Graham Robb

Graham Robb’s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris came out last year.

In the summer of 2007, Jay Smith, who teaches history at the University of North Carolina, was in Paris collecting information for a book about a mysterious beast that terrorised the remote French province of the Gévaudan between 1764 and 1767. One day, while lunching on the place de la Sorbonne, he was warned of a terrible danger. His companion, a French academic, told him that if he...

Hugolian Gothic: Gargoyles of Notre-Dame

Graham Robb, 25 February 2010

It was Victor Hugo who first brought the water evacuation system of Notre-Dame cathedral to the world’s attention. The central character of Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) was like a living gargoyle, a tortured ‘bundle of disordered limbs’ swinging furiously on bell-ropes, scrambling over the face of Notre-Dame, dislodging the crows, as he leaped ‘from projection to...

Water me: Excentricité

Graham Robb, 26 March 2009

The word excentricité was first used in its figurative sense by Germaine de Staël in her Considérations sur les principaux événements de la Révolution française (1817). Until then, it had been an astronomical and geometrical term. In its new sense, it was an anglicism, expressing ‘a wholly original way of behaving which pays no heed to the...

The first reports of a gruesome disaster reached Paris on 5 September 1816. A French frigate, the Medusa, had run aground on the notorious and poorly mapped Arguin Bank off the coast of West Africa. It was the flagship of a small expedition sent to repossess the settlement of Senegal, which had been handed back to the French by the Treaties of Paris (1814 and 1815). The captain, Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, was, in Jonathan Miles’s words, ‘a rusty relic from the Ancien Régime who had not put to sea for about a quarter of a century’. When it ran aground, the Medusa had become separated from the rest of the expedition.

In September 1814, the European powers were meeting at Vienna to carve up the continent after the fall of Napoleon. The delegation from the Grand Duchy of Baden was hoping to consolidate the territorial gains it had made under the French empire and to prove itself worthy of a major role in the new Europe. Duchy officials were alarmed, therefore, when they heard that Baron Karl von Drais, a...

Diary: the Tour de France

Graham Robb, 19 August 2004

At three o’clock in the morning somewhere between Auxerre and Lyon on the European Bike Express bus, I dreamed that I had an exclusive interview with Lance Armstrong. Armstrong is the Texan cycling supremo who recovered from advanced testicular cancer to win the Tour de France five times in a row. One condition was imposed: the interview had to be conducted on bicycles. This seemed...

“Constables had been known to lie in wait in a burglar’s cupboard for 72 hours, only to be locked in by the burglar and almost starved to death. Vidocq was a genius by comparison . . . nothing was too inconvenient for him . . . in the cruel winter of 1812, he spent a night waist-deep in a pile of fermenting rubbish so that he could net the thief known as ‘L’Ecrevisse’ (’the Crayfish’) without freezing to death.”

Slippery Prince: Napoleon III

Graham Robb, 19 June 2003

On the morning of 5 August 1840, a large pleasure boat chartered by a Frenchman was under steam at London Bridge. The owners of the Edinburgh Castle seem to have been remarkably incurious about the expedition. The day before, guns and ammunition, bundles of printed proclamations, a large amount of cash, sixty uniforms and several horses had been taken on board. The passengers wore civilian...

Marie Catherine Sophie de Flavigny, Comtesse d’Agoult (born Frankfurt, 1805; died Paris, 1876) is famous for two contrasting reasons. In 1835, she left her husband for Franz Liszt. The affair lasted about ten years and produced three children, the second of whom, Cosima, succeeded ‘where her mother had failed’, says Phyllis Stock-Morton, by ‘becoming the permanent muse of...

Missing Mother: romanticism

Graham Robb, 19 October 2000

Trying to define Romanticism has always been a typically Romantic activity, especially in France. The word romantisme first appeared in the year of Napoleon’s coronation (1804) and soon began to acquire a large retinue of definitions. Mme de Staël associated it with the misty, melancholy North and declared Romanticism to be primarily an effect of climate. Victor Hugo and his...

I want, I shall have

Graham Robb, 17 February 2000

The role of Thérèse Humbert and her family in the life of Henri Matisse was one of the revelations of the first volume of Hilary Spurling’s pioneering biography: The Unknown Matisse. For more than twenty years, the Humberts were a major force in the social and political life of the Third Republic, until, in 1902, their legendary wealth was exposed as a hoax. The famous Humbert strongbox, which was supposed to contain a hundred million francs in bearer bonds, was found to be almost empty. Thousands of creditors and investors lost everything. The Humberts’ innocent steward, Armand Parayre, was arrested, along with the disgraced family. His son-in-law, ‘a dashing but penniless young artist’, was widely considered guilty by association, and ‘from 1905 onwards, Matisse’s work was regularly dismissed by the critics as an attempt to pull a fast one on the public’‘

Migne and Moody

Graham Robb, 4 August 1994

‘The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night’ (I Thessalonians 5.2). In 19th-century France, it came in the shape of the abbé Jacques-Paul Migne. Between 1840 and 1870, with the help of several hundred poorly-paid workers and the latest in steam-powered printing, Migne undid the effects of the French Revolution, reversed the Reformation, created ‘the two most beautiful historical monuments to be found anywhere in the world’ and directed ‘the greatest publishing enterprise since the invention of printing’.



30 July 1998

At the risk of replacing the ‘very gruesome taste’ in Christopher Hitchens’s mouth (Letters, 12 November) with a different though equally unpleasant taste: the ‘cloud’ under which Rimbaud left Cyprus in June 1880 – if there was a cloud at all – had nothing to do with Kitchener. According to Rimbaud’s letters and the Cyprus Gazette, he was hired to supervise...

Second Sight

4 August 1994

I, too, was surprised to find myself saying that Migne gave away a free life of St Theresa of Lisieux two years before she was born (Christopher Howse, Letters, 8 September). That was an editorial lapse that occurred after the proof stage. It was, of course, St Teresa (or Theresa) of Avila (1515-82).

A City of Sand and Puddles: Paris

Julian Barnes, 22 April 2010

Like many Francophiles, I’ve never read a book about Paris. Not a whole one, all the way through, anyway. Of course, I’ve bought enough of them, of every sort, and in some cases the...

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Oui Oyi Awè Jo Ja Oua: The French Provinces

Michael Sheringham, 31 July 2008

As Graham Robb points out, the ‘discovery’ of France – by politicians, bureaucrats, map-makers, statisticians, engineers, folklorists, tourists and, until fairly recently, the...

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Graham Robb, who is well known for his biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud, has written a history of what he calls a ‘vanished civilisation’, his theme being that in the...

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Fleeing the Mother Tongue: Rimbaud

Jeremy Harding, 9 October 2003

Arthur Rimbaud, the boy who gave it all up for something different, is a legend, both as a poet and a renouncer of poetry. He had finished with literature before the age of 21. By the time his...

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Monsieur Apollo

John Sturrock, 13 November 1997

The 22-year-old Flaubert, as yet only a bored law student in Paris, writing to his sister in Rouen to tell her of the evening he had spent with, among others, Victor Hugo: I took pleasure in...

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A Passion for Pears

John Sturrock, 7 July 1994

If Balzac had had his way, the real Paris would have become a little more like the visionary Paris of his novels. He thought a spiral staircase should be built, leading down from the Luxembourg...

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