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…

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.

Bookish pilgrimages #1: Casa Guidi, Florence

I’m a sucker for literary tourism. It’s something to do with getting a sense of place and for me this often makes for a richer reading experience. I know that as a former lit theory student I should repudiate any exploration of an author’s background or biography (yes Barthes, I know, the author is dead…il n’y a pas de hors-texte). But I have always loved seeing where books have been set and the places writers lived or visited, so I’m going to share some of my favourite bookish trips on this blog. Without further ado…

Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Great EBB

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…’ So begins Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous sonnet and probably the poem for which she is best known. But my admiration for EBB only really began when I read Aurora Leigh, the extraordinary novel-poem about a young Victorian woman’s self-education and her journey to becoming a poet. I have, to quote Spamalot, lovingly ripped off Aurora’s opening lines to create the tag line for this blog:

OF writing many books there is no end;

And I who have written much in prose and verse

For others’ uses, will write now for mine, –

Will write my story for my better self…

Feminists, ahoy: simply by choosing to write in epic form, Barrett Browning was planting her flag in very male territory, something that was seen as the preserve of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and Tennyson. Women, y’see, didn’t write epic poetry, they wrote lyrics. Or were meant to. Anyway, it’s a many-sided, curious beast, is Aurora Leigh, and it doesn’t seem to get much attention outside of university syllabi. I’ll endeavour to bang on about how astonishing and brilliant it is in a future post.


Lovely Florence

While on a mini-break in Florence, it seemed only right to pay my respects to Barrett Browning by visiting Casa Guidi. This is the house she shared with husband and fellow poet Robert Browning after the pair married in secret and escaped to Italy. Tucked away in the Oltrarno area of Florence, nowadays the property is owned by Eton College and can be rented as a holiday home.

Inside Casa Guidi

Inside the apartment

Warning: it’s only open to the public at certain times of the year and on certain days.

Me at EBB's desk

Me at EBB’s desk

Here I am with EBB’s writing desk. I don’t think you were actually meant to touch the desk. Technically I didn’t physically touch it, honest – just did a silly pose and hoped that her wisdom would filter through to me, as if by osmosis…