Event Summary: A Different Day in London

Now that I work in London, going there has become more of a chore than a delight. Although I appreciate the shows, exhibitions and bookshops, I rarely venture on its streets for any other reason. So it is a rare delight to be able to share some of London’s secrets with my sons. I took a day off on Wednesday because we had tickets for Les Miserables and we decided to combine it with a little extra.

So we took one of the guided London Walks around the legal quarter of London, the Inns of Court. A great opportunity to nosy around some hidden passageways and admire tranquil private gardens and old architecture (open to the public, but mostly unknown to the public) just moments away from the craziness of High Holborn and Fleet Street.

Isn’t it funny how certain privileged classes recreated the Oxbridge world wherever they went (Eton, Harrow and then barristers’ chambers) so that they need never leave its gracious bubble?

Although I’d read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (and a few of his other works), I’d never seen the show, nor even listened much to the music. As for my boys, they only had a vague idea about the story (and for my younger son, who is not a musical enthusiast, it was decidedly too long). I did get my revolutions wrong when I tried to explain the background to them. I thought it harked back to the 1848 revolution, but it turns out it was a very brief revolutionary streak in 1832. I also thought that Hugo had written the book around the time of the Paris Commune, but it appeared in 1862. However, it is true that he was not very keen on monarchy, that he was defiant and vocal about poverty and the return to autocratic rule after the original French revolution. As my older son said: ‘The French have had a lot of revolutions, haven’t they?’

There were some differences to the book, but luckily it has been so long since I read it, that they didn’t jar too much. The main difference I observed (aside from an attenuation of the social critique) was that Éponine becomes a much more sympathetic and less complex character in the musical adaptation, while Gavroche appears to be almost comic relief, with an added element of bathos when he dies. There was far less time to become emotionally attached to Fantine or any of the revolutionaries, so their deaths were not all that poignant, although the music tried its best to tug at your heartstrings.

In conclusion, there is a lot of truth in that old Samuel Johnson saying: ‘Who is tired of London is tired of life’. There is always something new to discover there.

 

 

Friday Fun: Homes of French Writers

Grandiloquent gestures and symbols do not sit well with me. I express my love of my current home, France, in simpler ways – not just today, but always.

Madame de Chatelet's chateau in Cirey-sur-Blaise, where she lived in domestic bliss with Voltaire. From chateaudecirey.com
Madame de Chatelet’s chateau in Cirey-sur-Blaise, where she lived in domestic bliss with Voltaire. From chateaudecirey.com

Madame de Chatelet was a respected author, mathematician and physicist, who translated Newton into French. Voltaire was her lover, friend and intellectual collaborator for 15 years, until her untimely death in childbirth at the age of 42. Voltaire wrote of her:

Seldom has so fine a mind and so much taste been united with so much ardour for learning; but she also loved the world and all the amusements of her age and sex. Nevertheless she left all this to go and bury herself in a dilapidated house on the frontiers of Champagne and Lorraine, where the land was very fertile and very ugly.

Madame de Stael's Swiss chateau at Coppet, from swisscastles.ch
Madame de Stael’s Swiss chateau at Coppet, from swisscastles.ch

 

Madame de Staël was one of the most vocal opponents of Napoleon and had to flee across the border to Switzerland to escape persecution. She felt restless and lonely in rural Coppet, missed the intellectual verve of Paris.

The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it. (Madame de Staël)

Francois Mauriac's home Malagar. From malagar.aquitaine.fr
Francois Mauriac’s home Malagar. From malagar.aquitaine.fr

Mauriac was one of the 3 Great ‘M’s to originate in Bordeaux (the others being Montaigne and Montesquieu) – a novelist, dramatist and journalist who won the Nobel Prize in 1952.

I believe that only poetry counts … A great novelist is first of all a great poet. (Mauriac)

Emile Zola's house in Medan, not far from Paris. From wikiwand.com
Emile Zola’s house in Medan, not far from Paris. From wikiwand.com

Thanks to the success of L’Assommoir, Zola bought a small house in Medan and extended it so that he could receive his friends, Guy de Maupassant, Cézanne, Manet, Alphonse Daudet and so on. How I’d have liked to be a fly on the wall there!

Victor Hugo's handsome pile at Villequier in Normandy, from patrimoine-normand.com
Victor Hugo’s handsome pile at Villequier in Normandy, from patrimoine-normand.com

Hugo and his family spent a lot of time in this house and village on the river Seine, but their time here was marked by tragedy too. His favourite daughter Leopoldine and her husband (they had just married, despite some family opposition) drowned in the river there.

By contrast, Flaubert's modest pavillion in Normandy, from maisons-ecrivains.fr
By contrast, Flaubert’s modest pavilion in Normandy, from maisons-ecrivains.fr

This is the only building left of a much larger manor house and property belonging to Flaubert’s father. The writer adored this house and wrote all of his work here.

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. (Flaubert)

Marguerite Duras' house at Neauphle-le-Chateau is clearly not a chateau either, from maisons-ecrivains.fr
Marguerite Duras’ house at Neauphle-le-Chateau is clearly not a chateau either, from maisons-ecrivains.fr

The solitude of writing is a solitude without which writing could not be produced, or would crumble, drained bloodless by the search for something else to write. (Duras)

However, Alexandre Dumas' Chateau de Monte-Cristo in Yvelines shows just how much of a bestseller he really was. From lesitedelhistoire.blogspot.com
However, Alexandre Dumas’ Chateau de Monte-Cristo in Yvelines shows just how much of a bestseller he really was. From lesitedelhistoire.blogspot.com

Cautionary note as to the last, however: Dumas designed and built the chateau from scratch and moved in the grandiose custom-built venue in 1847. By 1850 he was bankrupt and had to sell all the furniture, the house itself and find refuge from his creditors in Belgium.

Books Set in Paris

The holidays are coming up and we are planning a trip to Paris – albeit much shorter than we had hoped for! With three days less than we had originally planned, this has meant giving up on visits to the Louvre or Versailles, but it does mean that it leaves us something to do on our next trip to this wonderful city.

SacreCoeur1In preparation, of course, I’ve been reading (or remembering) some of my favourite books set in Paris.

Daniel Pennac: La Feé Carabine (The Fairy Gunmother)

Set in the lively immigrant and working-class community of Belleville, this is one of the funniest and most macabre installments in Pennac’s saga of the Malausséne family, place of refuge for numerous children, drug-addled grandpas and epileptic dog.

Paul Berna: Le Cheval Sans Tête (The Headless Horse)

A children’s classic, set in a deprived post-war Parisian banlieue bordered by railway lines, this features a gang of street children whose pride and joy is their headless wooden horse on wheels, which they use to careen down the cobbled alleyways. Then some real-life criminals get involved, but nothing daunts the kids, especially not one of my favourite female protagonists ever, tough Marion, the ‘girl with the dogs’.

FranSacreCoeur2çoise Sagan: Aimez-Vous Brahms? (Do You Like Brahms?)

The title comes from the question a young man asks an older but still attractive woman, and it marks the start of a real Parisian love story. Bittersweet, with lots of meetings and discussions in cafés and galleries, concert-halls and rain-soaked streets.

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast

The quintessential guide for Americans in Paris. Hemingway captures the exuberance and sheer love of life, as well as the rivalries and cattiness of that period, 1920s Paris. For the other side of the story, read Paula McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife’, for Hemingway’s first wife’s account of the same events.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française

Not strictly speaking set in Paris, it nevertheless follows the fortunes of those who have had to flee from Paris following the Nazi occupation. Written with surprising maturity and reflection, this novel is particularly poignant when we bear in mind that it was written in the midst of the terrifying events which led to Némirovsky’s arrest, deportation and death in concentration camp in 1942.

MontmartreViewFred Vargas: Pars vite, reviens tard  (Have Mercy on Us All)

Many of Vargas’ crime novels are set in Paris, but this is the most memorable of them all, featuring the uncoventional Commissaire Adamsberg, but also incongruent phenomena such as a town-crier in modern-day Parisian squares, sinister cryptic messages and a possible revival of the bubonic plague.

Victor Hugo: Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame)

A much more tragic and ambiguous story of unrequited love and the plight of outsiders than the Disney version will have you believe, this is above all a love story for the cathedral itself, which Hugo thought the French were in danger of destroying to make way for the modernisation of Paris, and a panoramic view of the entire history of Paris.

TuileriesGeorge Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

Based partly on his own experiences of working as a dishwasher in Parisian restaurants, the first half of the book recounts a gradual descent into poverty and hopelessness in the Paris of the late 1920s. This is the darker side of the gilded ‘expats in Paris in the coin of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and still remarkably accurate for low-paid workers today: ‘If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a labour union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.’

Cara Black: Murder in the Marais

For a lighter, more enjoyable read, this is the first (and still one of my favourites) in the long-running Aimée Leduc crime series set in different quarters of Paris. Always based on a real-life event, the books show a profound love for the streets, food, sights and people of Paris, plus they feature a resilient, resourceful and very chic young heroine with a penchant for getting into trouble. What more could you want?

ParisMetroSimone de Beauvoir: Memoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter)

The first part of de Beauvoir’s autobiography, it is of course primarily concerned with her intellectual and emotional awakening as a child and teenager, but it also gives an intriguing picture of Parisian society at the beginning of the 20th century: its snobbery and limitations, the consequences of a lack of dowry for girls, the impact of Catholicism on French education. The friendship with the beautiful, irrepressible Zaza (and her tragic end) haunted me for years.

There are so many more I could have added to this list. It seems that Paris is one of those cities which endlessly inspires writers. What other books set in Paris have you loved?