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…

Existentialist angst with Albert Camus

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Following the centenary of Albert Camus’ birth in November, I thought it was only polite to salute The Outsider (L’Etranger) in my latest article for MyFrenchLife. It’s a great book – a slip of a thing really, so not too intimidating to pick up, and the story unravels in seemingly simple, limpid prose. But get further in, and it all becomes oh-so-meaty and discomforting. I hear it’s a rites-of-passage book for angsty teens. Good choice.

Camus’ book has the dubious honour of being the first French novel I ever managed to read in full (for French A Level). It also nearly drove me to despair: about a week before the exam I realised I still didn’t really have a handle on the book and had no clue what to write about. Then an angel named Mrs Lesley Luckhurst came along and suddenly unlocked the text for me, patiently introducing and explaining Camus’ philosophical ideas, his concept of the Absurd and how the book reflects that. It blew my little mind away – we hadn’t done any philosophy at school. I squinted to see things differently. Meursault [the protagonist] is a Christ-like figure? Huh? Understanding dawned slowly, but luckily the muse descended in time for the exam. Thanks, Mrs. L, if you’re reading this – I’d be up for continuing our chats any time.

 

No French stuff, please, we’re British

So, the BBC has produced a thoughtful take on what is, unfortunately, a depressingly familiar question: Why do modern French novelists struggle to sell to the English-speaking market? 

It’s not a new story: us Anglophones no likey French novels. Or rather, we don’t like modern, post-war French novels. While we revere a whole of bunch of France’s eminent dead, white, male, canonical writers (Flaubert, Proust and Voltaire regularly make it into top ten lists) we apparently have no interest whatsoever in reading modern French fiction.

Duras and Barbery books

Some French books I love

It’s an interesting conundrum. There are have been lots of theories advanced for why contemporary French writers don’t do well in the US and UK book markets. They seem to revolve around a question of image, as the Beeb’s article explains. There’s an impression that French writers are too cerebral, too overly philosophical and obsessed with theory and form over content. Our own writers think so too – even avowed Francophiles like the brilliant Louis de Bernières. The thing is, we Anglophones read for plot, and the pleasures of genre fiction, so we’re told. And there’s a perception that that’s scarce in France.

It’s true that France has produced some of the greatest (read: scarily difficult) literary theorists (hello, Barthes, Lacan, Saussure, Foucault…) the world has ever seen. Perhaps French writers are still paying the price for the experiments of nouveau romanciers like Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, who sought to dismantle features like linear narrative and traditional characterisation. (I confess that I didn’t get on with Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, but Duras I love…must write about her too in the future.)

It’s probably a whole lot more complicated than that. There must be French writers out there who write the kind of fast-paced, plot-driven narratives that would appeal to US and UK readers, we just don’t know about them. Maybe it is, as the Beeb suggests, due to the prejudices and wariness of Anglophone booksellers.

But there have been breakaway successes in the past – Gallic Books’ The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbéry was a bestseller a few years ago. Perhaps it’s a question of publicity, then. And beyond the alarmist headlines, there are small initiatives that are making headway and doing important work. Like Le French Book, a digital-first publisher, who have translated some brilliant thriller writers like David Khara and Bernard Besson. I heartily recommend exploring some of their other titles, like the very funny and warm Winemaker Detective series.

The President's Hat

My copy of Le chapeau de Mitterand (The President’s Hat). It’s done its rounds among my family and friends, all in the cause of showing that French Fiction Is Not Boring. Really, Gallic Books should employ me as their publicist…

I was also (hey, still am) rooting for Antoine Laurain’s The President’s Hat that came out earlier this year (you can read my review of it here). Come on, Antoine, I thought, surely this is the one to crack the Anglophone market. It’s got a quirky, zippy plot and projects that kind of picturebook, faintly whimsical image of France that somehow so appeals to Anglophone armchair travellers (myself included!). But there are ideas here too; there are other things to enjoy. Its intertextuality, for one: the whole book is like a cheeky little retort to Balzacian tales of Parisians finding fortune and misfortune. Its ending even seems like a correction to Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin. Or maybe I was reading too much into it. But isn’t that a mark of a good story – you know, that thing that modern French writers aren’t meant to do well?

Allez les Bleus! 

An Advent reading list

I never used to be the sort of reader who’d have more than one book on the go at any one time, but that seems to be the way of things nowadays. Here’s what’s on the pile at the moment:

My copy of Bel Ami.

My copy of Bel Ami. Discount sticker no reflection on content.

Bel Ami, Guy de Maupassant (1885). Thought it would be quite fun to read about a corrupt, sordid journo who rises through the ranks of the Paris hoi-polloi despite any manifest talent. Food for thought! I was also spurred on to read it after my vow to tackle more ‘classics’, especially ones in French…

The Cleaner of Chartres

The Cleaner of Chartres and its very pretty cover

The Cleaner of Chartres, Salley Vickers (2012). Another book set in France. I love everything Vickers has done, and I’m racing through this. There’s a kind of fabular feel to Vickers’ storytelling here: there’s moralising but she’s using a lighter touch than in previous books, which creates the sense that something almost mystic is at work. One of the things I love about her novels and short stories is that they are not afraid to deal in moral seriousness, nor weave in religious imagery and allegory.

Austerlitz by W.G.Sebald

Austerlitz by W.G.Sebald

Austerlitz, W.G.Sebald (2001; I’ve got the 2011 Penguin edition). A gift from a good friend (Merci, Maia!). Good to read some fiction in translation – need to read more of it. I haven’t made much headway with this yet, but so far I’ve been struck by Sebald’s narratology – it’s shifting, layered, and refuses any kind of straightforward account of the eponymous character and his life, a man who was sent to England on a Kinderstransport in 1939. Then there are the photographs interspersed throughout the text. I’ve never seen that before in something that’s ostensibly fiction. But is it fiction? Is it a historical account? Are the photographs ‘real’?

Mmm…nothing particularly festive in there, is there? I also fancy India Knight’s Comfort and Joy, too and Kate Mosse’s new spooky collection of short stories, The Mistletoe Bride, set in France and England.

When I was about ten I read an absolutely brilliant children’s book of short, Christmas-themed stories. I’ve been hunting for it ever since. It enchanted me then, and I’m sure it would now. If I manage to track it down, I’ll share it on here!

Happy festive reading.