PARISIANS:An Adventure History of Paris, by Graham Robb. W.W. Norton & Company, 475 pp. $28.95.
History's meandering parade can turn into a somber march or a spirited dance, an instantly obsolete textbook or . . . "Parisians."
Vivid as the tricolor, Graham Robb's stylish and stylized tale of the town turns you into a sightseer, visiting the past, uncovering what time has hidden and observing anew what's there. It's a tantalizing tour. Robb wanders but is never lost.
Robb definitely knows the terroir. He has written stirring biographies of Hugo, Rimbaud and Balzac, and the engaging narrative "The Discovery of France."
"Parisians" unfurls through a series of stories and anecdotes, sketches and episodes, which at first seem random but subtly build on one another the way the layers of stone in an ancient church reveal its timeline. He tells the city's multilayered story through those who've lived it.
Here is an artillery lieutenant named Bonaparte losing his virginity to a prostitute, an act foreshadowing Napoleon the general's periodic purges of brothels near the Palais-Royale.
Then comes a turbulent carriage ride, complete with inevitable wrong turns on winding streets because there are no accurate city maps, that eventually leads Marie Antoinette to the guillotine.
Opening the Métro and welcoming the telephone dovetail with Proust incomparably bridging the old world and the new with "In Search of Lost Time."
Robb re-creates a one-day excursion with Hitler, viewing Paris for the first time, and writes an imaginary screenplay in which Juliette Greco and Miles Davis debate Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Café de Flore. Throughout, Robb's voice is informed, ironic, imaginative and provocative as any fiction.
You'll be introduced to assorted assassination attempts, robberies, massacres, nightmares; an examination of Notre Dame's mysteries; the leveling of a teeming, chaotic medieval city to create the great boulevards and geometry of today.
Through characters famous and not-so, Robb depicts a restless city with police-blotter precision and painterly images. He travels calmly and wryly from the Reign of Terror to the Paris Commune, the Nazi occupation to the May 1968 student revolt, the opening of the inside-out modern art museum Beaubourg to the completion of the outside-in Boulevard Périphérique.
He writes, "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."
So DeGaulle and his successors make their obligatory appearances, in telling and unlikely ways. And you'll be taken more, for example, by Charles-Axel Guillaumot, the architect and Inspector of Quarries who matched tunnels with streets and prevented the Left Bank from collapse.
Or by Jacques Peuchet, archivist of the Paris police, who organized "the unfathomable chaos" to discover "the mysterious tableau of private life."
They're models for Robb and essential to this chronicle of a city "where even the quietest street is crowded with adventures."