Paris in fiction – my top reads

I love Paris, me. I embrace all its clichés – I don’t care. I am the starry-eyed tourist who still feels a squirm of excitement every time the Eiffel Tower looms into view. I am the pasty-faced Brit revelling in an espresso in a pavement café, blinking in amazement to be actually sitting outside (outside!) in the sunshine on a busy boulevard while the traffic zooms past. I wave back gleefully to children passing by in bateaux-mouches. I have sat on the Pont des Arts at dusk with a picnic and friends, pretending to do the whole nonchalant French student thing while all the while thinking, WOOHOO I’M IN PARIS! And hey, isn’t this the spot where Big tells Carrie she’s ‘the one’ at the end of Sex and the City?

Me in Paris

Winter shopping in Paris. My dear, is that a bag from Shakespeare & Co you’re carrying?

People tell me that since I have actually lived in Paris, I should be more relaxed and even jaded about the famed City of Lights. Ok, so I’ve been a frazzled tour guide trying to herd a bunch of hyperactive preteens on and off the metro. I’ve picked my way through the throngs (and the thongs – bikinis, that is) on the anti-climax that was Paris Plage on a sizzling day in August when all you wanted to do was dive into the Seine (not recommended). I’ve gasped and gaped at the price of renting a shoebox-sized studio. But it’s hard to be cynical about Paris for too long.

Stamp in book

…why yes, now you mention it, and here’s the stamp to prove it. And in a Hemingway too. Told you I didn’t mind cliches.

I’ve been suffering from a major bout of Paris-induced nostalgia recently. These cold grey days make me want to hotfoot it to the Eurostar terminal and escape for a while. (Not that Paris doesn’t have cold grey days, of course. They just seem less grey when you’re in Paris. And people still sit outside in pavement cafes. Pavement cafes are a tonic.) So I got to thinking, this being a book-themed blog and all, about visiting Paris in other ways. Here are some of my favourite depictions of Paris in fiction, in no particular order:

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Sometimes the best descriptions of place are incidental. A small section of Eugenides’ novel is set in Paris, where protagonist Mitchell spends some time at his friend’s girlfriend’s apartment. The whole episode is a gentle send-up of fairly privileged young people trying to do the bohemian student thing. This little passage nails the particular aesthetic appeal of Paris for many:

The window gave onto a view of dove-grey roofs and balconies, each one containing the same cracked flowerpot and sleeping feline. It was as if the entire city of Paris had agreed to abide by a single understated taste. Each neighbour was doing his or her own to keep up standards, which was difficult because the French ideal wasn’t clearly delineated like the neatness and greenness of American lawns, but more of a picturesque despair. It took courage to let things fall apart so beautifully.

The Marriage Plot cover

Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Enjoyed it way more than The Virgin Suicides (but that’s a whole other blog post!)

Le Chapeau de Mitterrand (The President’s Hat) by Antoine Laurain. Here is an exuberant, 80s Paris tinged with a kind of technicolour, fairytale nostalgia, from the red awnings of exclusive bistros on the Champs-Elysees to a bench in pretty Parc Monceau and the scandale of the newly-erected modern art adorning the exteriors of the Palais-Royal and the Louvre. Oh, and oysters. Lots of oysters. Heck, there was so much I loved about this book.

The President's Hat cover

Loving the jaunty cover art used by Gallic Books

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico – a witty, cosy little tale and an awful lot of fun. An impossibly glamorous, twinkling Paris, seen through the eyes of an ever-so-‘umble London cleaning lady who makes the trip of a lifetime to buy a Dior dress. You’ll want one too by the end of the book.

'Mrs Harris Goes to Paris' cover

Pretty in pink: my copy of Mrs Harris.

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke. The first book in this hilarious and shrewdly-observed series following the exploits of Paul West, a young English bloke transferred to Paris for work. Includes Clarke’s now-legendary observations on dog poo, the way the French serve tea and suppositories.

A Year in the Merde cover

Get some Merde into your life.

Le système Victoria (The Victoria System) by Eric Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s thriller traces the downfall of construction project manager David through his entanglement with the enigmatic Victoria. The blood, sweat and stress of the building site and the listlessness of suburbia combines with a secret Paris of daytime hotel rooms, swanky bars and seedy cinemas. No postcard-pretty Paris here, but a city that acts as both host and silent witness to a destructive affair. I’ve praised this book before and I won’t hesitate to recommend it again. Chilling.

Le Père Goriot (Old Goriot or Father Goriot) by Honoré de Balzac. I’ll be shot for saying it: Balzac can be a bit of a slog. But he chronicled nineteenth century Paris like no other French writer and it’s worth diving into one of the novels from his epic series La Comedie Humaine (the Human Comedy) – try Lost Illusions (Illusions Perdues) or La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin). In Goriot, meet the rag-tag inhabitants of a poor Parisian boarding house, including an ex-convict and an ambitious young chap named Rastignac who’s out to better his fortunes no matter what the cost. Nowadays he’d be a City banker or a wolf of Wall Street. Don’t miss the book’s iconic final chapter set in the Père-Lachaise cemetery.

Le Pere Goriot cover

Goriot’s looking a bit worn…appropriately…

One Day by David Nicholls. Ok yes, I know it only takes up a small bit in the book, but I just love it when Dexter comes to visit Emma, who’s now made it as a writer and is forging her own glorious writerly lifestyle just off the Canal Saint-Martin. Even her apartment’s got that picturesque Parisian scruffiness about it.

L’élegance du hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) by Muriel Barbery. If you ever wondered how the other half live in Paris in the twenty-first century, this is it. More importantly, this is how their concierges and maids and other overlooked people, live. Here’s what I made of it all.

Elegance of the Hedgehog cover

Hedgehog en français. I read the English too, though – fab translation.

Les faux-monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters) by André Gide. Last but not least, this wonderful novel takes a pluralist, almost Cubist view of Paris as we follow multiple characters in their journeys around the city and beyond. A bit metafictional, damn clever and moving to boot, I’ll make a note to expound on this in a future post. Gide, you rock.

Les faux monnayeurs cover

Les f-m complete with straggly post-its. Yes, I first read this at uni.

Have realised that I’ve shot myself in the foot a bit with the title of this blog post, as it excludes excellent journalistic essays and non-fiction – for these, see Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (pretty much compulsory reading if you want to do the whole arty, penniless writer thing in Paris), Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon and David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Clearly, my list is highly personal and not exhaustive. I haven’t mentioned Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer or Proust or Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro or Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London – and if you don’t, other Paris-loving readers will flay you

I’ll update this list when I’ve made some more discoveries. Now off to St. Pancras…

Stoner – the best novel you’ve never read. No, really.

Well hello, 2014. You’ve started well, on the reading front, at least (not on the flooding front. Heartfelt sympathies to all flood victims…). So far there’s been the very funny and hugely enjoyable Mutton by India Knight (nothing like some clever chick-lit-type comedy to brighten the January nights), the wonderful La liste de mes envies (The List of my Desires) by Grégoire Delacourt (which I’ve reviewed for MyFrenchLife so can’t say too much about it here) and my onward quest with George R. R. Martin’s soaringly brilliant and utterly addictive A Song of Ice and Fire.

So apologies for the belatedness of this post. Too much readin’, not enough writin’. I’ll endeavour to be a more reliable little blogger throughout the rest of the year (and beyond)…

Firstly, a shocking admission: I’m not great at keeping up with the bestseller charts. The books hailed as the hot new reads often take a while to creep on here, if they creep on at all. I subscribe to writer Alison Mercer’s feelings about these things: I like to let the idea of a book grow on me. I try not to feel pressured to keep up with the whimsical Kardashians of book publicity.

But having said all that, sometimes you can be seduced by hype. And that’s fine too.

Hype is how I came by what has to be one of the best novels I read last year – in fact, one of the best novels I’ve read, like, ever. Ladies and gentleman, I give you John Williams’ Stoner.

John Williams photo

John Williams

The scene: Waterstone’s in Middlesbrough, a week before Christmas. My mum admits that she hasn’t bought me a book for Christmas. Sacrilege. She usually does, and I treasure the witty little dedications she writes. Do I have any in mind, she wonders? We’re standing right by a small table piled with copies of Stoner and a sign proclaiming it to be the Waterstone’s Book of the Year. At the back of my mind I also recall a sign in Blackwell’s calling it ‘the best book you’ve never read’. Yes, I said, this one. The fact that it was about an English academic helped. I had seen a pull quote from the book somewhere:

English literature troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before…

Stoner had me instantly. There have been lots of excellent reviews that have tried to pinpoint what it is about John Williams’ prose that makes it so compelling. The book has a strange intensity about it – some critics say it’s the clarity with which Williams writes. I think Adam Foulds comes to the heart of it when he admits in his piece for the Indy that Williams’ skills are ‘hard to demonstrate in a review’ but that

Stoner’s narrative rhythm, its spacing of event, is flawless…The novel flows like a river, calm and smooth at the surface of its unruffled prose, but powerful and deep.

I think it was this sense of calmness – of quiet sobriety, that seemingly untrendy thing – that I most responded to. Stoner himself undergoes traumatic experiences – the sad reality of his marriage; his entanglement with departmental politics. But there is a prevailing sense of calm about this novel and its protagonist – of surety, of the value of stolidly going about one’s work. This is felt, as Foulds recognises, on a formal as well as a thematic level. This is the message that Stoner has inherited from his rural upbringing, it seems, and it’s his application to his work that helps him to keep calm and carry on. Work, as John McGavern explains in the very good introduction to my edition, is an important theme in the book. For Stoner, work is often synonymous with love, too.

Stoner cover

My copy of Stoner. Thanks Santa.

I did find elements of Stoner distressing though. Is he too placid? Is he to be admired for how he handles his wife Edith – does his endurance of her have to be placed in its socio-historical context? Am I modern and naïve to even be asking this? Characters are often described as expressionless, as lacking animation – people’s faces are often ‘masks’ or ‘mask-like’. Just count the number of times this word/phrase is used. It begins with Stoner’s mother and father. These ‘humble’ country people never betray their emotions: when Stoner tells them of his decision not to return to the farm, ‘his father’s face…received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist.’ All this piling up of references to masks and lack of animation seems to culminate in Stoner’s daughter, Gracie. Her natural, contented calmness and studious quietness – her affinity with Stoner – is corrupted into a kind of soulless passivity and indifference by Edith. By the time she’s grown:

It was a passive beauty she had, like a mask; her light blue eyes looked directly at one, without curiosity and without any apprehension that one might see beyond them; her voice was very soft, a little flat, and she spoke rarely.

I’d love to see what a feminist reading of Stoner makes of it all. I kept longing for Grace to rebel, for her father to rebel, but it never comes.

And that’s perhaps the point. Stoner asks to be reread and not necessarily understood but experienced, just as the whole novel proceeds to subvert the bleak view of Stoner’s life that is announced in its two opening paragraphs.

Believe the hype.