Let’s pay a visit to the gorgeous, airy Haussmannian apartments in the well-heeled areas of Paris now that their occupants are on holiday. I’ve been inspired by the elegant apartments shown in the film The Woman from the Fifth (Arrondissement), I hasten to add, not the dodgy hotel in the peripherie.
Elaine Dundy: The Dud Avocado, 1958.
Freshly out of college, American Sally Jay Gorce has the good fortune to have an understanding uncle who will pay for her to spend two years in Paris as long as she promises to tell him all about her adventures there. She has such a thirst for life (reminding me of Sylvia Plath’s letters home) that she freely partakes in everything that Paris has to offer: parties and drinks, art and artists, the odd spot of acting, and lovers galore. Ah, the joys of being able to gallivant about in foreign countries without having to work!
The plot, such as it is, is about Sally Jay navigating her way through a selection of potential or actual lovers, both in Paris and later in Biarritz: suave older married man Teddy, theatre director Larry Keevil who is a bit of an enigma to her, earnest painter Jim Breit, hearty Canadian Bax. She is too modern to complain or flinch, but she is half-aware that she is being taken advantage of, and underneath it remains all quite keen to be taken seriously.
I don’t think I can do a thorough review, but I do want to share some quotes, because above all, this book is very funny and wittily written. A lot of the one-line zingers reminded me of Dorothy Parker.
It’s amazing how right you can be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.
The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles, and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in my way?
I reflected wearily that it was not easy to be a Woman in these stirring times. I said it then and I say it now: it just isn’t our century.
This is how Sally Jay describes her boring American cousin John:
Presidential candidates, Senatorial investigations, juvenile delinquency – he held firm views on all of them, views which needless to say he was entirely willing to share with one and all, and if the thought ever struck him that there might possibly be people at the table who were uninformed or even just plain uninterested in these peculiarly American problems, it never slowed the steady flow nor quelled the mighty roar.
She does not spare Paris and the Parisians from her sharp tongue:
The French more than anyone – the French alone – have mastered the fine art of sweating out a drink. I’ve seen them time and again in that cafe, hat, coat, gloves and scarves to the eyebrows, sitting in attitudes of imminent departure – and sitting there all night, the same stemmed glass before them.
How I hated Paris! Paris was one big flea-bag. Everything in Paris moved if you looked at it long enough. There were tiny bugs working their way into the baskets of ferns on the wall and a million flies buzzing around my table. In fact, all those shrewd, flashing glances upon which the Parisian’s reputation as a wit is almost entirely based, are motivated by nothing more than his weary, steady need to keep on the bug-hunt.
You have to admire Sally Jay’s gutsiness, determination and innate optimism, but at times her chaotic life catches up with her and we get glimpses of a confused and vulnerable young girl, which makes her very endearing. Readers have compared her to Holly Golightly, but this is no ‘manic pixie girl’ invented by a male author, but the creation of a female author with plenty of wry asides for women of all ages.
If I could only figure out if it was Larry I was in love with, or just love, then I’d be all set, I told myself. It had certainly seemed to be Larry that morning, especially after that scene at the Dupont, but I was so sure of it then, why not now?
What happens when your curiosity just suddenly gives out? When the will and the energy snap and it all seems so once-over-again? What’s going to happen to me five years from now on, when I wake in the night (or can’t sleep in the first place…), take a deep breath to start all over again, and find that I’ve no breath left?
Sally Jay describes herself as a dud avocado – all shiny and exotic on the outside, but possibly not very nice on the inside, and I felt that this could apply both to her experiences of life in Europe, and also to the book itself. A lot of superficial charm and exuberance, but a little of it goes a long way. Perhaps that was precisely the point that the author was making – that these ‘stars in their eyes wannabe artists and expats’ are pretentious, unreliable and vacuous, puncturing the myth of 1920s Golden Age Paris?
Different time and different city, but not all that dissimilar from Other People’s Clothes – except that the main protagonist here is far more charming and amusing. The story itself felt not only meandering (and virtually plotless), but also slightly hollow. However, it’s really all about how the story gets told. I loved Sally Jay’s voice, resilience and humour. This is a perfect ‘mood booster’ kind of book.
Or should that be ‘Independent Women and Wild Cats’? A change of pace in my reading, with a biography of early 20th century artists and a quiet ode to a beloved cat.
Diana Souhami: Wild Girls – The Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks
Natalie ‘the Amazon’ Barney and Romaine Brooks were two wealthy, independent and pivotal figures of the bohemian expat world in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Although they formed an intense personal relationship that lasted for half a century, this book tries to document their entire lives and their (multiple) relationships with other women (and men) before, during and after their own love story. As such, it simply tries to cram too much in and often feels like a long list of famous names and decadent practices (drugs, orgies, infidelity feature heavily). Although the blurb on the back cover suggests that the Sunday Times considered Souhami ‘an exceptionally witty and original biographer’, I found her lacklustre. She managed to make these fascinating women and their entourage, plus their turbulent lives, sound dull. There was far too little focus on their art, too much detail about all of the secondary figures (including footnotes) and as for the personal ‘anecdotes’ interspersed between chapters? What on earth was that all about? It added nothing to the story – if the author wanted to write a memoir, then she should do so separately from this biography.
Nevertheless, there are still many poignant moments, particularly in the final chapters, when the lovers are ageing. Born to a life of privilege but also parental neglect, they seem rather insufferable in the early years. While I cannot quite say that their arrogance and sense of entitlement takes a beating in their old age, it becomes obvious that money, fame, even some artistic success cannot lead to lasting happiness. While Natalie Barney seems flighty and a serial womaniser in her youth, in old age she shows deep compassion and devotion to an increasingly stubborn and aloof Romaine.
Above all, I was shocked by Romaine Brooks pro-Fascist stance (a former lover and admirer of D’Annunzio, she continued to live in Italy throughout the Second World War and turned into quite a xenophobe). Her final years were spent in self-imposed solitude, rebuffing all offers of love and help, supposedly for the sake of her art, but unable to produce any paintings or writing, and in fact suffering from depression and possibly paranoia.
‘I suppose and artist must live alone and feel free otherwise all individuality goes. I can thing of my painting only when alone, even less do any actual work.’ … But however much she thought, no work got done. She sat on her solitary bench by the sea, ate her modest meals, suspected that ‘awful looking Orientals’ were communists, and seemed closed to the world.
Hiraide Takashi: The Guest Cat, transl. Eric Selland
This is a charming palate cleanser, although by no means as light-hearted as you might be led to believe (see my previous post on ‘mood-boosting books’). It was also a surprise hit when published in Japan in 2014 and then translated into English (and many other languages). It’s the story of a couple in their mid-thirties, both writers or researchers who work from home. They have rented a guesthouse at the bottom of a large and beautiful garden of a 1920s mansion in Tokyo, a bit of a rarity in the late 1980s, when this novel takes place. Their neighbour’s son adopts a kitten and soon this small, delicate creature starts visiting them and occupying a place in their house and in their hearts.
This is not just a love song for a cat that has made the (childless) couple feel alive again, but also a paen to nature that is fast disappearing from the city. A nostalgia for a gentler, more caring way of life, but also respect for the creature’s fierce independence, allowing it to exist in all its mystery and strangeness. A reminder to not forget to live, to play, to love even though your heart might get broken. And, like nearly all Japanese literature, it is a meditation on the transience of life. Set in the final year of Showa and the controversial Emperor Hirohito, at the height of the Japanese property boom, it marks the end of an era.
The author is best known as a poet, and this becomes obvious in the lyricism and illuminating fragments of memories (like flashes in the dark) that he describes in this book. While it’s not strictly speaking a memoir, it is based upon Hiraide’s encounter with a real cat, and you can feel that love and understanding of our feline companions seeping through.
This debut novel by Guy Gunaratne doesn’t really need much by way of introduction. It has won the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. The author is a film-maker, covering post-conflict areas around the world, and this sensibility serves him well in presenting London as a place of multicultural influences and friendships, yes, but also simmering resentments, occasionally exploding into full aggression and rioting.
Yoos, Selvon and Ardan are three lads growing up on or around a council estate in Neasden, North London. They all have ‘elsewhere’ in their blood (i.e. their parents were immigrants) and they are mates: they bus together to school, they are in the same year, they play football on the estate. A loose, unspoken friendship binds them, but is it enough to make up for their differences? Selvon is training hard and listening to motivational podcasts, keen to get a sports scholarship and make his way out of the place. Ardan’s way out is through his music, he writes lyrics and dreams of success as a grime artist. Yoos (Yusuf) is Muslim and doesn’t much like the wave of radicalism engulfing his brother and the mosque where his father used to be the Imam.
In a normal world, they could remain friends, a proud showcase for diversity and integration. But this is London one hot summer when a black boy struck down an off-duty soldier with a cleaver, shouting something about what happens to infidels. So races and religions are pitted against each other, and London’s ‘scowling youth’ are at the end of their tether, ‘fury was like a fever in the air’. There is no possibility of leading a normal life, of not taking sides. Over the course of just two days, we move from the gritty everyday to tragedy to comedy and back to tragedy again, all conveyed in a language that closely follows oral traditions, belonging to several generations and cultural backgrounds. It is both deeply depressing and ultimately uplifting. It is impossible to read this book without feeling somehow changed. It reminded me, both in terms of subject matter, and the friendship of the main characters, of the cult film La Haine.
Alongside the three boys and two additional older characters whose relationship to them is initially somewhat unclear, there is a sixth character, perhaps even THE main character in the book: the city itself. The description of London in all its confused, noisy, vast, pluralistic muddle made me think instantly of Paris at the time of the Commune, and not just because I was reading the two books at nearly the same time.
Neither of the two cities prove to be a haven; idealism and hopes for a better life are doomed, whether it’s the dreams of immigrants or those trying to build a new utopian social order.
I know this city and its sickness of violence and mean living. These things come in sharp ruptures that don’t discern. It was the fury. Horror curled into horror. Violence trailing back for centuries… Each of us were caught in the same swirl, all held together with our own small furies in this single mad, monstrous and lunatic city.
Compare that to the description of Paris of the years 1869-1874 by Rupert Christiansen in Paris Babylon:
… a noisy multifariousness and confusion, and a hostile resilience to all attempts to placate or silence them. Like every city, it argued with itself, constantly pulling in a thousand different directions, growing like a virus, in an unreasonable organic fashion. The reality of Paris is its people’s voices and stories, motivated by the pressure of immediate daily experience and the ceaseless flow of misinformation we call ‘news’; it cannot be reduced to a thesis, an image or a generalization.
It’s these ‘other voices’, often forgotten voices but nevertheless an organic part of the city, that finally take centre stage in the novel. Although the three young men have the most seductive voices, it is old and frail Nelson who has some of the best lines about the high price the city demands of its inhabitants.
This grey, miserable place what hold the young in like a pig pen… Lord, I wish I could tell my son what I know. All that I know about how the city raise a young man’s fury. How it bend him back, beat him down with so much hard rain he want shelter with whoever will carry him.
In Christiansen’s view, the Commune too was not so much a calculated political strategy and rebellion, but a furious instinctive response to the destruction of a way of life to give room to the modernisations of Haussmann and the humiliation of the Prussian siege. It ‘simply had to happen… for reasons beyond reason.’
I found reading the two books in parallel to be an enlightening experience. And both of them, in a way, end with a declaration of love to the great cities which somehow remain elusive, annoying, impossible to capture in their full complexity. The cities and their infuriating, maddening, heroic people.
So here it all is, this London. A place that you can love, make rhymes out of pyres and romance of the colours, talk gladly of the changes and the flux and the rise and the fall without feelings its storm rain on your skin and its bone-scarring winds, a city that won’t love you back unless you become insoluble to the fury, the madness of bound and unbound peoples and the immovables of the place. The joy. The lights lies in the armoured few, those willing to run, run on and run forever just to prove it possible.
Spring is almost ready to spring, or so we hope! It seems to come earlier in England than in other parts of the world, but this week my pictures take me to France. Paris and other French cities may not have quite as many green spaces as London does, but it’s always a pleasure to discover some of them, however small. French gardens may be famous for their severe geometric precision, but this is the more natural, unkempt style.
If I could live anywhere in Paris, and money were no object, I would choose Montmartre, despite the tourist hordes. The endless steps and steep roads would keep me fit, and there are still many quiet picturesque corners if you know where to look. Plus oh, the historical artistic associations! Of course, in the 19th century Montmartre was anything but posh and expensive: it was a scrappy little suburb full of rebellious smallholders (marking the start of the revolutionary Paris Commune in 1871), poor working class people, bars and cabarets. Artists flocked there because it was cheap and provided an excellent spot for people-spotting.
After the disappointment of my 5th book choice for the #20booksof summer, Ingrid Desjour’s Les Fauves, I turned to some lighter reads on a French theme. Or at least I thought they would be lighter… They both turned out to be darker than their titles or blurbs suggested, but both of them were perfect holiday reads. Even if I don’t really have any holidays this year.
Alexandra is an American woman (educated in Britain), happily married to a Frenchman and living a golden life in Paris. Or so she thinks. But then her mother puts the thought into her head that her husband might be having an affair. When Alexandra discovers that this is indeed the case, she loses control and finds herself embarking upon a reckless affair with a much younger man – the son of her husband’s best friends. You just know that it cannot end well, and indeed there is plenty of foreshadowing (perhaps a little too much for my taste), as we see in the very first chapters a contrite and sad Alexandra at some later date ruminating about her behaviour.
After reading so many psychological thrillers which deal with adultery, it was refreshing to read a book which does not make a dark mystery about it, yet is far removed from the humour and lightness of chick lit. There are many quite candid and sensual scenes in the book, but it’s not at all gratuitous sex for the sake of it (as with Maestra, for instance). It’s a grown-up look at adultery, at how we become embroiled in things we initially believe we can control before they end up controlling us. The author does an excellent job of describing how torn and guilty people can feel, yet continue to do the things they feel bad about; how they can blind themselves to any danger warnings and find increasingly absurd self-justification for their actions.
And, of course, if you are a lover of all things French, there are plenty of alluring descriptions of place (including a few of my favourite spots in Paris) and Parisian lifestyle in this book.
This is the second in a series of crime novels featuring Detective Anato in French Guyana. I haven’t read the first in the series, but fellow book blogger Emma highly recommended him. When we met the author at the Quais du Polar in Lyon and realised what a lovely person he was, with a fascinating background, who knows that part of the world really well, I couldn’t resist exploring further.
Anato is of Ndjuka descent, but grew up in France, and has only recently returned to his home country. He doesn’t speak the local language well enough and is still finding out surprising things about his family and his past. He gets called in to investigate the death of a scientist, Serge Feuerstein, an ornithologist based at a scientific research station deep in the Amazonian rainforest. The researchers are ‘sharing’ the forest with illegal gold mining ventures, so at first glance it looks like it might have been a territorial dispute. But Anato and his team suspect that the easiest answer is not often the correct one.
There were so many things to enjoy about this book: a cracking plot and dogged investigation; the contrast between the wilderness of the jungle and the attempts to impose French law and order; Anato and his team, all of them with their own personal troubles, but still working together to discover the truth; discussion of the integrity of scientific research and the future of research facilities in remote locations; the futile fight against illegal mining. Plus plenty of intriguing secondary characters and learning a lot about local culture and the diversity of society in French Guyana, in the so-called DOM/TOM (overseas departments/territories).
I’ll certainly be looking out for the third in the series (already out) and hope that it will be translated into English, to reach a wider audience.
A sunny day early in the Paris spring.
Happiness is sun-dappled apple in its freshness
but lingering smooth like chocolate almonds melting on your tongue.
Hearing flowers grow or each blade of grass unfurl,
or gentling out of fluff lining the nests.
Happiness is hearing the bustle elsewhere
oneself in no hurry
quick only to smile at passers-by.
Sweet hesitations of nothings to fill a day.
A perch somewhere astray, to pontificate and contemplate
glimpses of famous monuments,
but no need to tick them off your list.
You admire the sleek and chick Parisian parents, their control
of pushchairs… breathe relief they’re not your own…
It’s the little everyday things we celebrate today on dVerse Poets Pub. Join us there for a drink, a chat and plenty of good poems!
The book’s title references James Ellroy’s novel ‘White Jazz’ (the main protagonist’s favourite crime read), but this is a very different kind of story.
It’s not just Arab music in the 19th district of Paris, it’s also mosques, Jewish barbers, black youths hanging out on street corners, Armenian shopkeepers, Turkish kebab shops… It’s this frenetic bustle of people which documentary film-maker Karim Miské potrays so well in his first novel Arab Jazz. And it’s at this level – capturing the sounds, smells, food, jargon, eccentric characters – that the book succeeds. The crime thriller element of it is secondary – and those who are expecting a thundering ride of a rollercoaster mystery will be disappointed. However, it succeeds as a fascinating social study into the roots of fundamentalism (of whichever religious stripe) and the urban turmoil of present-day Paris.
Ahmed Taroudant has all but retreated from normal life. He tries to go out as little as possible, stocking pasta, crackers and a few bottles of wine in his flat, which is by now so full of books that he can barely find his way to the fridge. He never knew his father, his mother is in a mental hospital and he himself is clinically depressed. His only two joys in life are: buying crime fiction in bulk from an Armenian second-hand bookshop and his pretty neighbour Laura. Laura is an air hostess and he looks after her orchids when she is away on her frequent travels.
Then, one evening, he finds Laura killed and displayed in a grotesque fashion, strung up above his balcony. There are disturbing elements to this murder which suggest it may have been a religiously motivated killing. Ahmed is terrified he will be a prime suspect, but the shock jolts him out of his lethargy and he starts collaborating with the police to find the real culprits.
You could argue that Miské leaves no stone unturned in his quest for diversity: the two main investigators are Jewish and Breton, and there is a steady parade of imams, rabbis, Jehovah’s Witnesses, blacks, whites and everything in-between in the pages of his book. We find out relatively early on who the baddies are, certainly before the police do, and it all becomes a bit of an international conspiracy with drug links. From that point of view, I did not find the plot hugely exciting.
However, the local colour and atmosphere kept me reading on. I have a soft spot for the 19th arrondissement, as we stayed there during our most recent holiday in Paris. It contains the beautiful park Buttes-Chaumont (featuring in the latest series of ‘Spiral’ too), as well as multi-ethnic shops and restaurants, which give it a cool, happening vibe for tourists. Beneath the scrubbed up veneer, it has its fair share of social problems and the author does not shy away from those. Above all, I enjoyed the relationships between the young people who grew up in the same area, went to the same schools, formed a hip-hop band together and then lost hope and started listening to hate-filled preachers.
Talk about great timing: MacLehose Press publishes this just as the Charlie Hebdo and subsequent Paris attacks turned the spotlight onto the French capital. The debates will rage on about the causes of radicalisation of Muslim youth in France, but in his book and interviews, the author makes clear that not much has changed since the banlieues (suburban) riots in 2005. If you live in those ghettos, ‘your chance of getting a job if you are a young man is very limited. That is true if your name is Mohamed. It is probably also true if your name is Michel.’ The one slender glimmer of hope is in the friendship across racial and religious divides between the young girls in the neighbourhood