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.

Bookish pilgrimages #2: Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

The Indiana Jones in me had always had a vague ambition to see the Mayan ruins of Mexico. But my desire to see those places suddenly became more fervent when I read The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver in June last year.

I was drawn to this book not only because it was partly set in impossibly exotic Mexico, but because of its subject matter. The blurb promised the story of a young man, Harrison Shepherd, born to an American father and a Mexican mother. He observes and records everything about his itinerant life in Mexico with his social-climbing mother. He later goes on to work as a cook for the famous artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and their houseguest, the exiled Trotsky, before settling in the States and becoming a writer of bestselling novels about Aztec empire.

The Lacuna cover art

The Lacuna – first edition.

The blurb also referred to ‘the breach…between truth and public presumption.’ As Shepherd’s faithful stenographer Violet Brown remarks towards the end of the book, ‘The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.’ Shepherd’s past – his associations with Mexican and Bolshevik revolutionaries and his ambivalent sexuality – comes back to haunt him as the book enters its third act. World War Two is over; McCarthyism is on the rise. Shepherd’s life is raked over by a bullish news media, backed by a political establishment made rabid by anti-Communist fervour. His every word is held suspect. Interestingly, Kingsolver chose to use extracts from contemporary news clippings in the book and includes forgotten but shocking events from US history, like the treatment of the Bonus Marchers.

I found these parts of the book – and the myriad clever ways in which Kingsolver explores her title (meaning, variously, an absence, a gap, a missing manuscript or a tunnel through time or substance) – captivating. We see how slippages of understanding can widen into a chasm, destroying someone. This struck a chord with me, as it was something which constantly preyed on my mind when I was a TV researcher working with other freelancers on current affairs projects – and it continues to play on my mind, now that I’m studying reporting. Are you sure you have the whole picture? Are you sure it’s not more complicated than that? I wanted to ask these questions daily. But in TV there never seemed to be enough time: at the end of the day there had to be a story, and no one is interested in what’s complicated and taxing, are they? The counsel in Shepherd’s trial by the House of Un-American Activities patronisingly announces at the beginning of the hearing that ‘this will not take all day, gentlemen, we should be out of here in time for lunch’ and forces Shepherd to give ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to questions that ‘could take some explanation’. Not that different to Jeremy Paxman’s style of interviewing, then. Of course, we, the readers, know the real story – we have been privy to Shepherd’s diaries and his relationships, and we appreciate how fragile and nuanced it is.

So if this is the part of the book that really interested me, why the desperate urge to see its scenery – to see Mexico? Well, for one, another element of what makes this book BRILLIANT is Kingsolver’s writing on Mexico, which is vivid, colourful and evocative. As Kingsolver herself says:

I only set scenes in places I’ve been myself. When I create a world for the reader, I want to do it right, using all my senses.

And her descriptions of Harrison’s experiences in Mexico are very sensually fused. Fellow book blogger Fingers & Prose has identified a passage that also thrilled me – I love how Kingsolver hints at the beauty and complexity of this country in a series of little impressionistic vignettes.

Then there are the lacunas, the sinkholes or cenotes that are found in parts of Mexico: a young Harrison explores one in Isla Pixol and is fascinated by them:

Not a cave exactly but an opening, like a mouth, that swallows things… It goes into the belly of the world… Some of the holes are so deep they go to the center of the earth and you’ll see the devil at the bottom. But some only go through the island to the other side.

I too was captivated by cenotes, from both a geological and a poetical perspective. Swimming in one (we visited Cenote Samulà near Valladolid) was an amazing experience. And how clever of Kingsolver to find another way to explore the meaning of her title. The image of the cenote lingers in our mind throughout the text and raises its head again at a crucial moment.

Cenote Samula

Cenote Samula.  Massive banyan tree roots stretch down through the cave to the water.

I had always wanted to visit Chichén Itzá, the ruins that were once the seat of the Mayan empire.

El Castillo

Me in obligatory tourist pose by El Castillo – once the ceremonial centre of Chichen Itza.

But reading The Lacuna opened up new perspectives on the place and made me think about what I was seeing more than any travel guide could. In the book, Harrison visits the ruins during the course of a research trip to the Yucatán. He’s seeking inspiration for his next novel, which is to be about the Maya, and returns to the ruins once more before departing for the States again. His thoughts on Chichén Itzá gave me much to chew over.

Today a story came up in relief from every surface, urgent and visible. Every stone was carved with some image: the snearing jaguar, the feathered serpent, a long frieze of swimming goldfish… In their time, all these buildings were brightly painted. What a shock to realise that, and how foolish to have been tricked earlier by the serenity of white limestone. Like looking at a skeleton and saying, “How quiet this man was, and how thin.” Imagine the place crawling with kings and slaves, I said. And mothers, wondering if their children had fallen down the well. We stayed a good while, reconstructing the scene.

Harrison writes historical romances, so he is reflecting on how history and fictional versions of history intersect. He realises his first impressions of the place were imperfect, faulty, reductive. He wants to get closer to the truth of what Chichén Itzá had really been like. And this in turn weaves into Kingsolver’s exploration of the importance of what gets lost, forgotten or purposefully deleted from official records.

El Castillo close-up

El Castillo, the pyramid that Harrison and Violet Brown gamely climb (unfortunately tourists are no longer allowed to).

Of course, I’m not saying it’s imperative to go to Mexico to enjoy Kingsolver’s book! But some of the most thought-provoking travel can start in unexpected places. For me, those places are often books. And going to Mexico made me pick up The Lacuna again, and find new things in it.

All hail Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively

I was a latecomer to Penelope Lively’s fiction for adults. Previously I only knew her name from her children’s books: The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me, to name one, or The House in Norham Gardens (since living in Oxford, I’ve had fun walking around the actual street named Norham Gardens, musing over whether Lively had any particular house in mind.)

Consequences, read on a long, cramped train journey on a dark February night, was my first forary into Lively’s adult novels. Since then I’ve been voraciously working my way through her entire back catalogue. It’s great when an author’s writing inspires that kind of thirst, where one book makes you want to read everything else they’ve ever written. I’ve had it with Ian McEwan and Salley Vickers too, but I’ll praise them elsewhere; this is Lively’s party.

She deserves a party: she is undervalued. Why is the publication of a new Lively book (and she is a prolific writer) not trumpeted in the way that books by other major British novelists are? Mustn’t whine (Penelope would hate that) but there seems to be an impression, identified by Anthony Thwaite in his introduction to her Booker prize-winning Moon Tiger, that Lively’s books are essentially cosily middle-class, unchallenging reads. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s not Lively.

The first edition of Moon Tiger

The first edition of Moon Tiger

It’s true that her novels are peopled with middle-class characters pursuing white-collar or arty, imaginative careers. Academics (often historians or archaeologists), garden designers, architects, interior designers, writers, solicitors, journalists and art dealers all feature. But Lively likes skewering these types, too: Gina in Family Album is aware that her aunt Corinna ignores her mother Alison, a housewife, and is impressed only ‘by achievements in her own rarefied sphere. I don’t write studies of 19th Century poetry, so I am beyond her remit.’ Kath in The Photograph remains an enigma, a kind of aporetic void at the heart of the text, but this is because we only ever view her through the eyes of others who are constantly trying to grasp what she ‘does’ with her life. They don’t understand what she does for a job, if she does anything at all. Therefore they don’t understand (or try to understand) her.

What I really enjoy in Lively’s novels is the idea that we are, somehow, composites of selves, that ‘if a place is haunted, it is perhaps with the ghost of ourselves, both past and future.’ Her ‘anti-memoir’, Making It Up, explores this brilliantly: the splintering chains of consequences that make up a life and how different the ‘story’ could have been. It reads like a series of short stories in which Lively riffs on aspects of her own life and imagines how things could have turned out differently.

Pile of Lively's books

My pretty Penguin editions of Lively’s books

Then there’s the way she writes. Lively can tell, tell, tell and not show, for pages on end, with little dialogue. It’s how she tells, what she notices, the precise details she chooses to home in on – and always with her trademark taut style. She takes an almost phenomenological view of cities and landscapes – never more so than in City of the Mind, which was proving almost too densely psychological and disorientating for me at first, but which turned out to be a satisfyingly slow burn.

Top recommendations? Heat Wave – pathetic fallacy par excellence, where Lively ratchets up the tension between a mother, daughter and the daughter’s husband during a long, hot summer (remember those? Oh wait, we just had one!). How It All Began for some of her best writing on age, being young, identity, reading, the importance of stories, love, marriage and human interaction. Making It Up – for narrative innovation. And Consequences – an immensely moving, but never saccharine, saga spanning three generations of women from the eve of World War Two to the present day.

She’s got a new book out at the moment, Ammonites and Leaping Fish – read more here: http://www.penelopelively.net

And here’s her recent poignant, meditative piece for The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/05/penelope-lively-old-age

Do read thee some Lively – you won’t regret it.