Van Gogh Cafe at night
Photo of Arles by Greg_e used under a Creative Commons license.

Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence (Little, Brown, 2006).
In early 1888, Vincent Van Gogh moved from Paris to Arles, in southern France, where he hoped to find a new world to paint.  Van Gogh fixed up a yellow house and dreamed of starting a commune of artists, and to that end he implored Paul Gauguin to join him.  In October, Gauguin arrived, and the two artists together enjoyed an incredibly productive collaboration of sorts until December, when they fell out and Gauguin took the train north.  The two never saw each other again: Van Gogh died in mid-1890, and Gauguin wound up in Tahiti. Gayford takes full advantage of rich sources, including Van Gogh’s letters.  The only disappointment is that the many pictures of the paintings of Van Gogh and Gaugin are black and white, a terrible decision by the publisher, especially given the importance of color to both artists.  If you can, read it with a better source of Van Gogh’s art at hand — Judy Sund’s Van Gogh will do the trick nicely.

If you don’t recognize the scene, compare the photo above to this. Google Books lets you take a look at the book. Peter Schjeldahl (The New Yorker) calls it a skillfully ordered collection of informative and entertaining nuggets of intellectual and personal biography. Adam Jusko says the drama of the story makes it worth reading even for those who are only passingly familiar with the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin. Sue Gaisford (The Independent) calls it drily witty, original and profoundly absorbing. Robert Freedman, M.D. (American Journal of Psychiatry) says it is ideal for psychiatrists because Gayford lets Van Gogh and Gauguin speak for themselves. Richard Cork (The Guardian) appreciates the focus on the nine weeks in the two artists were together. Sue Bond says it gives a robust feeling for the way the two of them painted, and the different approaches they took. Jennifer Reese (Entertainment Weekly) gives it an A. Aditi Raychoudhury calls it an intricate, delicate, heart felt, and intensely human account that sheds light on what drove Van Gogh and Gauguin. Michele Heather Pollock applauds masterful storytelling. Deborah Hern says Gayford fashions a dramatic narrative. Peter Conrad (The Observer) calls it a book about colour. Sebastian Smee (The Spectator) says the story of those two months is tragic, pathetic, unfathomable, and so strange it simply has to be real. Clive Wilmer (The New Statesman) says its merit is in Gayford’s judgment of the issues. Michael Prodger (The Telegraph) thinks it’s wonderfully perceptive. Zane Ewton says Gayford turns legenday art figures into people. Gayford wrote this article in Apollo shortly before the book was released. More recently, Gayford took on a more recent theory about Van Gogh’s ear, and found more to say about Van Gogh. And here’s a Van Gogh walking tour of Arles.

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Questione di Eleganza
Photo by E|NoStress| used under a Creative Commons license.

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions, 2008).
To observers, such as the affluent residents of her building in the sixth arrondisement, Renée Michel is a typical Paris concierge, from Central Casting, and she works hard to maintain the image, wearing frumpy clothes, cutting her own hair, and adopting a brusque manner. Inside her loge, and in her own mind, Michel guards a different persona, that of a autodidact and aesthete who appreciates philosophy, Tolstoy, Japanese cinema, and opera. Michel, who narrates much of this novel, lets down her guard long enough to let two residents into her private world. One is Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old girl, precocious and misunderstood by her family, who lives on the fifth floor and whose journal entries form the rest of this story. The book gives a long glimpse inside one of the posh buildings closed to most tourists.  Many reviewers loved it or hated it; my reaction is more mixed.

Here is Barbery’s site.  Alison Anderson translated it into English; here is her site.  The Complete Review provides a wealth of links, as always. They say it makes for a bizarre social critique that has some superficial appeal but is presented much too simplistically. Yvonne Zipp (Christian Science Monitor) says it has its own elegance.  Michèle Roberts (Financial Times) says it consoles rather than unsettles.  Ian Sansom (The Guardian) finds it charming.  Robert Hanks (The Independent) likens it to a hedgehog turned inside out – superficially warm and cuddly, but with some nasty barbs within.  Caryn James (New York Times, Scotsman) calls it quirky and studied yet appealing.  Heather Thompson (New Statesman) appreciates the interplay of the characters.  Louise McCready (New York Observer) doubts it will play in America.  Viv Groskop (The Observer (UK)) calls it profound but accessible.  Beth Jones (Telegraph) says the entire tale is soaked in sentimentality.  Michael Dirda (Washington Post) thinks you will fall in love with both narrators.  Caroline Smailes calls it a delicate and beautiful story of friendship.  Smithereens wanted to throw it across the room.   Jonathan Birch calls it a fluffy confection of style over substance.  Grierson Huffman recommends it with reservations.  Dan Sumption calls it beautiful if flawed, and is not alone in faulting the translation.  Kalafudra found it unbearable and couldn’t finish it.  Anne Hawk found it simply charming.  Jan del Monte, blogging from Paris, says it’s a book to read and reread.  Jing-reed calls it erudite, humorous, and tragic by turns.  Harkinna loved it.  Monica Carter (Salonica) says it’s erudite but accessible, intellectual and sweet.  Ragan felt smarter after she finished it.  It left Ella entirely cold.  Annabel Gaskell says the first half was too slow and the second half too fast.  Princess Haiku gave it an award.  Barbara B. says it’s great.  NPR offers this excerpt.  More are posted here.  Claire (or *claire*) posts some favorite passages.

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Disabled in love
Photo by O’mages used under a Creative Commons license.

Geoff Dyer, Paris Trance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998).
A tale of two couples, expats in Paris. Luke moves there from England to write a novel, a plan never acted upon, and finds work at a warehouse, where he meets another Englishman, Alex. Luke soon starts seeing Nicole, a student from Belgrade, and Alex woos Sahra, an American translator. Over the next year, the four live in the moment, a glorious but doomed interregnum between their lives before and what comes after, timeless in the moment and brief in retrospect. It would be difficult to cover this ground without acknowledging Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as Dyer does from the outset, but this is not derivative.

This page offers a bio of Dyer and some perspective on his work. The Complete Review’s page has links to reviews and other good stuff and the CR’s own review, which calls it deceptively simple and straightforward. Daniel Mendelsohn (The New York Times) says it offers compelling and beautiful moments but doesn’t ultimately work, but that even this relative failure is entrancing. Walter Kirn (New York) says imitating Fitzgerald is a loser’s game. Greg Bottoms (Salon) says if Milan Kundera rendered a “Friends” episode, it might look something like this. James Sallis (Washington Post) says it leaves an ache that can’t be located or named. Likewise, Tom Nolan (San Francisco Chronicle) calls it haunting. Gerald Houghton says it’s one of those French movies about flighty young things who drink, fight and fuck too much. Ruby Khan says the tragic love is what’s most compelling. Richard Wallace (Seattle Times) says the whole effort feels like a hardworking writer’s summer vacation. Paul calls it unfinished and pedestrian. James Lomex calls it a mediation on relationships and happiness. The formatting makes it tough to read, but here is a 1999 interview with Dyer in LA Weekly about the book. Olivia Giovetti interviewed Dyer last year. Eight years ago, the Complete Review looked for Dyer on the internet.

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Les Deux Magots
Photo of Les Deux Magots by artandscience used under a Creative Commons license.

Janet Flanner, Paris Was Yesterday: 1925-1939 (Harvest Books, 1988).
Starting in 1925, Janet Flanner wrote dispatches from Paris under the pen name Genêt as the correspondent for The New Yorker, with the assignment to write about what the French found au courant. This volume collects columns from before the Second World War. Read here about Isadora Duncan, the deaths of Mme. Curie and Clemenceau, Josephine Baker, Manet and Monet, the Munich accord, and the flight of Spaniards to France from Franco’s Spain. Other volumes cover 1944-1955, 1956-1964 and 1965-1970.

Stephen remembers Flanner. Here is Google BookSearch on a biography of GenêtNYRB subscribers can read this 1980 review by Virgil Thomson. The Village Voice Bookshop in Paris recommends it. Viviane quotes Flanner on Josephine Baker.

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Image by bolshakov used under a Creative Commons license.

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (Scribner, 1996).
Hemingway’s famous memoir of Paris in the 1920s, before he was rich and famous, and before his days there became the stuff of legend. Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford and John Dos Passos walk these pages; Hemingway remembers many of them uncharitably, particularly the Fitzgeralds.  Hemingway wrote the book decades later, add and It was published posthumously under the supervision his fourth wife, who some say put her own cast on things.  It was all too good to be true, and indeed Hemingway suggests in the foreward that readers may regard it as fiction. Nonetheless, many of the locations that he describes can still be found today.

This on-line companion to Hemingway’s Paris is a pretty neat resource. R.M. Wittingslow posts a passage. Robin posts some too. Charles Poore reviewed it in The New York Times. Jonathan Yardley reconsidered it in The Washington Post. Sadie Jones read it when she was living in Paris in her 20s. Michael Palin trailed Hemingway in Paris. Ric Erickson tracked down places described in the book. Harold Stephens did too, and Riana Lagarde recommends a four-hour walk. Don George (Salon) calls it literary comfort food. Softspoken found a picture of Gertrude Stein with Hemingway’s son, back in the day. Red Star Café offers a favorable review. According to lofotenmoose, it’s Hemingway’s most satisfying work. Mark Shaw tells aspiring writers to read it. litlove enjoyed it but found Hemingway’s voice strange. Michael Burke finds something different each time he goes back. Brian Oard sees much bathos. Becky made it through the third time. Craig Terlson loves Hemingway. Gigi liked him more after reading it. Markin calls it a little gold mine of insights. Juliette Crane doesn’t want to be like him. Wendy was transported to 1985. The Emily fell in love with Hemingway. This Excentric has a picture of Hemingway back then. And Paul’s blog is right on point.

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Photo of Quercy by edem56 used under a Creative Commons license.

M.S. Merwin, The Lost Upland (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004).
Writing about Southwestern France in Salon’s Literary Guide to the World, Sarah Karnasiewicz writes:

Though Gascony and the Dordogne remain far less traveled than most of southern France, their anachronistic beauties have not gone entirely unnoticed by foreigners. In the 1950s, the renowned American poet W.S. Merwin bought a ruined house in the rural province of Quercy and has spent decades getting to know not only his neighbors but also the ghosts that hover over every town and valley in the countryside. . . . Merwin has emerged as one of the most prominent English-language chroniclers of the region’s people and patois. “The Lost Upland,” a semi-autobiographical collection of three short stories, combines Merwin’s inimitable eye for poetic natural detail with a keen attention to the quirks and constants of life in a small village. What emerges is a portrait of a place and people both blessed and burdened by the weight of history, and an exploration of what it means to be an eternal outsider.

Here is Google Book Search, with an excerpt, etc. Here is a bio of Merwin. Ginger Danto reviewed it in The New York Times. Peter Davison, The Atlantic‘s poetry editor, wrote in 1997 about Merwin’s career. Dinitia Smith profiled Merwin in The New York Times in 1995. Karen Moline stayed at Merwin’s house overlooking the Dordogne River. Like Merwin, Helen Martin has been in the Lot.

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Batavia Ship in Lelystad Netherlands
Photo by Yapsalot used under a Creative Commons license.

Simon Leys, The Wreck of the Batavia (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006).
Two completely distinct works under one cover. The first is a short (60 small pages) account of the wreck of the Batavia, a Dutch vessel en route from Holland to Indonesia which ran ashore on the reefs of the Houtman Absrolhos, fifty miles of southwest Australia. The crew and passengers had time to evacuate and salvage much from the ship. A contingent set sail for Indonesia for help, leaving the remainder to a seventeenth-century version of The Lord of the Flies. Some of the remains of the expedition are now in Fremantle, Western Australia. The second book (even shorter at 50 page) is a memoir of a tour in the late 1950s on a fishing boat – one of the last operating under sail – out of Etel, Brittany. “In its heyday, Etel had a tuna-fishing fleet of nearly two hundred sailing boats – yawls, ketches and cutters – but these were progressively replaced by motor vessels, and now only two yawls remain: Prosper and Étoile de France. ” Leys sailed on the Prosper.

Here is Google Book Search. Here are reviews from Ray Cassin (The Age), Peter Robb (The Monthly), and David Warren. Here are posts from Jen, t.s., and Dave Coulter. See also William Coleman’s take.

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