THERE is an idea of Paris. Once sheltering in the Luxembourg Gardens after surviving two weeks of sustained chicness and soft labour at Roland Garros, I found myself at the centre of a dramatic outbreak of Le Stereotype Parisien.

A fountain tinkled, two lovers played coquettishly on a lawn, a child walked by pulling a wooden train and a hut sent out the aroma of coffee and croissant. I swear I was braced for Maurice Chevalier to walk by crooning Thank ‘Eavens For Jaded Journalists. I peered into this sun-kissed scene in a vain search for the hidden director, screaming "cut", at least in my mind

There is a substance to Paris, too. It overwhelms the cliché and makes it a place of charm, danger, profound erudition, gross superficiality, visible disintegration and enduring magnificence.

It produces books with the regularity of a promiscuous rabbit supplying bunnies. There is an astonishing greatness in the bibliography of Paris. Graham Robb’s Parisians. An in-depth and provocative chronicle of the city. The Invention Of Paris by Eric Hazan. An investigation of the astonishing intellectual life of the city, particularly in the 1930s. At The Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. A Walk Through Paris. An affecting and intriguing wander through history. The Flaneur by Edmund White.

If one wants to opt for fiction then Proust, Zola, Balzac and Hugo probably form the best four novelists in any city.

Hazan and Poirier thus step into not only a crowded room but one liberally carpeted in genius. They escape with reputations enhanced, though Poirier’s inexperience would have been mitigated by a first-class editor. Her mission statement is clear: "Left Bank is a portrait of overlapping generations born between 1905 and 1930 who lived, loved, fought, played and flourished in Paris between 1940 and 1950 …"

This is the sort of proclamation that immediately creates a personal anxiety dream that includes Chevalier singing in the gardens, Humphrey Bogart playing Jean-Paul Sartre as the flawed existentialist with a grudge and a heart, Lauren Bacall cast as Simone de Beauvoir tossing out her catchphrase "If you want me, go whistle", and Carl Reiner as Picasso, the painter who always gets the girl.

In short, Poirier’s ambition can be applauded but it also carries obvious risks. She is climbing a mountain in terms of range of both personalities and ideas. She wobbles spectacularly at times but emerges largely unscathed as her unbounded energy, particularly in research, brings forth an entertaining, stimulating and, at times, insightful book.

There are stark flaws. She has a penchant for the broad stroke, claiming Picasso was greater that Communism. This is an intriguing assertion but immediately raises the inquiry: How and why? It remains unanswered.

There is a penchant for such phrases as Paris “holding no secrets” for some characters when it clearly did. There is a briskness to the narrative that is almost rude.

But Left Bank is gloriously vibrant. The greats wander in and out of cafes, in and out of sexual relationships and in and out of digression on art, philosophy and literature, although Poirier’s work is both sustained by the eminence of her cast and condemned by it.

It is wonderful to note that when, on June 15, 1945, Marina de Berg made her debut as a ballerina in the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt, Picasso made the curtain and Camus, Sartre, Beauvoir, Cocteau and Marlene Dietrich all sat in the same row. Apologies. One can’t resist another. On the night Juliette Greco made her debut as a singer in Le Boeuf sur le Toit, Cocteau was in the audience as was Marlon Brando, who was looking forward to seeing the headliner, Eartha Kitt.

The largely fleeting appearances of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Miles Davis, Samuel Beckett, Ernest Hemingway and a platoon of others give the suspicion that Left Bank, book and area, should have been fitted with revolving doors.

One seldom recoils at a Baldwin anecdote or the appearance of a duplicitous Saul Bellow or a clearly vulnerable Nelson Algren but the downside, of course, is that a stellar cast can overwhelm the story. One is so entranced by Cocteau or appalled by Arthur Koestler that their art or significance can be submerged. One can be so blinded by the sheer glamour of the scene that the grimy, seamy side of life is ignored.

However, Poirier largely maintains her balance. There are casualties of a lifestyle that included copious amounts of drugs and drinks and a promiscuous attitude to sex. But the lost and the survivors play their part in the deeper themes of Left Bank.

The most obvious of these are that Paris was a safe haven for black Americans subjected to a racism that exists in their homeland to this day and that the horrors of two world wars and the obscenity of the Holocaust produced an instinctive and intellectual urge to save the world that was part of the very fabric of Camus and Sartre, in particular.

But, crucially, Poirier illuminates an irresistible rise of feminism fuelled by the work and lives of extraordinary women on the Left Bank such as Sylvie Beach, Greco, Simone Signoret and Edith Thomas.

It is appropriate, then, that the strongest, most profound and most affecting character is De Beauvoir. She is no caricature, no Bacall to Sartre’s Bogey. She escapes from the shadow of her friend and lover to assume not merely a role as muse but as a powerful, radical thinker.

It is that hint of revolution, then and now, that underpins Paris and accompanies Hazan on his journey from Ivry to Saint-Denis, following a rough east to west axis across the city.

Hazan has written one great book about Paris. This is merely excellent. He has a languorous style that disguises a serious purpose. Thus he can point out where Baudelaire was born, where Picasso painted Guernica and where Nerval committed suicide almost in the style of a practised conductor on an open-top bus while pursuing more original thoughts.

The erudition in the pages is what one might expect from the writer of The Invention Of Paris but the passion is all the more breath-taking for being built up slowly, inexorably to an extraordinary crescendo.

Hazan, a Parisian by birth and by continual choice, could be expected to rail against the modern fripperies that obscure views of the city, such as the invasion of the Kardashians or the excesses of the catwalk. He could also despair at the racial splits that disfigure the policies of a country and the very fabric of a city.

He does neither. He walks, reflects, educates. He recreates a city that was the crucible for the greatest revolution in history. He issues a call to arms to his fellow inhabitants to look at this past and not be condemned to a future where race determines opportunity, where poverty must exist in the shadow of gaudy wealth.

He has his vision. Paris, it seems, still creates ideas and not all of them are lazily borrowed from stereotype.