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The best books about Paris

The best books about Paris

What to read to get to know the city, whether you’re travelling for work, a holiday or from the comfort of your armchair

What to read to get to know the city, whether you’re travelling for work, a holiday or from the comfort of your armchair

Tim Martin | August/September 2018

Paris is overwritten. Step into Shakespeare and Co. on the Left Bank (or, even better, among the teetering stacks of the Abbey Bookshop a few streets over) and you’ll find yourself gazing into an abyss of Books About Paris to which every hack in a century with a typewriter and a ticket has contributed. The problem is less where to start than where to stop.

Quickly, then, the classics. To dip a toe in Balzac, start with the short but excellent Colonel Chabert. Zola’s heartrendingly grim L’Assommoir either kills you or makes you stronger. Dumas’s The Count of Monte-Cristo has fabulous Paris sequences. The choice between Hugo’s misérables and his hunchback is up to you. For Americans in wartime Paris, read Ernest Hemingway – you probably will anyway – or Charles Glass’s prosaically titled but excellent history Americans in Paris. A lesser-known gem for fans of boho lit is Prince Charming, a memoir by Christopher Logue, a poet who spent several reprobate (but well-connected) years in a 1950s Paris slum.

Here, however, are six works to take you further off the beaten track. 

Graham Robb, Parisians: an Adventure History of Paris
For his non-fiction study “The Discovery of France”, Graham Robb leapt on a bike and followed in the tyreprints of the first tourists to discover France by bicycle. The wild true stories in that book (peasants hibernating like stacked logs, shepherds striding the marshes on stilts) are matched only by the centuries of Parisian delights he digs up here: teenaged Napoleon picking up a prostitute, sinkholes opening in the 17th-century Hell Street, Marie Antoinette fleeing for her life through a Paris with no street signs, Charles de Gaulle’s Citroen DS accelerating through a wall of flames…It’s wily, sardonic, beautifully written stuff: the perfect suitcase companion for a flying visit.

Jacques Tardi and Léo Malet, the Nestor Burma series
There’s no shortage of ace cop thrillers with a Paris setting, but these graphic-novel adaptations of Léo Malet’s hardboiled noir novels may be among the most fascinating for the visitor. In the hands of the cartoonist Tardi, Malet’s protagonist Nestor Burma wanders a beautifully drawn postwar Paris of chiaroscuro light, crowded bars, grandiose ironwork and relentless rain, expending sandpaper wit and shoe leather on bringing the right men to justice. Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge, the first in the series, is an obvious jumping-off point; after that, anything will do. Working your way through a French copy with a dictionary is a particularly excellent way of mixing business with pleasure.

Georges Perec, Life: A User’s Manual
You haven’t lived in Paris until you’ve lived in an old-style French apartment block: winding staircase, wheezing lift, nosy concierge, sequence of hideously audible domestic dramas. Out of these universal constants Perec built his lunatic masterpiece, an experimental novel set in a single Parisian block at a single instant of time in 1975. As the narrative leaps about the building’s grid of rooms, following an arcane scheme of the author’s own invention, the reader journeys back and forth in time and through the memories of the inhabitants. It’s a puzzle within a puzzle, a book in which new trapdoors are always opening to swallow the reader. Odd, really, that a novel so wildly tricky should feel so good-natured.

Virginie Despentes, Vernon Subutex (1)
This laceratingly comic social novel offers a glimpse of 21st-century Paris through the persona of Vernon Subutex, an ageing rock’n’roll reptile and former record-shop proprietor who, when we encounter him, is down to his last few rollies and a laptop to watch porn on. Before long, he’s out on his ear, sofa-surfing in a picaresque downward spiral through Parisian society. Despentes (who wrote the infamous “Baise-Moi”) has a bilious wit to rival anything by her arch-miserabilist rival Michel Houellebecq, and her take on the city gleams with evil discontent. “The Moulin Rouge still looks like a cardboard film set. The Elysée-Montmartre is still a burned-out shell. The streets of Paris are a souvenir dispenser.” Something of an anti-holiday read, perhaps, but loads of fun.

Laurent Binet, The Seventh Function of Language
Any number of studious works can give you the low-down on the French fondness for abstract philosophical ideas in everyday life – Sudhir Hazareesingh’s “How The French Think” is one good recent example – but you’ll get most of what you need, plus several sessions of malevolent cackling, from this shaggy-dog comic thriller set in the world of Parisian academia. Binet’s book reads as though a French Kingsley Amis had decided to write “The Name of the Rose”: it starts with the death of the semiologist Roland Barthes and spins onward into an insolent parody, part Sherlock Holmes and part James Bond, in which spies and unflatteringly-portrayed French celebrities fight over a secret piece of language magic while “Fight Club”-esque philosophical societies offer punishment castrations and Jacques Derrida gets mauled by wild dogs. You’ll probably meet at least one person in Paris who’s still cross about it.

Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety
Before she offered a dark and gleaming vision of the Tudor court in her world-conquering “Wolf Hall” books, Hilary Mantel did something similar for the French Revolution in this vast novel: the first she wrote, but the fourth to be published. It’s an extraordinary, labyrinthine work of fiction, set in a shadowy and sleepless Paris, that brings the most fearsome event in France’s history shuddering to life. Years after reading it, I can still remember the laconic author’s note on the Terror’s surreal, murderous atmosphere: “The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.”