Blood and Passion in Paris

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Bettmann / Corbis

Extreme right wing demonstrators protest the strikes and the student riots in Paris, May 1968

In his brilliant 2007 book, The Discovery of France, British author Graham Robb upended the official French histories that depict a single Republic, language and citizenry by exploring the sociocultural divide — and mutual hostility — that separated Paris from the provinces well into the 19th century. With his new book Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, Robb does nearly the opposite, as he paints a composite history of the French capital by revisiting the incidents of human chaos that constituted the blood, bones and passion of Paris over the ages.

Parisians is built around 20 true stories that reflect the Paris of their respective periods, yet also help form the city's broader historical tissue. The tales span from 1750 to the present day, and feature historical figures such as Napoleon, Hitler, Charles de Gaulle, Sartre and Nicolas Sarkozy. But the main actors are the diverse, often obscure, bohemians, revolutionaries, artists, criminals, spies, bureaucrats, merchants and laborers who drove Paris forward over the centuries — a mob from which Robb artfully selects to illustrate the city's story.

Architect Charles-Axel Guillaumot's achievement of preventing much of Paris from vanishing into myriad sinkholes in 1774 acts as a counterpoint to the revolutionaries, rioters and zero-sum planners who regularly destroyed great swaths of the capital throughout history. Indeed, the Parisian propensity for violence and devastation has long proved a challenge for historians trying to record the evolution of the city's urban creativity and human development.

"That's one reason I decided to write up real stories about evocative people and events capable of serving as a composite image of Paris and its past," Robb explains. "I wanted to create a wider narrative by examining specific stories from Paris' history that could inform and entertain — and irritate academic historians."

Robb's flair for detail, engaging style and snappy cadence often give Parisians the feel of a novel. But the book is the product of intensive research using historical records, memoirs and studies. As a result, Robb creates a you-are-there sense of closeness to events that at times seems hard to believe. At one point, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann explains that while his grand reconstruction of Paris was outwardly motivated by imperial exigencies of urban greatness, it was also partly aimed at facilitating life for philandering officials like himself — "lovers who also have families and jobs" they need to be able to commute between rapidly. (His other priority: ridding the city of the open sewers that always mucked up his boots.) A chapter on Henry Murger, author of Scenes from a Bohemian Life, is full of detail on how bustling, treacherous, mightily malodorous and simply hard life was during the Belle Epoque — especially for those like himself who frequently "died of diseases known collectively as a lack of money." Robb's most astounding tale, however, recounts the story of the man who inspired Alexander Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo — and the equally improbable way his real biography morphed into a work of fiction.

Other vignettes find young Napoleon losing his virginity to a Parisian hooker, Hitler's giddy early-morning tour of fallen Paris and the May 1968 student uprising being downgraded to a politically self-defeating protest by bourgeois youths. Robb also documents how Paris for centuries loathed and feared the same suburban areas whose housing projects erupted in rioting in 2005, as their residents raged against their exclusion from affluent Parisian society.

That violence, Robb notes, was something Parisians themselves recognized as "practically a specialty of Paris." Just as he did in his earlier book, Robb in Parisians again reveals that much of Paris' history — and character — is rooted in division and diversity.