I love compiling lists of books. I have running lists of books I’ve read, books I want to read, books I want to buy, books I need to consult for research, and books about places I’ve been to or places I’m going to.
From the moment I knew we would be moving to Paris, I compiled a list of great books set in the city that I wanted to read or re-read. That list keeps growing and changing every week, but here it is at the moment (and in no particular order).
A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel
I’m an inveterate admirer of Mantel’s Cromwell books, so I’ve long wanted to read her brick-sized novel of the French revolution. It was the first book she wrote, although she had to wait a considerable number of years (and other books) before publishing it. I agree with critics that it could’ve done with less history, but you can definitely see in this carefully researched and intriguingly written novel the seeds of what Mantel would later do in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies: take figures who were at the periphery of power during a time of momentous change, and explore the fissures and stress points in their inner lives. I learned a lot about the main players behind the revolution, who were living day by day and, for the most part, had really no idea what they were doing. Also: what a great title.
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
How could I not? Like many others I loved this book as a teenager, when I romanticized Paris in the 20s, the Left Bank cafés, the artists, etc, etc. I quite enjoyed this second read-through, although I have to say the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first–too much time spent trying to undermine Scott Fitzgerald. Still, the description Hemingway conjures of writing in steamy cafés, ordering white wine and oysters, remains magical and unforgettable. Following the Paris attacks in 2015, the book became a bestseller in France.
Memoirs of Montparnasse, by John Glassco
I haven’t re-read this book yet but brought it with me to Paris to do so. I remember it being even better than Hemingway’s memoir when I read it in my early twenties. Glassco was a Canadian poet who also escaped to Montparnasse between the wars when he was just seventeen, and wrote his memoir of that time when he was living out his middle age in the Eastern Townships, on long afternoons buoyed by gin. Glassco’s account is somewhat fictionalized, but it’s a great read with fantastic sweep, and lots of charming raunch.
Au Bon Roman, by Laurence Cossé (in English: A Novel Bookstore, translated by Alison Anderson).
I fell pretty hard for this novel when I first read it back in 2010. It’s about two people who are somewhat disappointed by life, but they love reading good novels and open a bookstore together. The one thing that stayed with me the most from the book is that there’s a little trick with the narrator: you start thinking out that it’s in the third person, but then realize that it’s actually narrated from one of the characters. Upon re-reading it this summer I found some of the emotional impact somewhat lessened, but I was still taken with the beautifully created characters and the melancholy atmosphere. I love this novel because it is an unabashed celebration of the power of good literature.
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
I’d long meant to read this Dickens, for the most part because it’s among his shorter novels. As I was reading it this summer I did wonder where he was going with the crazy plot for most of the book, but by the end all of the pieces he had set up in the first part did come together and the story clicked into gear towards a satisfying ending. Dickens doesn’t really take the time describe Paris very well, but his vicious take on both the corrupted aristocracy and the blood-thirty crowds of revolutionaries is fun. He spares no one–as long as they’re French! I’m growing a bit tired of Dickens’ female characters, however, who are always based on the same sweet passive model.
The Ambassadors, by Henry James
This is one of James’ late, great masterpieces, and is the ultimate arriving-in-Paris read, so much so that I’ve been slowly savouring it since we arrived. James himself said that the best way to enjoy his books was to read about five pages a day, but to keep at it “without losing the thread.” In The Ambassadors, a wealthy American woman sends her middle-aged suitor, Strether, to Paris to convince her son, who may or may not be having an affair with a rich countess, to return to America. But then, against all odds, Strether begins to fall in love with Paris–the food, the artwork, the architecture, the atmosphere. As the novel progresses, it’s unclear who is corrupting whom. The pleasure of the novel is in witnessing Strether’s slow transformation, which sometimes looks more like self-delusion. The dialogues are also wonderfully witty.
Paris Trance, Geoff Dyer
Geoff Dyer is one of those writers that I’m still not sure what to make of. I read his books and I can’t say I enjoy them, exactly, but they make me think, and I do keep coming back to his work. I picked this novel up by chance when I saw it at Blackwell’s in Oxford this summer. What a treat: compulsive, self-aware, elegantly written, sexy, melancholy. It’s about a group of expat friends living from party to party in Paris in the 1990s, and the inevitable moment when the parties have to end. Dyer is better known for his non-fiction, but this novel proves he can do fiction just as well.
La Septième Fonction du Langage, by Laurent Binet (in English: The Seventh Function of Language, translated by Sam Taylor)
A follow-up to Binet’s sometimes frustrating but nonetheless compelling HHhH, his second novel is a crazy romp through the world of French philosophers in the early 80s. It begins with a simple but intriguing premise: the influential literary critic Roland Barthes died in 1980, struck by a van–what if he was actually murdered? The story is fast-paced and, in the end, becomes a little too heavy handed in its pastiche of Dan Brown-esque conspiracy thrillers, but the early scenes set in the houses and university offices of the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, and Kristeva are a delight. My favourite cameo is by Umberto Eco, who is, of course, the smartest of them all.
*All images taken from the publishers’ websites, or Wikipedia.