A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I have already written about the goodies to be found on the £1 book rack outside Treadwell’s Bookshop in Store Street, Bloomsbury. Lately, a day trip to Paris made me reach for a book I found there that exactly matched my mood: Paris Tales, an anthology of short stories and essays translated by Helen Constantine. It is published by OUP, and as a book it seems to have a bit of a split personality. When I picked it up off the book rack I wondered if it might be a school text, as its cover design is low key, and it has some of the apparatus – footnotes, and author notes, and a map. However, these are of value and interest to any reader. The cover is heavy and silky, the pages are thick and white and the book is discreetly illustrated with well-chosen black and white photos. It may have the slight look and feel of a textbook, but it is a pleasure to handle and read.
The tales chosen span the 19th – 21st century, and are selected as a companion to walking the streets, squares, parks and landmarks of Paris. Not so much the tourist hotspots, though the Champs Élysées and the Palais Royal feature, but the outer arrondissements, and the overlooked boulevards and streets that one walks on the way to somewhere famous. Atmosphere is all, and the city is shown in all its moods, beautiful and ugly, soothing and dangerous.
The earlier tales are by Maupassant, Gérard de Nerval (he who legend had it walked through Paris with a lobster on a lead, and when asked why said ‘He does not bark, and he knows the secrets of the deep’), Balzac, Zola, and Colette. All of them knew and loved Paris intimately, and could see past the superficial. Balzac’s tale of a desperate young man walking through the Palais Royal tells of its seedy reputation for gaming and ruin; Zola drily notes the development of poor patches of greenery in squares and public gardens, to beguile the Parisian into thinking he has not completely left the countryside behind. Maupassant’s respectable bourgeoise heroine samples Parisian wickedness for the first time; and in another story his protagonist in the grip of a nightmare walks the streets of Paris, seeing them in a wild distorted vision.
These tales employ the fourth dimension of time – history, even – as well as space. Julien Green’s vision of Notre Dame is specific to his memories of seeing it during the occupation and at the end of the war. Didier Daeninckx’s Man With A Collecting Box, is physically in the midst of ‘les évenements de Mai’ 1968, but his drive and his goals are elsewhere entirely. In Annie Saumont’s Iéna her heroine reflects on the bloody battle that peaceful Metro station commemorates, as her life suddenly fractures. Other protagonists are part of everyday life – rushing and jostling through the Gare St Lazare towards their destination; juggling two lovers in different arrondissements; picking up a man on the Left Bank; making a daily visit to the same spot in a park. What ties them together is a perfect sense of place.
This is a wonderful companion to a visit to Paris, to take along with the Rough Guide. The guide will tell you what is there, the Paris Tale will bring some sort of life to it. Having just for the first time walked through the Parc Monceau and experienced that quietly opulent quarter of Paris, I was delighted to read Hugo Marsan’s Blind Experiment as a companion piece.
There is perhaps an issue with the fact that these stories are by different writers, but with one translator, which does bring a certain uniformity to the language, even though it is clear that the translator has attempted to carry through the unique voice of the author. Some of the pieces are experimental – Michel Butor’s Gare St Lazare for instance – and its jump-cutting and typographical devices are carried through to the translation.
Perhaps the star piece in this is Anna Gavalda’s What Goes On In St Germain – wildly funny and with a twist to make me cheer. And the final story, Feeding The Hungry by Vincent Ravalec, is similarly exuberant, and covers the whole city, especially the seamier bits, in a wild ride. One of the beneficial side-effects of this is that for some of these pieces I feel I must go back to read them in the original French, and that will be good for me. There is also a companion volume of Paris Metro Tales that I must add to my travel shelf.
So, as an essential companion to the standard guidebooks, this cannot be beaten. For those for whom Paris is not a three hour train ride away (I know I am lucky), it is a brilliant way of absorbing the city in all its colours and moods – I recommend.
Paris Tales. Stories translated by Helen Constantine. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 256pp
ISBN 13: 9780192805744