Let us read and let us dance | A Literary Weekend in Paris
There’s autumn in the air which makes me reminisce about last autumn when I spent a lovely long weekend in Paris. But not just that. It was a rather international weekend with me flying in from Berlin and my lovely friend from New Zealand taking a train from London. So we ticked all the international jetsetter boxes, if you will. But let’s focus: Paris is a city made for literature lovers and apart from being the home to one of the most famous bookstores in the world, there are also countless books set in Paris.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
My friend and I simply wanted to get away from our unbearably stressful jobs for a weekend and so we chose Paris to amble around, eat good food and drink lots of coffee and wine. And so we did. Inbetween we also climbed the Eiffel Tower (read: we took the elevator up and walked part of it down again), walked through the cobblestoned streets of Montmartre, gaped at the delicious-looking pastries and brightly-coloured macarons (definitely try some, by the way, they are absolutely delicious) and marveled at the history of Notre Dame de Paris. And we also went book shopping.
Shakespeare and Company is one of the most well-known English-language bookshops in the world. It’s set right across the Seine from Notre Dame and you can discover a world of literature behind its famous shop facade. You can browse through the second-hand books outside the shop before moving on to more recent publications inside.
The shop is quite small and filled in every nook and crany with books. As soon as you enter, you’re engulfed by the smell of books and you’ll almost walk into the first sheld of signed copies. Downstairs, you can discover everything from the latest books, to politics, music, philiosphy, children’s literature and, of course, a Shakespeare section. Upstairs, you’ll find poetry, andnd of course, throughout the shop, you will find books set in Paris, all of it in English. If you’re tired and thirsty after your visit, you can head to the café next door and enjoy the spectacular view of Notre Dame. As far as bookshops go, this one is certainly very special.
I went a little bit crazy in Shakespeare and Company (the name alone, sigh). I bought an edition of all of Shakespeare’s dramas which came with a digital edition of all of his plays (a discovery which made me do a little happy dance insight)! I also bought a second hand Rabbit Redux by John Updike and The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. All of which are, of course, not set in Paris but they came with a stamp inside which confirmed that I bought them in Shakespeare and Company.
But let’s get on to books actually set in Paris. Because what’s a trip to Paris without a couple of books to accompany the experience? There are many books set in Paris but of course many of them are in French or translated but fairly old (Les Miserable, anyone?). A couple of more recent once I can recommend are:
Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast“ is a true classic and a must read for every Paris enthusiast. It’s a quick read that tells the story of Hemingway’s time in Paris. It takes a little time to get into it (or at least it did me) but it’s so worth it. Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” tells the story of a Jewish family during World War II but he connects the story through the generations before and after. The book won multiple awards and gives a unique inside into the fate of the Ephrussi family. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night” is set more in the South of France than it is in Paris but it is a brilliantly exuberant read full of luxury, heartbreak, alcoholism and the ways people deal with mental illness. Tender is the Night is not always to read and, at times, feels a bit long-winded but it’s a good story none the less.
Anthony Doerr “All the Light we cannot see” is another novel set during the Second World War. It tells the story of a blind French girl and a German boy who eventually meet in Saint-Malo. The book is really well written, the stories of the characters are captivating and told against the background of a cruel war. Henry Miller wrote “Tropic of Cancer” while he himself was living in Paris and he set the novel in late 1920s and early 1930s Paris. Miller tells the story of himself living in Paris as a struggling writer (not unlike Bukowski’s Henry Chinaski) among other struggling bohemian-type artists. Most of Miller’s characters are men and, again not unlike Bukowski, the entire book has a rather bawdy tone to it. Some women will definitely definitely dislike that but I suggest you give it a chance because it is a really interesting and captivating read.
I understood then why it is that Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love. I understood why it is that here, at the very hub of the wheel, one can embrace the most fantastic, the most impossible theories, without finding them in the least strange; it is here that one reads again the books of his youth and the enigmas take on new meanings, one for every white hair. One walks the streets knowing that he is mad, possessed, because it is only too obvious that these cold, indifferent faces are the visages of one’s keepers. Here all boundaries fade away and the world reveals itself for the mad slaughterhouse that it is.
Henry Miller “Tropic of Cancer“
Have you read any books set in Paris? Do you have additional suggestions to the books I suggested here? Do let me know in the comments.