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…

A deliciously gothic end to 2013 (the weather helped)

Oh, the weather outside is frightful. No really, it is. Raging wind and rain.

Good weather for bookworms.

I usually enjoy some of my best reads over the festive period. This is partly down to good fortune – I’ve always managed to take the period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve as holiday. There’s time to hunker down amidst the hustle and bustle and happy whirl of socialising and rediscover the quiet pleasure of reading.

Escapism and fantasy has served me well over the festive season. I remember exactly when I began The Lord of the Rings: Christmas Day 1999 in that sleepy post-dinner lull. The family snoozed; I trotted off to Mordor. For some reason, anything with a gothic tinge to it also appeals over the Christmas period. Is it the short days, the deathly hush of snow (if we get it), the sense that something mysterious and barely understood is happening out there in the darkness beyond the brightness of lamps and strings of Christmas lights? I like to think that this is why Carlos Ruiz Zafón chose to begin The Prisoner of Heaven, the third instalment in his Barcelona-set and neo-gothic-influenced Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, at Christmas time. (PS Charles Palliser explains how the unease that comes from the unknowable is part of the peculiar appeal of the gothic in this fab article for the HuffPost).

Carlos R-Z, the author

Carlos R-Z, Barcelona-born author of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series.

But back to Ruiz Zafón. What a feast his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series is. Blurb writers and reviewers fall over themselves to try to describe the number of genres the books sashay through. I’ll have a go: each is like an old-school, Wilkie Collins-type sensation novel meets historical drama (we are in Franco’s Spain) with a hefty dose of Grand Guignol. Oh, and LOTS of fun intertextuality. The Shadow of the Wind, the ‘first’ book in the series, paid homage to David Copperfield and other Dickensian bildungsromans, amongst other works. While The Prisoner of Heaven’s debt to The Count of Monte Cristo is writ large, other references are more playful: a priest who shelters the fugitive Fermín Romero de Torres catches him eyeing the silverware – “I’ve read Les Misérables too, you know.”)

In fact, apart from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, I’ve never come across an author who is so blatantly writing for readers who love reading; who love literature as ‘high’ and ‘low’ art; who know their classics, from Cervantes to Dickens, but who also revel in a meaty bit of genre fiction. In fact, in the universe of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, those who dismiss popular, ‘trashy’ fiction (like the crime thrillers the enigmatic character David Martín writes) inevitably turn out to be self-aggrandising villains.

Angel statue

An angel in Montjuic cemetery, Barcelona, an important place in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Get me to Barcelona for the next bookish pilgrimage, I beg you.

The Prisoner of Heaven was in some ways a more satisfying (and certainly a pacier) read than the previous instalment, The Angel’s Game. I say ‘series’. It’s more a cycle of novels, which can ingeniously be read in any order – although apparently the fourth and final novel in the cycle (hurry up and publish it, Carlos!) will provide the key. The end matter in my copy of Prisoner (which was genuinely enlightening about the importance of Barcelona to Ruiz Zafón’s work) included an interview with the author himself in which he let slip this tantalising statement about the upcoming ‘final’ book in the series:

The fourth and final novel…is the place where the labyrinth of stories rearranges itself again and everything is put into yet another perspective. This is when we’ll really see the big picture and get to the very essence of the stories, of what is behind each of the books. Even if readers by the end of Prisoner feel that now they really know what this chess game is about, they don’t.

So don’t go into Prisoner expecting any resolution or dénouement, as I did (not knowing there was a fourth novel to come!) But there are plenty of surprises in store, and we do learn more about the Sempere family and the wonderful Fermín Romero de Torres, as well as other characters that have populated Shadow and Angel’s Game. I realised after finishing The Angel’s Game that the word ‘game’ is central to understanding what Ruiz Zafón is doing in these books,  and the above statement seems to back this up. Thinking about the implications of the author as God, as supreme creator (and manipulator) helps make the slippery and sub-plot strewn Angel’s Game a bit less disorientating and even more intriguing.

My copy of The Prisoner of Heaven

My copy of El Prisionero del Cielo (original Spanish title). I was too chicken to read it in Spanish (though would have probably struggled with my just-about-AS Level Spanish anyway…)

What really makes Prisoner sing is its focus on the much-loved, wildly successful character of Fermín Romero de Torres and his backstory. At the end of the world there will be cockroaches and Fermín. Ebullient survivor and free-thinking philosopher, his wit, maxims and energy alleviate the melodrama and the often disturbing portrayal of life under the Franco regime. By only the second page, he’s back on form with his suggestion to save the bookshop from financial ruin:

“Perhaps if by chance I was seen arranging the shop window in my underpants, some lady in need of strong literary emotions would be drawn in and inspired to part with a bit of hard cash. According to expert opinion, the future of literature depends on women and as God is my witness the female is yet to be born who can resist the primal allure of this stupendous physique”.

(Credit must also be given to translator Lucia Graves for keeping Fermín’s voice so consistently…well, Fermínish.)

So it was a gothic-nuanced end to 2013 for me, but one with a comic touch. All in all, sounds like a pretty good finish to the reading year.

Wishing you a happy, prosperous and book-filled 2014!