Recommended Reading

Whether in cinema, painting, or literature, Paris has long inspired artists across the creative spectrum. Before embarking on your voyage to France, grab one of the masterworks and dive into the city’s romantic ambiance!

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Paris in French Literature

You can discover Paris through the eyes of great writers by reading their very own descriptions of the city. Over the years, Paris has even be treated as a character herself—notably by Emile Zola who set out to reinvent the image the French Bourgeoisie during the Second Empire in Hausmannian Paris. In The Kill, for example, he personifies the heart of Paris, violently palpitating in Les Halls, as a monster. Then there’s Balzac, who in the Père Goriot wonderfully described the city in unprecedented words:
« He went a few paces further, to the highest point of the cemetery, and looked out over Paris and the windings of the Seine; the lamps were beginning to shine on either side of the river. His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendome and the cupola of the Invalides; there lay the shining world that he had wished to reach. He glanced over that humming hive, seeming to draw a foretaste of its honey, and said magniloquently: "Henceforth there is war between us." »

And by way of throwing down the glove to Society, Rastignac went to dine with Mme. de Nucingen. »

Let’s not overlook the Romantic period during which Paris’s tumultuous and magnificent nature was reflected in the personal lives of poets such as Verlaine and Rimbaud. During his desperate wanderings Baudelaire described the city as:

« Paris changes! but naught in my melancholy
Has stirred! New palaces, scaffolding, blocks of stone,
Old quarters, all become for me an allegory,
And my dear memories are heavier than rocks. »

(“The Swan” Flowers of Evil, Charles Baudelaire)

And of course, there’s surrealist Paris, often evoked in the Dada literature and immortalized by André Breton. Follow his frantic pursuit of his beloved parisienne through the pages of Nadja. In Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, the rock music critic comments at length on this movement which inspired punk rock in the seventies later on.

For a a more contemporary approach, check out books written by Daniel Pennac, Frédéric Beigbeder, or Virginie Despentes.

Paris in Anglophone Literature

To experience Paris through the eyes of an ex-pat there are few novels as celebrated as Ernest Hemingway’s memoirs about his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast. Another Hemingway novel, The Sun also Rises, illustrates the apex of Lost Generation’s years in its sinisterly jazzy introduction set in the French capital. Ever wondered what it would have been like for one of those very characters to revisit Paris after the 1929 market crash? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story Babylon Revisited describes a former ex-pat's desolate return to Paris.

For a 19th century impression, grab a copy of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, set in Paris and London. Written a little over forty years later, Henry James’s dark comedy The Ambassadors tells the story of his protagonist’s pursuit of his late fiancée’s recalcitrant son, which to a large extent takes place in the streets of Paris.

If you’re in the mood for a mystery dive into Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, Murders in the Rue Morgue. The first story of the detective genre, it predates the appearance of Sherlock Holmes by forty-six years and is set in the Saint-Roch neighborhood of Paris, not far from the Louvre. Get a glimpse into the working of a deranged criminal in Georges Simenon’s noir masterpiece, The Man who watched Trains go By, which follows its Dutch protagonist through Paris as he evolves from a victim of his sudden madness to a cold blooded murderer.

Prefer something a little more lighthearted? How about Julia Child’s culinary experience in Paris (and to a limited extent Marseilles, and Provence) entitled My Life in France? Or giggle over Adam Gopniks quirky collection of essays about the differences in French and American culture in Paris to the Moon. Often tongue-in-cheek, his descriptions offer a hilarious take on diverse and absurd activities such as physical fitness. His insights into the workings of the French mind are insightful and delightfully refreshing.

Practical Readings

If you want something more pragmatic, we recommend the best seller of the moment: Métronome, l'Histoire de France au Rythme du Métro Parisien. Written by the French actor, Lorant Deutsch, this read is garnished with light-hearted anecdotes—always unexpected and fascinating!

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