Having recently returned from spending part of my year abroad in Paris, I thought I’d share some of my favourite Parisian literature of this unique city. From the clichéd evenings spent drinking wine and eating cheese, to discovering some of Paris’s hidden gems, this is what I consider some of the best writing about one of Europe’s most visited and most romanticised cities.
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
Seeing as the 75th Anniversary of Animal Farm has just passed, it seemed fitting to include an Orwellian novel in my selection. Whilst the majority of Paris-related novels place the romantic city on a pedestal that seems indestructible, this partly autobiographical account will remind you about the more realistic and less sugar-coated side of French metropolitan life. Orwell describes what it’s like to live on the breadline in a city that shuns poverty, whilst working as a plongeur (someone who washes the dishes) in an expensive Parisian restaurant. Throughout the novel, Orwell speaks with tragi-comic frankness and sobering honesty about living on the margins of society, and the dehumanising gaze of the Parisian middle and upper classes.
Paris Echo, Sebastian Faulks
Having never read anything by Faulks before, this one caught my attention after it was mentioned in The Sunday Times Bestsellers and it really didn’t disappoint! Faulks incorporates Paris’s fascinating history in a way that its oppressive Vichy regime and brutal colonial rule in Algeria almost become ghosts of the past, haunting the somewhat deceptively beautiful façades of Haussmann’s reconstructed Parisian buildings of today. This novel tells the unusual story of Hannah, a postdoctoral researcher, and Tariq, a teenager who decides to escape from Morocco in search of his mother who left for Paris when he was young, and the strange clues that can be found about the German Occupation of Paris in its métros, boulevards and suburbs. A gripping book that I devoured in about three days; this dark book reminds us of the history that lurks around every street corner.
Paris Revealed: The Secret Life of a City, Stephen Clarke
The Adam Kay-style offering of Parisian life, this tongue-in-cheek account of the ins and outs of Paris, divulges some of the realities of living in France’s capital. Clarke teases the Parisians for their intense relationship with food, their overly-pompous Métro names, which etch France’s history into daily life, including La Courneuve – 8 Mai 1945 and Bobigny – Pablo Picasso, and the unfaltering elegance of the haute couture fashion houses. His descriptions of Parisian studio flats as no bigger than a ‘live-in toilet’ were particularly relatable and his conclusion as to Paris’s revolutionary motto, liberté, égalité, fraternité, as a way of justifying the violence of the Vichy regime, ring true with many modern Parisians. In a funny sort of way, Clarke pays homage to the idiosyncrasies of Paris; for all of its flaws, there’s a reason why it’s the most romanticised city of them all.
The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, Charles Baudelaire
As is clear from his well-known, but somewhat bitterly named, poetry collection, The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire’s work is lined with nostalgia and disenchantment for the Paris that was destroyed by Haussmann under Napoleon III. This was done as a way of modernising the city, making it more hygienic and reducing the chance of working-class revolts of a similar nature to those of the French Revolution. This essay presents the historical figure of the flâneur, an elusive man who wanders the rebuilt Parisian boulevards observing the society around him, which seems motivated by the capitalism that was encouraged by the city’s modernisation. Whilst Baudelaire’s flâneur doesn’t engage in the cult of consumerism around him, nevertheless, his idle strolling in the middle of the day posits him as a member of this capitalist society, seemingly swept up in the ephemeral Parisian modern experience. A must-read for anyone interested in French modernity during the Second French Republic.
The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs, Elaine Sciolino
During my year abroad, I lived just off the Rue des Martyrs, and this book truly gives it the credit it deserves. In contrast to Baudelaire, Sciolino focuses solely on the allure of pre-modern Paris, which is manifested in this street which has seen so much history. On this street, the patron saint of France was beheaded, the Jesuits took their first vows, Degas and Renoir painted circus acrobats, Truffaut filmed scenes from Les Quatre Cent Coups and Zola took inspiration for his novel Nana. This book celebrates quintessential Parisian life, from the cheesemonger who recommends “a small piece of aged Comté cheese” when trying to lure a rat to a trap, to “a woman who repairs eighteenth-century mercury barometers”: this novel really does capture everything there is to love about Paris. And if you do ever find yourself in the 9th arrondissement, I highly recommend a visit to the Rue des Martyrs!
Image: Alex Rigotti