Graham Robb is the author of biographies of Balzac, Hugo, and Rimbaud. His latest book is The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts.
 (December 2013)


Adventures in a Silver Cloud

‘Death of Harris’; a card from a popular French series of balloon collecting cards, 1895, showing, as Richard Holmes writes in Falling Upwards, ‘a glamorous young naval officer’ named Thomas Harris, whose flight over London in May 1824 with ‘a dazzlingly pretty eighteen-year-old cockney girl’ ended in a sudden descent that killed Harris but not his passenger

Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air

by Richard Holmes
Far from being a straightforward history of the balloon, Richard Holmes’s Falling Upwards is an uplifting celebration of its aesthetic appeal and its “social and imaginative impact,” of the writing it inspired and of the “strangely mesmerising” “dash and eccentricity” of the balloonists themselves.

The Flight of the Sparrow

Edith Piaf and Yves Montand after a joint concert, 1945

No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf

by Carolyn Burke
In Parisian working-class slang, a piaf is a sparrow. The proper term is moineau, which means “little monk.” But in the song “Comme un moineau,” the moineau is a prostitute who ekes out a living in the gutter where she was born and where she expects to die (“Elle est …

The Divine Sarah

Sarah Bernhardt as Pierrot in Jean Richepin’s Pierrot assassin, 1883; photograph by Paul Nadar

Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt

by Robert Gottlieb
“No temperament more histrionic than Mme Bernhardt’s has, perhaps, ever existed,” wrote the obituarist of the London Times. “To read her memoirs is to live in a whirl of passions and adventures—floods of tears, tornadoes of rage, deathly sickness and incomparable health and energy.” As Robert Gottlieb warns in his appropriately lively biography, “She was a complete realist when dealing with her life but a relentless fabulist when recounting it.”

Cruising with Genius

Paul Signac: Saint-Tropez, in a Thunderstorm, 1895


by Guy de Maupassant, translated from the French and with an introduction by Douglas Parmée
In 1874, a twenty-four-year-old government clerk called Guy de Maupassant, depressed and maddened by his boring work and philistine colleagues at the Naval Ministry in Paris, was desperate to embark on a new career. Thankfully, his father paid him a small allowance, and his job at the ministry left him …

The Pens of the Musketeer


by Alexandre Dumas, translated from the French by Tina A. Kover, edited with an introduction and notes by Werner Sollors, and with a foreword by Jamaica Kincaid

The Last Cavalier: Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon

by Alexandre Dumas, translated from the French by Lauren Yoder
On November 30, 2002, Alexandre Dumas père (1802–1870) was enshrined in the Panthéon in Paris, alongside the “great men” (and one “great woman,” Marie Curie) of “the grateful fatherland.” Despite Dumas’s wish to be buried with his parents, his native town of Villers-Cotterêts had been forced to cede his treasured …

In His Nightmare City

The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables

by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by John King
Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s epic tale of an escaped convict and an abandoned woman, which Tolstoy called “the greatest of all novels,” nearly vanished into the skies over Paris in June 1848. Four months after the popular revolution that brought it to power, in a desperate attempt to deal with …

Treasures of Vanity

Pages from the Goncourt Journals

by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, edited, translated from the French, and with an introduction by Robert Baldick, and with a foreword by Geoff Dyer
In 1848, at the age of twenty-six, just after the death of his mother, Edmond Huot de Goncourt (1822–1896) gave up his accounting job at the public revenue department in Paris, and embarked on a new career with his younger brother Jules (1830–1870). Jules had recently passed his baccalauréat. He …

Proust: The Race Against Death

Proust at the Majestic: The Last Days of the Author Whose Book Changed Paris

by Richard Davenport-Hines
Shortly after midnight on May 18, 1922, in a private dining room at the Hôtel Majestic in Paris, a glittering group of writers, artists, musicians, and patrons of the arts gathered to celebrate the first public performance of Stravinsky’s burlesque ballet Renard, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. The ballet had been …