:: Article

The Electric Complement

By Max Dunbar.


Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, Graham Robb, Picador 2010

Well I just got into town about an hour ago

Took a look around, see which way the wind blows

Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light

Or just another lost angel

City at night

-The Doors, ‘L. A. Woman’

I’ve always been obsessed with cities – that’s what comes of a suburban childhood. Recently, walking back to my South Manchester home in this blazing spring of 2010, among groups of laughing people carrying booze in orange plastic bags, the sound of music and car alarms and the air full and somehow busy on my face, I have thought: I am so lucky to live here, I love this place so much. I would die defending this way of life if it came to that. I especially love the cities of the north: I spent a great deal of my twenties bouncing around Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, with the occasional trip to Amsterdam, until a series of terrifying panic attacks set a limit on my adventures. The city is a woman that doesn’t always love you back.

In the epilogue to Parisians, Graham Robb writes:

Something had been obvious all along: the city, built by human beings, is indifferent to their desires. It shows them the solid form of their fictions, their tales of intimacy and glory, of love and everlasting pride, the legends and stories that only one person ever knew or that recruited generations to their make-believe. It educates even the most successful megalomaniacs in the smallness of their dreams.

We live in a time where there is free and easily available software allowing us to call up maps of anywhere in the world and even views of actual streets. Still, the city is the great unknowable. We’re like the blind men in that Buddhist fable – or is it Aesop? – scrabbling around the elephant’s hide. Paris in 1791, Robb explains, was ‘effectively uncharted’. Maps of the city as a whole were very rare and ‘known to army officers, librarians, kings and rich collectors, few of whom had any practical use for them.’ Tourists could buy papers that showed where to find the main attractions and high streets but little else. If you asked how to get a view of the city as a whole, people told you to climb some high building. Tellingly, Robb writes that: ‘Cointeraux’s map of ‘Paris As It Is Today’; (1798) painstakingly omitted all the minor streets, ‘for otherwise the map would have presented nothing but a veritable chaos.”

His passage on topography is indicative of the book as a whole. Robb knows that to record a city in a single volume would take the rest of a writer’s life and send him mad. Instead he approaches Paris from shadows and angles. The book is a series of unconnected stories set from 1750 to the present. (‘London is full of short stories,’ says John Self in Martin Amis’s Money, ‘long stories, epics, farces, sitcoms, sagas, soaps and squibs, walking around hand in hand’.) Robb focuses on the average citizen. Queens, philosophers, politicians and other historical celebrities are seen in these pages, but they are cameos, bright spectres passing through. The true protagonists are soldiers, policemen, cafe owners, students, drunks and whores.

This makes Parisians very close to capturing history as it is actually lived, rather than seen from above. Yet Robb never slides into the uncertainty and tedium that plague most social historians. He loses us in an enchanted forest of detail, then snaps us out of the trance in a single line. His story on the student riots of ’68 includes a scene where a teacher is beaten up by police thugs. The sergeant calls a halt, saying that the luckless educator looks too respectable to be a student. One of the officers shouts: ‘But, chief, he was carrying books!’

It’s this ability to sum up the horror and absurdity of a situation with a few casual penstrokes that makes Parisians both a delight and a necessity. Robb looks at the fascist occupation from the perspective of Parisian children. Toyshops closed. Trees they liked to climb were chopped up to heat homes. Parents were irritable and argumentative. False cakes appeared in shop windows. Meanwhile, Hitler pays a flying visit to the capital. He’s enchanted by what he sees. He walks around the city rhapsodising about its architecture. He’s almost human. ‘It was the dream of my life,’ the Nazi leader says, ‘to be permitted to see Paris. I am happy beyond words to see that dream fulfilled.’ The tour ends with the Führer’s companion, the sculptor Arno Breker, reflecting on the change in his master: ‘He clung to his memories like a secret treasure, all through the difficult years when, as Speer smilingly predicted when they said farewell to each other in the ruins of Berlin in 1945, ‘even a dog will refuse to take food from your hand’.’ After a genteel and almost pleasant vignette we end on a reminder of the terrors still to come.

The line is ominous, but in a way optimistic, because it shows us that empires will rise and fall, wars will be won and lost but the city remains. It’s like the Blitz spirit: come on, come ahead, fuck you, do your worst, because while some people may die and buildings may collapse we’re still here, we’re still standing. The IRA bomb in ’96 turned out to be the making of Manchester.

In Occidentalism, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit’s study of anti-Western prejudice, they devote a chapter to the Occidental City: the idea of the city as a godless, bloody vortex of businessmen and gangsters where everything is for sale and nothing has value, where no one is alone and everyone is lonely. This trope of the decadent and soulless metropolis began in religious thought but has made strong inroads into contemporary criticism and fiction. In fact, the city is a place of human life and renewal: it’s a theatre of dreams, and as Parisians shows, contains multitudes that even Google Streetview can’t map.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 23rd, 2010.