Paris’s standing as a literary destination is legendary. The city was not only important in nurturing and inspiring the French literary canon − it was also an important centre for the European avant-garde for well over half a century. Often writers came to Paris to escape prohibition, overzealous moralism, and censorship at home. It was an exciting place to be, and the relatively cheap living costs meant that writers (especially American) had the freedom to live as they pleased.
Whether it was the Lost Generation of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, e.e. cummings, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, or the Beat Generation of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Alain Ginsburg, and Gregory Corso, writers found Paris a suitable setting and fertile ground for their greatest works. We have picked a selection of books we think you should have packed for those heavenly Parisian moments when you can take a breather and sit at a sunny café terrace or lounge in a shaded park. There's no better way to get a real feel for a city and its culture than through its literature
It’s difficult not to allude to the great romantic, Victor Hugo, when speaking about Paris. Even if you haven’t read anything by Hugo, characters like Quasimodo are easily evoked by the popular imagination when visiting Paris’s famous cathedral. His book about Notre-Dame is said to have sparked new interest in the cathedral, which had fallen into disrepair after its vandalism during the French Revolution.
American novelist, Edmund White, lived in Paris for a number of years and elegantly dishes the dirt on the paradoxes of Parisian life. Filled with anecdote, fascinating history, and gossip, this is the ideal book to have on hand for those who want to scratch the surface of Paris’s polished varnish and peer underneath.
Regarded as Guy de Maupassant’s masterpiece, this novel is set in late 19th century Paris. It tracks the swift rise of its handsome male protagonist George Duroy, from humble railway bureaucrat to one of Paris’s most wealthy and successful men. A fascinating insight into French society at the height of its economic powers, Bel Ami is a cautionary tale of immorality, greed, and fast living.
Ernest Hemingway’s novel is the blueprint for any writer coming to live in Paris. His famous lines are indelibly printed on the consciousness of those who seek the romantic Paris of late night drinking and early morning writing. “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, Paris is a moveable feast”
Baldwin’s book about a young writer living in Paris during the 50s is a poignant drama with a tragic denouement. Like many African-American writers and musicians, Baldwin came to Paris to escape racism and oppression at home. His sparse prose is a sad ode to the inescapable beauty of Paris.
The Parisian novel par excellence, Zola's novel recounts the intrigues of an irresistible Parisian courtesan feted and pursued by the most handsome and powerful men of France's Second Empire.
Balzac, the veritable giant of French letters, consecrated a large part his oeuvre to the fictional lives of Parisians during the first half of the 19th century. His novel Père Goriot, written in 1835, follows the exploits of three principal characters whose lives intertwine: naive law student Eugène de Rastignac, the elderly Goriot, and the shady criminal Vautrin. Much of the action at the beginning of this novel takes place at the Palais-Royal.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s novel is about an older woman’s love affair with a younger man. It is not a far cry from the author’s real life in which she led an affair with her stepson when she was in her 50s. Later in life she lived in an apartment in the elegant Palais-Royal.
An unflinchingly candid portrayal of Miller’s “nomadic life” in Paris during the 1930s, the Tropic of Cancer still shocks for its graphic descriptions of sex.
Gertrude Stein wrote this novel in the guise of her lover Alice B. Toklas, it recounts the years they spent together in Paris, Italy, and England, before and after the First World War. As a first hand account of some of the people who formed Stein’s close-knit intellectual circle it is amusing and at times revelatory. Picasso, Matisse, and Ernest Hemingway all make an appearance.
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