The very best Paris novels … for getting under the skin of the city

jean rhys
Jean Rhys Good Morning Midnight ‘Paris in the 1930s’

For over a century, Paris has been one of the most written about cities in the world – the setting for thousands of unforgettable novels.

A little later than Colette, British writer Jean Rhys (1890-1979) was also writing about young women having a hard time in Paris – often as a result of trying to live independently. She began to write short stories with the encouragement of Ford Maddox Ford, whom she met in Paris in 1920, publishing The Left Bank and Other Stories in 1927. But it was with Quartet (1928) that she first really came into her own with her evocative portrait of Paris between the wars. It’s the world of cheap hotels, smoky cafés, damp winter city-streets, and the difficult life of a woman trying to achieve some kind of meaningful existence against the odds. Good Morning Midnight (1939) is an equally memorable portrait of Paris in the 1930s.

Paris suffered hugely during both world wars. The great American author Edith Wharton (1862-1937) spent the whole of the First World War in Paris doing relief work among the poor and among the Belgian refugees who began to flood the capital. As a journalist as well as a novelist, she was one of the very few foreigners the French government allowed to go to the Front. Her experiences of the period resulted in her poignant anti-war novel, A Son at the Front (1923), inspired by a young man she met during her relief work.

Montmartre studio

The novel begins very specifically on 30th July, 1914, in the Montmartre studio of an American portrait painter, resident in Paris, whose portrait of his son has suddenly raised his profile on the Paris art scene. When war breaks out, his son, having been born in France, must report for duty to the French army. The artist tries to prevent his son from being sent to the Front, while struggling with his conscience about doing so – a conflict between the deepest parental love and a wider societal duty. So not just a book about the First World War …

One of the most famous novels depicting a certain aspect of life in Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s is The Tropic of Cancer (1934) by American Henry Miller (1891-1980). A first person narrative in which Miller depicts his own life as a struggling young writer among ‘bohemian’ friends in Paris in which he claims, ‘the world reveals itself for the mad slaughterhouse that it is‘, the book faced legal challenges as a result of its explicit sexuality and the language in which that sexuality was expressed. But by the more liberal 1960s, it was recognised as a major work of literature. Possibly not for everyone. Also set in the Paris of the early 1930s is his novella Quiet Days in Clichy (1956).

The year 1939 is featured in Arch of Triumph (1945, translation same year) by Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970), best known for his First World War novel, written from the point of view of a German soldier, All Quiet on the Western Front. It deals with the situation of stateless refugees in Paris on the lead up to the Second World War.

If you like spy stories and thrillers, try some of the Paris-set books of Alan Furst, set just before and during the Second World War. Although American, Furst lived in Paris for many years. His latest offering is A Hero of France (2016), which features the French Resistance. Earlier Paris stories include Mission to Paris (2014), set in 1938, Red Gold (1998), and The World at Night (1996). He’s written plenty of others set in other European locations.  The Last Time I saw Paris (2011) by Lynne Sheene is another ‘Resistance’ story set in Paris, this time with a female hero.

Immediate bestseller

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Irene Nemirovsky Suite Francaise ‘A war-time life’

But the best-known fiction titles depicting World War Two Paris are  Suite Française by French writer Irène Nemirovsky (1903-1942). A fairly successful writer in Paris before the war, she would no doubt have been entirely forgotten were it not for her daughter having kept the notebook which containing the novel describing war-time life between June 1940 and July 1941. It was only in the 1990s that her daughter actually read the notebook and realised it wasn’t just a journal of the time but a sophisticated novel. She organised its publication in France where it became an immediate best-seller (2004) and has been translated into nearly forty languages. Nemirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942.

If you like an American ‘Blockbuster Bestseller’ that’s also claimed to be a ‘Classic’ (note the capital letters), then the Second World War novel Is Paris Burning? (1965) by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre could be for you. When it became clear that the Nazis were about to lose control of Paris – and probably lose the war – Hitler’s orders were that Paris should be reduced to ashes. This novel tells the story of how and why those orders failed to be carried out. The total destruction of Paris? It just doesn’t bear thinking about – so the story is an important one, and it’s compellingly told. Probably not one that could have been recreated by the next writer on World War Two that we’re going to meet …

patrick modiano
Patrick Modiano Dora Bruder ‘Much of his work concerns the war’

Popular French writer Patrick Modiano, whose books are mainly set in Paris, was little known outside France before winning the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature – though he’d already won a number of other prestigious European awards –  and now, miraculously, he is suddenly available in English (which just proves the power of that particular prize). His style is characterised by restraint and an ‘inwardness’ that possibly could not easily have dealt with the events of Is Paris Burning? , though much of his best-known work also concerns the war – particularly his so-called Occupation Trilogy (2015), consisting of La Place de L’Étoile (1968, translated 2015), The Night Watch (1972, translated 1974 and 2015), and Ring Roads (1972, translated 1974, and 2015). Dora Bruder (1997, translated 1999, also published in English as The Search Warrant, in 2000) tells of the moving search to find out what happened to a young Jewish girl who ran away from the Paris convent boarding school where she appeared to have been placed ‘for safety’ during the Occupation.

Poem to post-war Paris

Modiano’s belief in the novelist’s moral duty to salvage the lives of those who would otherwise disappear from history comes over most strongly in this short, powerful book. A recuperation of the traces left by people and places is also evident in Paris Nocturne (2003, translated 2015) – best described as ‘a poem to Post-war Paris‘, and in The Café of Lost Youth (2007, translated 2016). Other works by Modiano now available in English include Little Jewel (2001, translated 2015) and Pedigree (2005, translated 2015), his autobiographical portrait of Post-war Paris and his own difficult childhood – perhaps partly an attempt to come to terms with his father’s rather murky activities in relation to the occupying German forces.

Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas (‘After Image’, ‘Suspended Sentences’ and ‘Flowers of Ruin’ – originally published separately; collected 1993, translation 2014) offers further evocative exploration of Paris, its past, its people. Modiano’s work might be summed up as ‘classy’ without being hard to read. Really worthwhile if you’re interested in the period he mainly deals with.

Another war-time story that has become well-known (partly from the film based on it) is Sarah’s Key (2007, translated 2008) by Tatiana de Rosnay. It deals with a particularly infamous event – the round-up, by French police (not by the Nazis themselves, note) of thousands of Jewish people who were herded into the Vel d’Hiv (the Vélodrome d’Hiver –  the winter velodrome – a multi-purpose stadium) and kept there in the most distressing conditions before being sent by train to concentration camps where most of them died.

Ten-year-old Sarah and her parents are among those rounded up on that terrible night of 16th July 1942. In an attempt to save her little brother, Sarah locks him in a cupboard, promising to return and let him out as soon as she can. She thinks it won’t be long before she’s back as it was only the French police who had come for them, not the Germans. The 1942 story is woven into a story of a very different world, that of 2002 – and yet the festering guilt of the French over their collaboration with the Nazis joins the two years when an American-born journalist, asked to write something for the sixtieth anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv discovers that the family of her French husband had moved into an apartment that had belonged to a Jewish family, thus benefitting from their persecution and almost certain death. The repercussions of this discovery are grippingly played out.  (The after-shocks of ‘collaboration’ are also central to my own novel, Miranda Road [2014], set in Paris and London.)

Classic of gay literature

giovannis room
James Baldwin Giovanni’s Room ‘Atmospheric evocations of Paris’

For Paris in the 1950s, read Giovanni’s Room  (1956) by American James Baldwin (1924-1987) – a classic of gay literature. Although the main focus is on relationships, there are some atmospheric evocations of Paris at the time – I particularly enjoyed chapter three of part one in this respect: it includes a vivid description of the great food market of Les Halles – which I remember from my very first school-girl visit to the city, before it was demolished (in 1971) to make way for the enormous shopping and leisure complex – recently ‘remade’ yet again. A snippet – for nostalgia’s sake. The narrator is in a taxi, caught in the virtually impassable streets around Les Halles:

‘Leeks, onions, cabbages, oranges, apples, potatoes, cauliflowers, stood gleaming in mounds all over, on the sidewalks, in the streets, before great metal sheds. The sheds were blocks long and within the sheds were piled more fruit, more vegetables, in some sheds fish, in some sheds cheese, in some whole animals, lately slaughtered. … The pavements were slick with leavings, mainly cast-off, rotten leaves, flowers, fruit and vegetables …. The walls and corners were combed with pissoirs, dull-burning, makeshift braziers, cafés, restaurants and smoky yellow bistros – of these last, some so small that they were little more than diamond shaped, enclosed corners holding bottles and a zinc-covered counter.

So, if you go shopping in the ‘new’ Les Halles, spare a moment to remember what used to be there. Every corner of every great city has its layers of history.

For a substantial dose of what the intellectuals were up to in the post-war period, there’s The Mandarins (1954, translated 1956) by Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), probably the best of her fiction (it won the prestigious ‘Prix Goncourt’). It begins just after the Liberation of Paris and explores the roles of intellectuals in the post-war world. It’s a roman à clef, various characters standing for members of de Beauvoir’s circle of famous friends – including Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Nelson Algren, and de Beauvoir herself. A great read if you’re interested in intellectual history, it covers from the end of the war to the mid 50s. It’s a while since I read The Mandarins, but I remember finding it very involving.

Paris 1968. You can go there with the middle section of Metroland (1980) by Julian Barnes: the first and third sections take place in London from which Paris seems the dreamed-of escape for the young male narrator.

A good read

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Joanne Harris Lollipop Shoes ‘If you enjoyed Chocolat …’

Something a bit lighter. If you enjoyed Chocolat by Joanne Harris, then you can follow the protagonist to her new life in Montmartre in The Lollipop Shoes (2007). And another good read is Left Bank (2006) by Kate Muir: the glamorous protagonists live on the ultra-smart rue du Bac but their obsession with keeping up a certain image of their lives doesn’t do much for the happiness of their young daughter, and we watch their superficially perfect Left Bank existence gradually unravel as their values and relationships are exposed for what they are. (Stops you envying the Parisian rich and famous!)

And as a complete contrast, you can know what it’s like to be from the poor suburbs of Paris by reading Just Like Tomorrow (2004, translated 2006) by young French Algerian superstar author Faïza Guène – the book that shot her to fame for its portrayal of immigrant life in the high-raise estates on the edge of Paris. Her voice is edgy, honest, witty, and earns respect. She doesn’t dodge the issues among certain members of the immigrant communities that conflict with a French way of life and French values, but she’s also very direct about the treatment of immigrants by certain sectors of the population.

At the start of the novel we learn that the narrator’s Moroccan father has just walked out, returning to Morocco to ‘marry another woman who’s younger and more fertile‘ than her Mum, who could only give him a single child – and ‘only’ a girl, too! Her mother is a cleaner in a motel. I really enjoyed the novel – the voice is fresh and convincing, and her books provide a necessary dose of ‘reality’ about Paris. It’s so easy to over-romanticise the place. If you find you like Guène’s work, then try her Dreams from the Endz (2006, translated 2008), and Bar Balto (2010, translated 2012) – the latter set at the very end of the RER line, where few visitors ever go.

While on the subject of immigrant experience, if ever there was a book to demolish stereotypes and ludicrous prejudices, it’s Black Bazaar (2009, translation 2012) by Alain Mabanckou, winner of a whole string of literary prizes, including the élite French ‘Prix Renaudot’. Journalist, poet and Professor of Literature, as well as novelist, his work has been translated into at least fifteen languages. Born in the Republic of Congo, by the time he’d won a scholarship to study in France, he’d already started on his writing career.

Vivid and energetic

In Black Bazaar, Mabankou creates a vivid and energetic picture of immigrant life in Paris, employing a sophisticated humour and use of language to demolish the crude stereotyping which those from former French colonies have to live on  day to day basis – even in so-called ‘enlightened’ Paris. The racism is raw, but the humour with which it is described and confronted achieves far more than a bitter rant could ever do. The reader develops a huge affection for the narrator in particular – he’s known to his friends as ‘Buttologist’ on account of his appreciation of the backsides of women …

Language itself is a repository of racism: even the narrator catches himself referring to ‘the Arab on the corner’ – the usual ‘placing’ and reference expression in French – even though his shop isn’t on the corner at all but in the middle of the street, while the corner shop is occupied by ‘your typical Frenchman‘, though minus ‘a beret and a baguette‘. With endearing but incisive irony, Buttologist reflects:

If we decided to question everything that reminds us of how unfair, or even offensive, the French language can be towards certain groups of people, well, we’dd never hear the end of it  […] The Members of the Académie Française would finally have a full-time job on their hands.

 And he extends this to gender issues, wondering why, for example, a man ‘with the common touch’ is ‘a national treasure’, while a woman with ‘the common touch’ is a whore …

Erudite, playful, honest, rooted in a very real Paris that visitors need to be aware of, this really is a book to savour. I absolutely loved it.

Anna Gavalda Billie ‘Moving and heartrending’

As a contrast, a female voice from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ is that of the eponymous Billie (2013, translated 2015) by popular French novelist Anna Gavalda, best known for her international success with Hunting and Gathering (2004, translated 2006). Billie is the moving and heartening story of a friendship between two outsiders, Franck and the female narrator, Billie, whose lives have been blighted by difficult childhoods, for differing reasons. The story of their friendship is told in flashbacks (they’re actually trapped in a gorge in the Cévennes mountains at the time) and just before halfway through there’s a wonderful description of Billie taking Franck into central Paris for the first time. And, like so many of us, he simply falls in love with it. It’s a delicious little passage …

Another of her novels, Life, Only Better (2014, translated 2015), starts in a café near the Arc de Triomphe and the narrator lives near the Montmartre cemetery – so a very Paris novel. There’s an admirable clarity and ease to Gavalda’s style, but she is never trite, and is always thoughtful and charming, and often witty as well as moving.

Really lovely

I first came across Laurence Cossé as the author of A Novel Bookstore (details later under the detective fiction and ‘mysteries’ section), but have recently discovered her really lovely Bitter Almonds (2011, translation 2013). It tells of well-off Parisian Édith trying to teach her sixty-year-old Moroccan home-help how to read and write. The barriers between their two very different lives are gradually dismantled and both develop a respect and understanding – and a genuine friendship. The skill with which Cossé describes the difficulties that learning to read present for a woman of such a different culture and life experience was impressive and fascinating, and the insights into immigrants’ lives (there’s warmth and generosity as well as poverty and struggle) are truly educational.

I once knew a very intellectual French woman who also tried to teach her Moroccan cleaner how to read and I can’t help feeling that if she’d had access to Bitter Almonds at the time, she might have understood the woman’s difficulties more successfully. The book is also a reminder of the huge contrasts in the lives of people inhabiting a city that is easy to see as la vie en rose. And it shows the process of people from two very different backgrounds growing to understand and appreciate each other and each other’s culture. I won’t give away the ending ( a bit weepy) but it’s both very real and somehow ‘symbolic’, in a low-key way.

Paris down-and-outs

Even worse than the life of an illiterate Moroccan cleaner is that of the down-and-outs of Paris, so vividly and moving described by much-loved Marseille writer Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000) in his novel A Sun for the Dying  (1999, translation 2008) – roughly the first half is set in Paris, before the story moves down to Marseille. Having seen for myself the number of people gathering at a mobile soup-kitchen on Place de la République one winter’s night in Paris and wondered about the stories and lives of those people, I found the book deeply, deeply moving. Izzo captures the cruelties of such a life, but also the acts of kindness and compassion of which human beings – even those in straitened circumstances themselves – are capable. It’s a kind of contemporary Down and Out in Paris and London, and probably more relevant for a visitor to the city than Orwell’s book. (More about Izzo in the ‘Marseille’ chapter.)

Zade cover
Heather Reyes Zade ‘Set in Pere Lachaise cemetery’

I’ve been asked to include my own Paris novel, Zade (2004) in this survey, and I suppose this might be as a good a place as any to do so as it also concerns a relationship between a Parisian and a Moroccan (or strictly speaking, half-Moroccan). A racist attack against the young man, Driss, leads his girl-friend Zade’s life to unravel to the point where she doesn’t care whether she lives or dies and, with a gun filched from her step-brother, goes to the Père-Lachaise cemetery where she pulls the trigger. But the place is full of the spirits of dead writers, composers, and so on: as she finds herself facing them, her story unfolds. It’s a bit of a Romeo and Juliet story, but has also been called ‘a hymn to literature’ – which I suppose it is!

My personal favourites

My personal favourites among novels set in Paris include Zazie in the Metro (1959) by Raymond Queneau (1903-1976) – one of the most amusing and charming books I know, along with the film version, by famous French film director Louis Malle. It’s the story of a tough little girl from the poor suburbs of Paris who is ‘dumped’ with her uncle (who lives in the heart of the capital)  while her mother has a dirty weekend with her latest boyfriend. Zazie’s mother had killed her father with a ‘chopper’: he’d come home drunk and had ‘tried it on’ with his daughter but the mother found him just in time. Her uncle is a very large man, a homosexual who earns his living in nightclubs, doing an act in which he dresses up as a ballet dancer … among other things. Zazie’s one ambition in coming to the capital is to ride on the Métro – which she has never done. But, in typical Parisian style, the Métro is closed by a strike.

The whole thing is a satirical romp that becomes wilder and wilder, though with the dark undertones of males preying on the feisty young girl who, however, proves more than a match for them. In the French original there’s lots of fun with language, the taste of which is captured by the wonderful translator, Barbara Wright – including Zazie’s own rather colourful expressions. Her speech is peppered with ‘mon cul  ‘- ‘my arse’ – and when her uncle decides to educate her with a tour of city (though he’s in continual doubt about which building is which) and offers to take her to Les Invalides to see the tomb of Napoleon, her response is a dismissive, ‘Napoleon my arse … I’m not in the least interested in that old windbag with his silly bugger hat.’ It’s all very Paris – though not quite as we know it! But if you enjoy literary fun, Queneau’s your man. If you find you like his work, you could also look at his Pierrot Mon Ami (1942, translation 1988), set in a fairground on the edge of Paris, and The Flight of Icarus (1968, translation 1973), set in the Paris of 1896, in which Icarus, a character in a novel, escapes from the pages of his book and … It’s all wonderfully absurd and charming and different.

A novel dedicated to the memory of Raymond Queneau is the extraordinary Life A User’s Manual (1978, translation 1987) by his friend Georges Perec (1936-1982). This is not a book for those in a hurry but is a door-step of a classic of twentieth-century literature. Playful, serious, sad, funny, endlessly inventive, it is ‘set’ in a typical Parisian apartment block. We meet the residents and all their stories … But that makes it sound a lot simpler and more straightforward than it is. It’s a great Paris book – without being very helpful if you’re going to the city for the first time and need something more straightforward.

Always enjoyable

Much more recent (and straightforward – in the compositional sense) is The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006, translated 2008) by French writer Muriel Barbery. It’s the story – sometimes funny, sometimes moving, always enjoyable – of a Parisian concierge called Renée, one of those aging women who, traditionally, sit in their loge guarding the entrance to apartment buildings, receiving the post, overseeing the cleaning and maintenance of the stairways etc. But this concierge is not quite what she seems: much of the humour comes from her attempts to appear a normal concierge – which includes the presence of a very large, pampered cat and a television permanently tuned to crass daytime programmes – while actually indulging her passion for such things as philosophy, classical music, Japanese cinema and so on … The apartment block is a very up-market one and Renée becomes a friend to the troubled younger daughter of a wealthy family who live there and whose older daughter treats the lowly concierge with class-ridden contempt. Renée’s cover is only blown when a very civilised Japanese gentleman comes to live in the block and guesses that her fat cat, Leo, is actually named after Leo Tolstoy. Their friendship blossoms beautifully … but I won’t tell the rest. A film, just called ‘The Hedgehog,’ based on the novel was released in 2009. Enjoyable, but, for me, not as good as the book – which has been translated into more than forty languages, apparently.

the red notebook
Antoine Laurain The Red Notebook ‘A delightful read’

Set in the 1980s, The President’s Hat (2012, translated 2013) by Antoine Laurain – a delightful, fable-like story which features President Mitterand at the beginning and end (though it’s not a political book in a straightforward sense) – mixes real and fictional characters as four different people find themselves, in turn, in possession of a splendid black felt hat belonging to the Socialist President of France. It’s an optimistic fable about the power to change one’s life. A delightful read – as is another book by him, The Red Notebook (2013, translated 2015). It begins with a woman having her handbag snatched. The abandonned bag is found by Parisian bookshop owner Laurent Letellier who, with little to go on but the remaining contents of the handbag – including the red notebook in which its owner has recorded her thoughts – sets out to find the woman. A delicious romantic comedy.

Keen to see the actual Paris places where writers lived, drank and loved –  and of course wrote about? David Burke, the author of the excellent Literary Lives in the City of Light, also runs a wide range of literary walking tours  From George Orwell, Balzac and Victor Hugo on Rue Mouffetard and Fitzergerald, Stein and Hemingway in Montparnasse to the Existentialists of St Germain des Pres  and the writers you’ll find in Pere Lachaise – and much, much more, it’s a superb way for book lovers to experience literary Paris with a genuine expert.

city-lit paris cover 16 Jan
city-lit Paris

Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series which includes city-lit Paris, featuring over sixty writers on the city.

She is the author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (‘a brilliant travel guide to the city of books’ Helen Dunmore) and Bookworms, Dog-Ears & Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover’s Alphabet (Reader’s Digest Book of the Month) and the novels Miranda Road (‘rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender’ Maggie Gee) and Zade (‘tremendous verve and wit’, Jill Dawson). All the titles are published                                                                                                    by Oxygen Books.

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The very best Paris novels - for getting under the skin of the city
For over a century, Paris has been one of the most written about cities in the world - the setting for thousands of unforgettable novels.
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Oxygen Books
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Malcolm Burgess and Heather Reyes are the publishers of Oxygen Books' city-pick series, featuring some of the best writing on favourite world cities. These include Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Dublin, London, St Petersburg, Istanbul and New York.

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