Paris on the Page
‘We’ll always have Paris,’ as Bogart famously drawled to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, alluding both to their own affair and the city’s enduring quality of romantic vivacity; its embodiment of Eros versus the forces of Thanatos, in this case represented by the Second World War. He doesn’t have to elaborate on what Paris symbolises; its superabundance of light and love, its promise of amorous adventure. Not many cities are so neatly metonymic. Yet the title of Andrew Gallix’s excellent anthology of Parisian writing, We’ll Never Have Paris (2019), seems to sum up the experience of writing a Parisian novel more accurately. It catches the tantalising, ineffable quality of the city, one that becomes more apparent as you try to capture it on the page. Writing about Paris – like writing about London or New York– can feel like a thankless task. As Hemingway said, ‘There is never any ending to Paris’.
The first challenge: how to put this embarrassment of riches on the page? The second: What’s left to say? Every metre of every boulevard, every cobblestone, has been described to death. Yet, despite the obvious setbacks of over-familiarity, and the dead hand of romanticised iterations of the city in fiction, poetry and memoir, writers across more than four centuries have found plenty new to say about La Ville Lumière.
Any novelist who’s ever begun a book set in a city they’re not entirely familiar with will know the following sensation, usually reached after a couple of pages: give up now. Set the book anywhere but your chosen famous and glamorous location. Even if it has to be Milton Keynes. The sheer level of your ignorance, coupled with the weight of words already in existence about your fabulous urban landscape (the one that was supposed to subtly mirror your characters’ lives, to reinforce your book’s themes and symbolism, to become a character in itself), prevents you from writing another word. Quietly shelve this idea and write – as the creative writing course instructs – about what you know.
However, if you can get past this popular injunction and you absolutely must set your novel in Paris, you’re left with the following options: in-the- field research, or reading a lot of books about the place. The first option might appear to be more profitable, but, as I found out while writing my own contemporary Paris-set novel, Jacob’s Advice, seeing how others had done the city on the page was more illuminating. Certainly cheaper. Short of being born in France’s capital, or moving there (and many writers from Saul Bellow to Geoff Dyer have done just that), you’ll never really strike that authentic note. And so, drawing on intense childhood memories of Parisian holidays, plus one short but equally intense research trip, I set out to find Paris on the page.
The books I found most instructive while writing Jacob’s Advice weren’t by the obvious authors or the coolest candidates. No Walter Benjamin, Perec or Modiano. Instead, it was the nineteenth-century canon, which I went about methodically, that provided the best guide. I began with Victor Hugo, side-stepping the monolith of Les Misérables, and opting for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831).
Hugo thought the pointed gothic ogees of the Notre Dame’s windows mirrored humanity’s ascent from the gutter to a state of grace and enlightenment. Certainly, this quintessentially Parisian novel seems to be as concerned with architecture as with the grand historical melodrama of Quasimodo and his love for Esmeralda. In one astonishing digression lasting a whole chapter (beginning with the sexist line: ‘Our female readers will forgive us if we pause for a moment’), Hugo elaborates on his humanist philosophy, connecting the Romantic spirit of the age with the ever-upward movement of gothic architecture. Earlier, in a chapter entitled ‘A Bird’s Eye View of Paris’, the same authorial voice paints a vivid picture of the fifteenth century city:
In the centre, the Île de la Cité, looking in shape like an enormous tortoise, with its bridges, scaly with tiles, protruding like paws from under underneath the grey carapace of roofs… Through it all, the Seine, our ‘foster-mother Seine’…obstructed by islands, bridges and boats. Right the way round, an immense plain, a patchwork of every kind of cultivation dotted with lovely villages…
Similarly effusive is Balzac, a writer who is less descriptive, but knows the heart better. Balzac’s Lost Illusions (1837-43) is the archetypal novel of a young man on the make in a society; one that’s far crueller and more indifferent than he first imagines. Aspiring poet Lucien Chardon arrives in Paris with only his wit and good looks to live on. The novel ends with him lamenting ‘Who will love me?’ In this socially panoramic novel of love and ambition, Balzac captures the vertiginous excitement of finding yourself young and in Paris for the first time:
Here is the habitat of writers, thinkers, poets. Here only can the seeds of fame be sown… Here only can writers find, in the museums and art collections the immortal works of past genius to warm and stimulate the imagination. Here only vast libraries, always open, offer knowledge and sustenance for the mind. In short, in Paris, in the very air one breathes and the smallest details of existence, there is a spirit which permeates… One learns more in half an hour, chatting in cafés and theatres, than one learns in the provinces in ten years.
This note of revulsion at the parochial is struck in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami (1885), another classic Parisian novel that puts a young, socially ambitious man at its centre, though one informed by Maupassant’s characteristic blend of salaciousness and high morality. Georges Duroy is more ruthless than Balzac’s Lucien, with none of his vulnerabilities; qualities which help him ascend from lowly clerk to the highest echelons of society. A strikingly modern novel, despite being first published over a hundred and thirty years ago, its picture of a demi-monde of prostitutes, drinkers and urban hustlers is unmatched:
He was fond of the places where whores congregated, he liked their dance-halls, their cafés, their streets; he liked rubbing shoulders with them, talking and chatting familiarly with them, inhaling their cheap pungent perfumes, feeling them all around… The large cafés were crammed to overflowing with their customers spread out all over the pavement, drinking under the harsh light of their brilliantly illuminated terraces. On the little round or square tables, there were glasses of liquids of every hue, brown and red, yellow and green while the limpid cylinders of ice sparked invitingly in their decanters of ice-cold water.
As ever, it’s the details that most evoke a city, give us a sure sense of place. Here the care Maupassant takes in lavishly describing the drinks puts us vividly in the scene. Similarly, Zola was at pains to describe (and keep describing) a physical location until the reader almost feels they’ve lived there themselves. In Thérèse Raquin (1868), the dank arcade that houses Madame Raquin’s haberdashery shop, and where Thérèse plans the murder of her husband Camille along with her lover Laurent, is obsessively adumbrated. The Passage du Pont-Neuf is ‘no place to go for a stroll… a dark corridor connecting rue Mazarine and rue de Seine’:
At night the arcade is lit by three gas jets in heavy square lanterns. These gas jets hang from the glass roof, onto which they cast up passages of lurid light, while they send down palely luminous circles that dance fitfully and now and again seem to disappear altogether. Then the arcade takes on the sinister look of a real cutthroat alley…
The same atmosphere of dimly lit menace pervades Zola’s later novel L’Assommoir (1877). Gritty, garrulous and altogether ahead of its time, L’Assommoir (sometimes translated as The Dram Shop, but more accurately ‘The Boozer’, or ‘the place where you can get knocked out’), reveals a Paris only hinted at in the works of Balzac and Hugo. The working-class underbelly of a city has never been so savagely depicted, with the novel anticipating the alternative Parisian narratives of Orwell, Henry Miller, and Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex trilogy. Full of drugs, sex, and 1990s music, Vernon Subutex 1(2015), the first part of Despentes’ trilogy, depicts a magnificently deviant Paris. Its hero, Vernon, starts as the owner of hip record store Revolver in Bastille, and ends up couch-surfing, snorting coke, drinking and eventually living on the streets. The three books are a return to the unvarnished Paris of Zola, and an antidote to portrayals of the city that have become overly romanticised over the years.
One of the major challenges an English-speaking novelist faces in putting Paris on the page is the dialogue. Should the Parisian characters speak English, or French? Or an awkward combination of the two? And if everyone speaks English, does the speech have to render the French accent, ’Allo, ’Allo!-style? Henry James’ novel The American (1877) never quite gets this right. His tale of New World values meeting the corruption of Old World Europe can sometimes feel as if the (mainly) Parisian setting is secondary. This is largely the fault of the dialogue, which is so formal we forget the characters are walking around the Louvre and not 1870s Boston. Yet the story of naïve businessman Charles Newman’s first encounter with the sinful city is oddly memorable, and one that kicks off the great tradition of writing about Americans in Paris. Only in the twentieth-century did the ex-pat Parisian novel really get going, with Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), and later, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956)
Baldwin’s sensitively written story of the love between an American and a French bartender was one of the first gay novels of the post war period. Though his characters are white, the novel contains much of Baldwin’s experience of being a black American in Paris: ‘Mist clung to the river… clinging like a curse to the men who slept beneath the bridges – one of whom flashed by beneath us, very black and lone.’ Lyrical and drenched in authentic Parisian atmosphere, it’s a complex exploration of alienation and identity. What’s more, unlike Henry James’ novel, its dialogue convinces the reader the action is actually set in Paris. It achieves this, paradoxically, by having its native Parisians speak in an odd mix of French and English:
‘Eh bien, ma cheri, comment vas tu? I have not seen you for a long time.’ ‘But I have been awfully busy,’ said Jacques.
‘I don’t doubt it! Aren’t you ashamed, veille folle?’
‘Et toi? You certainly don’t seem to have been wasting your time.’
Another counter-intuitive method of rendering Paris on the page is not to describe it at all. Jean Rhys’ 1928 novel Quartet is a good example of this principle in action, and one that seems true to the experience of her characters. A view seen a thousand times is a view ignored, after all. Rhys’ reluctance to describe Paris in all her novels set in the city was, according to her lover and mentor Ford Maddox Ford, an attempt to deromanticize the topography. This she certainly achieves in this booze-soaked story of Marya and her solitary struggle to stay afloat in Montparnasse. If Rhys does depict Paris overtly, it’s only ever to mirror her protagonist’s inner world. The rue saint-Jacques becomes ‘the street of homeless cats’, perfectly describing Marya’s emotional state as she walks its pavements.
Another method of bringing Paris to life is to only set a small part of your book there. The juxtaposition between the City of Light and the drabness of the other locations provides the charge. In Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française (2004), the occupation of Paris in June 1940, and the ensuing exodus, is vividly depicted in a novel which only survived after Némirovsky’s notebooks were unearthed by her daughters in 1998. The author herself didn’t survive the war. She was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in the Holocaust. Though the majority of the book is set in Vichy France, Paris is a constant presence as a place of return; a cynosure of Resistance in a country on its knees.
Annie Ernaux’s The Years (2008) works on a similar principle. Published in France in 2008, but only available in English in its superb translation by Alison L. Strayer in 2017, this is novelist and school teacher Ernaux’s meditative history of post-war France as seen through the prism of her own life. Though much of the book is set outside Paris, the city is central to Ernaux’s escape from provincial Normandy, and the intimate story of family, divorce, child-rearing and her own pursuit of sexual and intellectual independence.
The list of non-fiction about Paris is even more daunting for the struggling novelist than the fiction. But an intelligent navigation of it can bring rich rewards. The place most start is Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast (1964). Lauren Elkin, in her book Flâneuse, admits that at twenty the Paris book she revered above all others was A Moveable Feast, whereas now she would be ‘too embarrassed to be seen in Paris holding a copy of it’. There’s something in Hemingway’s tableaux of writing a whole short story in a café before polishing off a dozen oysters and a pichet of crisp white wine that’s irresistibly romantic to the younger reader. However, his sad portrait of Fitzgerald as an alcoholic unable to hold his drink shows it’s the work of a mature writer looking back at his younger, wilder days. And a very male account, as many have pointed out.
Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse (2016) provides a female perspective on much the same material: young writer trying to write in Paris. In this subversive take on the figure of the aimless city wanderer, Elkin finds that there have always been female flâneurs, despite the manifest difficulties of walking the boulevards while female. The book is at its best when delving deep into the relationship between women artists such as Agnès Varda, Jean Rhys and George Sand and the Paris they depict in their work. Likewise, Edmund White’s The Flâneur (2001) gives the perspective of a gay man in Paris, equally eager to write and find his place in the world. One of the few works by a man that admits the flâneur can be of either gender, White’s supremely readable account of his years in Paris and his favourite artists packs a lot into its two hundred pages. Like Elkin’s book, there’s much meditation about being an American in Paris. It’s equally involving when discussing White’s beloved novelists such as Proust, Baldwin and Colette.
While writing Jacob’s Advice, I found any number of standard histories of Paris helpful, though not all of them put the city vibrantly on the page. Graham Robb’s Parisians (2010) is one that does. A solid, approachable, detailed history of Paris and its inhabitants from the Revolution to the Sarkozy era, the book convinces us that the history of Paris belongs as much to its revolutionaries, spies and prostitutes as its great writers and statesmen. Another that brings the city masterfully to life is Alistair Horne’s The Seven Ages of Paris (2002). Published before Graham Robb’s book, Alistair Horne’s panoptic history of Paris, from the twelfth century to Les jours de Mai of ’68 is perhaps the superior volume. Dramatic and immaculately researched, it’s essential for an understanding of how Paris became the city it is today.
There were also more than a few memoirs that seemed to nail the ineffable quality of living in the city. One such memoir was Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon (2000). When New Yorker writer and Francophile Gopnik decided to move his family to Paris in 1995 he became an unwitting foreign correspondent. This finely observed, erudite, funny account was the result: Paris was the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafés, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards… and windows like doors everywhere you look.
Another excellent guide was John Baxter’s The Most Beautiful Walk in the World (2011). A discursive love letter to the city, that manages to tell the story of the Lost Generation of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Joyce as well as underground Montmartre along the way. Baxter is an easy and loquacious walking companion, and a reliable source of local knowledge and Parisian tradition, from ‘scarfmanship’ (the correct way to fold your scarf) to how to avoid being a plouc (a gullible fool or mug). Another memoir was Kati Marton’s Paris: A Love Story (2012). Found in a charity shop, and not on any Paris reading lists, it’s a highly personal account of living in Paris by a former ABC News correspondent. Marton’s book is the story of how she lost her first husband and made a new life for herself with Paris as the backdrop. From her days as a Left Bank student who lived through Les jours de Mai, to later visits as a successful broadcast journalist on the opulent Right Bank, the book is a reminder of how a city can shape a whole life.
So, a few books have successfully managed to convey the banquet of riches that is Paris. Of course, the above choices are highly selective. When it comes to novelists who’ve caught the authentic aroma of the city, I could equally have included Dumas (père et fils), Sartre, or Françoise Sagan. The trick always, for the novelist, is to remember the job is to evoke, not to document. You’re not writing the guidebook, after all. And encountering a writer’s research on the page is always deadly. We’ve all read novels too eager to convince us that the action is set in a specific place. On every page there’s an exhaustive delineation of the topography, a nugget of folklore, a badly rendered local accent. The sense of place is overloaded. In John Mullan’s book How Novels Work, he makes the distinction between ‘location’ and ‘setting’. A location is merely the physical place, whereas the setting is somewhere seen through a particular pair of eyes. ‘There is, for instance, a striking Anglo-American tradition of novels with European settings, where any sense of place is also a sense of being out of place, a tourist [italics mine].’ This is essential in both fiction and non-fiction.
Lastly, there is the phenomenon of ‘Paris Syndrome’, the feeling of disappointment on seeing the city in the flesh, largely created by the body of Parisian literature. When I did finally make it over to Paris for a day of in-the-field research on Jacob’s Advice, on a rain-wracked November day, I was grateful not to experience this. Though not a spring day, one for which the city is justly famous, I found Paris to be as spectacular and fresh as I remembered. It might be a cliché, but Paris remakes itself with every visit; with every walk along the melancholy quais, every crème at a new terrasse, every glance up at a Hausmann balcon. Hemingway was right: you’ll never reach the end.
Jude Cook lives in London and studied English literature at UCL. His first novel, Byron Easy, was published by William Heinemann in 2013. He regularly reviews fiction for The Guardian, The Spectator, Literary Review, New Statesman, TLS, the i-Paper, Review 31 and 3AM Magazine. His essays and short fiction have appeared in The Stockholm Review, The Moth, The Tangerine, The Honest Ulsterman, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Structo and elsewhere. In 2017, he was longlisted for the RA and Pindrop short story award, and in 2018 shortlisted for Leicester Writes Short Story Prize, and longlisted for the Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award. He is an editor for The Literary Consultancy, and currently teaches creative writing at the University of Westminster. His second novel, Jacob’s Advice, was published by Unbound in August 2020.
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