Subtitled An Adventure History of Paris, and definitely worth a read. The opening sections were a little confusing – perhaps due to the author’s tendency to hold back key information in order to create suspense – but this was less confusing with later sections – either I became more familiar with the narrative techniques, or knew enough about the background to fill in the gaps.
I suppose for me the book really took off with the chapter describing Hitler’s visit to Paris in 1940 with the architect Arno Breker. They were seeking to imitate Paris’s grand designs in rebuilding Germany for the third reich. There was a clear sense of danger and excitement apparent in the empty streets, and the way Hitler was rushed from site to site, and previously I had known nothing of this particular episode of WW2; the perspective of the architect – who had previously visited and loved Paris – on Hitler and the whole experience of the flying visit to the capital gave the reader the sense of a proximate, but distanced observer.
Robb focuses on a range of events and characters that typify Paris at different stages of its development since L’Ancien Regime. Sections on Zola, which focus on the effect of Zola’s infidelities on his wife – and Proust, which show some elements of the development of the Metro and the modernisation of Paris – cast real light on eras of history that were interesting and largely unknown to me, whilst the section on alchemy and the development of the nuclear bomb explored a new aspect of an area I like to read about – the development of physics in the twentieth century.
It was the last section of the book, though, that I liked best. The analysis of several failed assassination attempts on Presidents De Gaulle and Mitterand, and the suggestion that these were fabricated in order to develop the sympathy of the voters – De Gaulle stepping purposefully into Notre dame in the face of a hail of bullets, and Mitterand ducking over a fence and hiding whilst hired “assassins” used a bren gun to rake his Peugeot 405. The section on the riots in 2005, which focuses on the history of the foret de Bondy, and the electrocution of three boys who had climbed into a electricity sub-station to escape the inappropriate attentions of the police seemed to bring me right up to date with the history of Paris revolutions. These were new insights into modern France – a country and culture I really love.