Paris is like the Parisians themselves – a fascinating acquaintance, but impossible to know intimately. For a city with such an elegant, sophisticated exterior, it has a dark underbelly. Its tree-lined boulevards are little distance from the fleshpots of Pigalle. It is synonymous with art and literature and metropolitan sophistication, yet in the 1960s its Police were capable of massacring unarmed Algerian protesters, whilst Portuguese and North African immigrants scraped a living in the bidonvilles, the unofficial townships of corrugated iron which circled the city itself.
Yet, whilst lavishly praised in other quarters, I didn’t feel that this book entirely came off. The first reason is stylistic. One feels that Robb is trying too hard to ensure that his tales are “adventures”. Subjects are obscure until the point of revelation, which, in the tale of how Napoleon lost his virginity is not until the last page of the essay. Exposition can be clotted and difficult. One needs to read and reread in order to understand what exactly has transpired – not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it is superfluous. The stories stand by themselves. One of the best essays concerns the riots of 2007 and is written in a lucid contemporary style.