Paris


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.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

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.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

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.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

menu
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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.

Buy it at Amazon.com.