As my heart breaks for Paris, and as I look forward to spending some time in the beautiful city of light this coming weekend, I thought I would dedicate a post to Parisian literature. Paris is as much a city of letters as it is a city of light and love. Victor Hugo, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Honoré Balzac, Marcel Proust, and Oscar Wilde all lived and wrote in Paris, just to name a few. Some truly beautiful sentences have been crafted in Paris, and the city has always seemed to have a kind of literary magic about it. Of course, it's so easy to romanticise a place like Paris and forget the living, breathing city underneath it all. When I visit in a few days' time, I hope to get to know the city as the great writers' of bygone eras experienced it as well as seeing how the city is lived in today by real Parisians. Today I'm recommending two of my favourite novels set in Paris that I will be bringing with me on my city break this weekend - Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola and The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.
These two Parisian novels could not be more dissimilar. One is a pessimistic social drama, the other a precocious philosophical comedy. Yet I love them both and thoroughly delight in the two different versions of Paris conjured up in their pages.
Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola
Published: 1867 (French), 1887 (English)
One of Zola's most famous realistic novels, Therese Raquin is a clinically observed, sinister tale of adultery and murder among the lower classes in nineteenth-century Parisian society.
Set in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a dingy haberdasher's shop in the passage du Pont-Neuf in Paris, this powerful novel tells how the heroine and her lover, Laurent, kill her husband, Camille, but are subsequently haunted by visions of the dead man and prevented from enjoying the fruits of their crime.
Zola's shocking tale dispassionately dissects the motivations of his characters--mere "human beasts", who kill in order to satisfy their lust--and stands as a key manifesto of the French Naturalist movement, of which the author was the founding father. Published in 1867, this is Zola's most important work before the Rougon-Macquart series and introduces many of the themes that can be traced through the later novel cycle.
This novel is not for the faint of heart. If you think Thomas Hardy is cruel to his characters, just wait till you see what Zola can do. This is a story of a gloomy Paris inhabited by downtrodden men and women. Zola tells a spellbindingly horrifying psychological drama, casting an unforgiving light on human nature. This novel is savagely beautiful in its own way, desperately sad but an exquisite read all the same.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Published: 2006 Éditions Gallmard, 2008 Europa Editions
We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building's tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.
Then there's Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.
Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma's trust and to see through Renée's timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
This is a story of two unlikely intellectuals and is chock full with high-brow philosophy and literature. The densely allusive writing may be construed as pomposity by some, but such is the way with intellectuals. The characters may discuss the great names of writers and thinkers and musicians, but the most pressing concerns in this surprising book are about human nature - how we so often hide so much of ourselves away from the world, how we all long for connection in this life, how you can never know the world through intellectualism if you do not know your own heart. It's a gorgeous book - its two characters are fragile and deceptive and beautiful.
I hope returning to the beloved stories of Paris will help me to grieve and to find hope again. I'm sending all of my prayers to the city of light.