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Ruth Scurr on Paris

Posted on Jul 15, 2010

By Ruth Scurr

(Page 2)

Baudelaire’s “Tableaux parisiens” is a sequence of eighteen poems published in the 1861 edition of Les Fleur du Mal. Eight of the poems came from the section Spleen et Idéal in the earlier, prosecuted and reviled edition of 1857. Baudelaire added ten new poems to form his innovative contribution to the tradition of Tableau de Paris, which Louis-Sébastien Mercier had begun in the eighteenth century. So it is not an accident that Robb’s Parisians has eighteen chapters, each individually shaped by “narrative devices and perspectives naturally suggested by a place, a historical moment or a personality”.

Like a true flâneur, he believes that, “Every vision of the city, however private or eccentric, belongs to its history as much as its public ceremonies and monuments”. He sets out to write “a mini-Human Comedy of Paris”, grounded in historical fact, but imaginatively reconfigured “to replicate the convenient mnemonic effect of a long walk, a bus ride or a personal adventure”. This book, like Robb’s The Discovery of France (2007), is a romantic, narrative history of a subtle, eclectic and circuitous kind that defines itself in terms of “courtesy to the past”. In bringing his skills as a literary critic and biographer to bear on the history of France, and now Paris, Robb has revolutionized (in the politest sense of the word) historical writing on the cusp between fiction and non-fiction.

The chapter “Lost” describes Paris at the time of the first French Revolution through the short lapse of time (twenty minutes or so) in which Marie Antoinette, trying to escape from the Tuileries with her family on the night of the Flight to Varennes in 1791, took a wrong turn that made her late arriving at the get-away carriage (which was an unwisely conspicuous outsize berline specially constructed for the occasion). How was it possible that neither the Queen of France nor her bodyguards and guide noticed when they turned right instead of left on leaving the Tuileries and ended up crossing the river on the Pont Royal, instead of arriving at the rendezvous in the Place du Carrousel? Around this “apparently extraordinary but in fact quite normal” occurrence, Robb assembles a wealth of detail about the paucity of Parisian maps and rarity of street signs at the end of the eighteenth century. François Cointeraux’s map of “Paris as it is today” (1798), for example, deliberately omitted all the minor streets, “for otherwise the map would have presented nothing but a veritable chaos”. At the end of this chapter, Robb discusses the guillotine obliquely. The journey of the condemned from the Conciergerie, across the river and up the rue Saint-Honoré was about two miles, and Robb imagines that “Some of them, as they descended from the cart and climbed the wooden steps, knew for the first time in their lives exactly where they were, and how they had got there”. Whether or not this is true, Robb succeeds in capturing the sharpened focus of perception that plausibly descends on those who know they are about to die. Like the unnamed man, standing in front of the Tuileries Palace, “who hearing the noise of the crowd, climbed onto the pedestal of a statue and quite distinctly saw the blade of the guillotine fall, at a distance of almost half a mile”, Robb stands well back from the gore and horror of that time and leaves his readers with a new perspective.


book cover


The Invention of Paris: A History Told in Footsteps


By Eric Hazan


Verso, 400 pages


Buy the book


book cover


Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris


By Graham Robb


W. W. Norton & Company, 496 pages


Buy the book

The history of photography recurs through Parisians, which includes a reproduction of the first known photographic image of a human being in the open air, taken by Daguerre in 1838 from the rooftop of his studio in the Boulevard du Temple. The chapter “Marville” opens with a reproduction of an 1865 photograph of “the back end of a Paris square” which captures both an advertising board (a collage of contemporary detail) and Baudelaire’s childhood home at No 22 rue Saint-André-des-Arts. Robb quotes the famous lines that might be thought the anthem of literary flâneurs: “... stumbling upon words as on the paving-stones, / Sometimes bumping into lines I’d dreamt of long before”. Photography is also important in the chapter “Madame Zola”. Zola owned at least eight cameras and needed his loyal wife Alexandrine to help him carry them about the Champ de Mars. At the very beginning of the twentieth century, they climbed to the second platform of the Eiffel Tower and he photographed the roofscape, “moving around the platform, until he had a complete panorama of the city, from the industrial quartiers in the east to the avenues and gardens in the west”. The result was a representation of the city “as grandiose and coherent as his great sequence of novels”. But mention of another photograph, of Zola pouring tea for his mistress and their two children in the garden of a rented house near Médan, disrupts the suggestion of order and coherence that his “half-marriage” to Alexandrine provided.

The ordering of the eighteen chapters in Parisians is as considered as the ordering of poems within a volume. Beginning at the Palais-Royal (which, according to Eugène Briffault’s Paris à table, 1846, was the first place the Allied forces entering the city after the Battle of Waterloo wanted to go to), Robb progresses through Paris’s architectural, literary, photographic, social and political history in loosely chronological order, with many digressions and meanderings along the way, until he reaches the Périphérique, which was completed in 1973 under the Presidency of Georges Pompidou (“‘Pom-pi-dou’, like the peeping of a car horn”): Before the Revolution, the tax-wall of the Fermiers-Généraux had raised howls of protest. Surrounded from within, the city had laid siege to itself, and an anonymous wit had penned the memorable line, “Le mur murant Paris rend Paris murmurant”: Parisians were muttering about their immurement, bewailing the wall that walled them in. Now the saying was literally true: Paris was surrounded by a continual murmur, a whispering wall of tyres and tarmac, a caterwauling of combustion engines.

Beyond “le Périph”, is Robb’s eighteenth chapter entitled “Sarko, Bouna and Zyed”: the story of the teenage boys from the banlieue whom the police chased into an electrical power station in October 2005. Two of them died, and as the third lay badly burned in hospital, the banlieue erupted in flames: “From Clichy-sous-Bois, the inferno seemed to be heading for the centre of Paris along the Canal l’Ourcq, through Bondy, Bobigny, Pantin and La Villette”. Robb notes that while the Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, talked of “extreme violence such as is rarely seen in France”, people knew they were witnessing “something that was practically a speciality of Paris”: spontaneous violence, urban insurrection, popular revolt. Robb conjures up a final vision of the city that resonates with Hazan’s: Those unsightly quarters of Paris called the banlieue were proving themselves worthy of the capital. One day, perhaps, like other popular revolts, the riots would be seen as the birth pangs of a new metropolis. Paris had been expanding since the Middle Ages, pouring over the plains and flooding the valleys of the river system, as though it would eventually fill the entire Paris Basin. Each eruption had threatened to destroy the city, but each time, a new Paris had risen from the ashes.

Ruth Scurr is an affiliated lecturer and college fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. She is the author of “Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution,” 2006.

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By moineau, July 17, 2010 at 5:34 pm Link to this comment

j’adore! an excellent article on two very enticing new books. the author of the first has such a fascinating international history, yet he is compelled to return to write about the city of paris… how telling! xoxooxox

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By Blackspeare, July 16, 2010 at 3:54 pm Link to this comment

Paris is the ultimate city——it is like five Manhattans linked side by side with a superb public transportation system and every third store is a restaurant or cafe!

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By NYCartist, July 16, 2010 at 12:02 pm Link to this comment

I am a flaneur, albeit via wheelchair now not biped.
Beam me up to Paris, please.  Haven’t been there since 1964.  (Am 1/4 French; Jewish French grandfather who I never met.)  I am a flaneur in my own city,too, as can.  I love Paris.  My favorite city (besides Manhattan) is Firenze.

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