Every bibliophile loves the combination of new pages and new places. I know I do. They say literature lets the mind travel without the body having to leave the armchair, but to be honest, I think stories are even more enjoyed when you are physically travelling through the setting of your book. So here I’ll recommend known and lesser-known books to read in my favorite holiday destinations! This time: Paris.
Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
“He had preserved the best part of her and made it his own: the principle of her scent.”
The first page of this novel will instantly take you to 18th century Paris, describing the odors of the city in great detail through the eyes (or in this case, nose) of the murderous protagonist. Truly unique books are quite rare, but I can safely say that Perfume is one of a kind. The story is about an orphan with an amazing ability to smell, and his obsession with creating the ultimate perfume, which in the end leads to the slaughter of 25 women. The brutal acts are never described, but the murderer’s utter disconnection with humanity is far more disturbing and unsettling. Dark and sensual, this is the perfect book to read in a Parisian café after dusk.
Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret
“I address you all tonight for who you truly are: wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, and magicians. You are the true dreamers.”
This is a graphic novel for children that I know because I watched the movie first. And while I realize you didn’t imagine sitting at the Café de Flore with a children’s book (except for The Little Prince maybe), you should definitely read this one in Paris. It’s about another orphan boy, who secretly lives in a Paris train station, but Hugo will warm your hearts instead of sending chills down your spine. He tries to unravel the mystery of a mechanical invention his late father left him. From the story, to the setting of Paris between the two world wars, to the characters, everything in this book is magical.
T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
“He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience.”
One of the most famous poems in English literature, Eliot wrote The Waste Land to voice his generation’s disillusionment after World War I. In 1922 T.S. Eliot arrived in Paris to edit his poem with Ezra Pound. Many American writers stayed in Paris in the interbellum, dubbed The Lost Generation by Gertrude Stein, and tried to drown their disillusionment with love affairs, literature and liquor. I fell in love with this poem when I first read it amidst poems by Sassoon and Owens in an anthology of WWI poems, but The Waste Land is so much more than just a chronicle of it’s time. This is necessary reading to understand the palmy days of literary Paris, but also simply a brilliant, brilliant poem.
Anything by Patrick Modiano
“In writing this book, I send out signals, like a lighthouse beacon in whose power to illuminate the darkness, alas, I have no faith. But I live in hope.”
This French writer was embarrassingly unknown to anglophone readers and translations of his work in English are hard to get by, but that must be changing now he’s awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature of 2014. You can read The Search Warrant in English, about the search for a 15 year old Jewish girl who went missing in Paris in December 1941. Often compared with Proust, Modiano’s prose is imbued with a sense of loss while time irrevocably passes and it deals with the limitations of memory. My favorite Modiano is ‘Dans la café de la jeunesse perdue’. Find a Frenchman to tell you about it.
Boris Vian’s Mood Indigo/Foam of the Daze/Froth on a Daydream
“Procrastination is a prelude in a minor key.”
Originally titled ‘L’ecume des jours’, this novel has different English translations. I picked up a battered paperback copy in French at one of the bookstalls along the Seine, and struggled through the pages with my limited knowledge of the language with considerably more enthusiasm than I’ve read the mandatory literature in my high school French classes. This is a strange book, and probably not for everyone. It’s a love story, yet seemingly anti-romantic. It’s funny and sad simultaneously: it’s about a young man who marries a woman who has an illness causing a lily to grow in her lung. The book contains a plethora of linguistic puns and surrealistic scenarios, but is surprisingly readable. With references to Sartre and Duke Ellington and Amelie Poulain vibes and absurd humor, this is one of my favorite books of all time.
Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
“When you get an idea into your head you find it in everything.”
This one is pretty obvious, but classics are classics for a reason. Paris as a destination is pretty obvious too, but the fact that millions of tourists have stood on the same bridge as you, doesn’t make overlooking the Seine on it less magical, does it? Read this book before you visit the Notre-Dame cathedral.
There are far more delightful books set in the city which people call the city of lights, the city of love, than I can cover here. Personally, I’d call Paris the city of stories, because of the endless narratives waiting in the streets flanked by Hausmann buildings for you to discover. If you’re going to Paris, don’t forget to wander into one of the many bookshops there and discover some more Parisian stories.
What are your favorite novels set in Paris? Let us know in the comments!