Boulogne and the GR14 and 14A the Bois de Vincennes; but no, even this exciting prospect didn’t get me lacing my boots. And then there are the cultural and literary guides which Paris regularly spawns: Hemingway at the Ritz bar, Sartre at the Deux Magots, Balzac and Victor Hugo practically everywhere – here we go again.

It’s partly that the Francophile tends not to absorb Paris in a head-on fashion. Instead, it comes at us constantly through novels, paintings, opera, cinema, chansons, popular mythology – and, mainly, through being there. And there are certain works – like, say, the Goncourt Journal – which serve as a kind of unofficial history of the Paris of their time. The city seems too inchoate to be absorbed – like, say, Venice – into a single volume; and at the same time less monumental than, say, London, which demands such treatment (and has surely received it). Paris in its history dominated France much less than London dominated England. So we perhaps prefer to read about separate, key episodes which happened to take place in Paris. There is something dispiriting about the idea of slogging through from the day the first Roman banged his palisade stake into the ground in defence against the local Parisii, and then Clovis, and on to Paris being Worth a Mass, and the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre and the Fronde and the Revolution and 1870-71 and the Belle Epoque, the American Expats, the Occupation, Liberation, 1968, and so on, even unto Whither Paris, City of Light, in the Transnational Age?

Graham Robb and Eric Hazan are both keen to avoid the Gendarme Plod approach, and well aware that, as Robb puts it, ‘a changing metropolis with a population of millions can never be comprehended by a single person.’ They also typify the difference between English and French intellectual approaches. The very title of Robb’s Parisians announces that it is going to be based on people rather than thesis or theory; while its craftily alluring subtitle ‘An Adventure History of Paris’ seems to hint at Jules Verne (not that he is mentioned), and more widely at pace, narrative, readability. The virtues of fiction are evoked from the beginning, and practised throughout. Hazan’s approach is psychogeographical and political: the ‘invention’ of his title is not specifically explained, but by the end of his book the reader will understand it more in the sense of ‘fraudulent perception’ than ‘welcome discovery’. Hazan wants to rescue individual moments from general forgetting and key sites from the bland homogenisation of international city development; he is also a passionate left-wing historian seeking to rescue the truth of Paris’s revolutionary past from the historiographical equivalent of Haussmannisation – the blasting through and laying waste to the lives and memories of the unimportant, the marginalised, the losers of the last two centuries.

Robb began his career with biographies of Balzac, Hugo and Rimbaud; they were ‘highly acclaimed’, which is both true and also a publishing euphemism for ‘anything between two and five thousand in hardback’. One reason for the acclaim was that those three literary lives were all, to use his current subtitle, ‘adventure’ stories, and the reader sensed that Robb was as much drawn to the surprising, anti-bookish trajectory of his subjects’ lives as he was to the greatness or otherwise of their writings. (The Hugo was a great relief to non-Hugolians: Robb would frequently expound an embarrassingly unread work – Les Travailleurs de la mer, for instance – in such a way as to leave the doubter relieved that, no, this one didn’t really have to be read either.) But at times you could imagine Robb fretting at the inevitable conventions of the one volume literary life. He needed a wider scope, and found it first with Strangers, an account of homosexual love in the 19th century, and then The Discovery of France, which was his ‘breakout book’ – the publishing euphemism for ‘maybe twenty thousand, maybe more, in hardback’. Now, with his ninth book, Robb confirms his reputation as our leading non-academic interpreter of France. Not that he lacks academic rigour; but it lies discreetly behind a non-academic joyfulness. The French used to celebrate Richard Cobb as le grand Cobb; and perhaps it isn’t too early to hail his successor as le grand Robb.

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