Picador, £18.99, 486pp, £16.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Parisians by Graham Robb

Hidden depths of a frozen city

Paris in the 21st century is arguably a frozen city, a Disneyworld pastiche of itself.

The most beautiful city in the world has never been more beautiful (and certainly never cleaner) but has also become, by common consent, a trifle dull. As someone observes in Graham Robb's excellent new book, it is as if the real Paris had been taken away for safe-keeping and replaced by a full-size model.

Paris is a vertical city, although not vertical in the same way as, say, New York. It has geological layers of its past piled one on top of another, some exposed, others obscured or forgotten. Unlike other cities, Paris also has – or had - different social layers piled on top of each other. A sketch from 1845, reproduced in Robb's "adventure history of Paris", shows a cross-section of a typical 19th-century apartment building. A wealthy family occupies the whole first floor. The bohemian, the impoverished and the depraved crush into the upper stories.

Up to a point, this is still true. Even in the wealthiest parts of the city, there are immigrants, students and other marginals roosting in the "maids' rooms" above two-million euro apartments. In the last decade, however, many "chambres de bonnes" have been knocked together to make expensive flats, straining much remaining grit out of large areas of the city. The process was encouraged from the 1970s by the last mayor but one, Jacques Chirac, who "assisted" working class and darker-skinned Parisians to move out to the spacious, and now dreaded, banlieues.

Robb's book drills through these layers of Parisian history and sociology – starting in the late 18th century - in an unusual and hugely enjoyable way. Some of his 19 essays are based on oft-told episodes: the French Revolution; Baron Haussmann's rebuilding projects of the 1850s and 1860s; the Commune of 1870; Adolf Hitler's whirlwind visit in June 1940; the student and worker revolt of May 1968.

Others chapters tell lesser-known stories, such as the medieval clues – and warnings – about the dangers of nuclear science carved, Dan-Brown-like, into the façade of Notre Dame cathedral. Most chapters are narrated from a single viewpoint, either through the eyes of a leading participant (Baron Haussmann) or an unexpected onlooker (Proust on the coming of a Métro system, on which he never stooped to ride.) Each chapter is written in a style appropriate to its period. In most cases, Robb's pastiches are a tour de force. In a few cases, they are a confusing distraction.

Thus "Marcel in the Métro" is a wonderful account of the technological advances which made end-of-19th century Paris, briefly, the most advanced city in the world, written in imitation of Proust's clipped, sensual style. "Petrol fumes gusting up from the street suggested the shade of willows and a brook singing duets with the softly puttering Panhard-Levassor." A chapter on the novelist Emile Zola doubles as an account of the conflicting forces in late 19th-century Paris: the modernism which made the Eiffel Tower and the brutal obscurantism and anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Case. The chapter is written – very beautifully – as a mini-Zola novel from the point of view of the writer's wife.

The only great sorrow in Mme Zola life is that she cannot have children. Then she discovers that her apparently blameless moralist of a husband has a working-class mistress with whom he has a secret son and daughter. Mme Zola turns her second great sorrow into an antidote to her first. While Zola fights for the honour of Captain Dreyfus and is forced into exile in Britain, Mme Zola becomes a surrogate grande-mere to her husband's illegitimate offspring.

Less effective is the chapter on the 1950s existentialist singer, Juliette Greco, recalling her friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and her love affair with Miles Davis. The episode is written as a New Wave film script, which muddles, rather than illuminates, the story.

Perhaps the best chapter is the last but one. It tells – in modern journalistic style - the story of Bouna and Zyed, the teenage boys whose deaths in Clichy-sous-Bois began the suburban riots of 2005. Robb traces the history of Clichy-sous-Bois from the middle ages when it was a lair for outlaws to its jumbled, cruel and racially-mixed suburbanification. Unlike all the other characters, Bouna and Zyed were never Parisians. They were inhabitants of the "banlieues", kept at bay by the political and economic force-field of the Boulevard Périphérique which encircles the capital proper.

As Robb rightly implies, this force-field also damages Paris by repelling the youth, innovation and energy of the banlieues. "One day, perhaps, like other popular revolts, the riots would be seen as the birth pangs of a new metropolis," Robb writes. Five years after the 2005 riots, talk of a Greater Paris remains mired in cynicism, hypocrisy and abstraction.

John Lichfield is Paris correspondent of 'The Independent'

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