‘History’ aside, there are many insightful non-fiction books on Paris – particularly by visitors to the city.
I have particularly enjoyed Paris to the Moon (2000) by New Yorker Adam Gopnik – an account of his five-year stay in the capital with his wife and small son. Funny, informative and, at times, very moving, this really is a book to help you get beneath the glamorous skin of Paris. A warts and all love affair
Another ‘American in Paris’ is T. E. Carhart, whose The Piano Shop of the Left Bank: the hidden world of a Paris atelier (2000) is both an evocation of Paris and Parisians and a kind of ‘hymn’ to the piano. Carhart’s enjoyment of both the city and the instrument shines from the pages.
In fact, if the number of Paris-based books by Americans is anything to go by, it’s amazing the city has had room, over the years, for any other visitors. My favourite among the older books – recently re-issued – is The Last Time I Saw Paris (1942, and 2012) by American journalist Elliott Paul (1891-1958) who walked into the rue de la Huchette (now a very touristy little road in the Latin Quarter) and declared ‘There I found Paris‘. His portrait of the street, the area, and its history will be delighted in by anyone who already knows and loves that bit of Paris. And if you don’t know it, you’ll enjoy being introduced, I’m sure. It’s full of atmosphere and ‘characters’.
The post-war period is interestingly covered by the internationally famous expert on French cuisine, American Julia Child (1912-2004) in her posthumously published autobiographical work, My Life in France (2006) about her life in Paris, where she went to live with her husband in 1948.
For a glimpse of sexy Paris in the early 1960s, read American Nancy K. Miller‘s memoir Breathless: an American girl in Paris (2013). As well as being a kind of ‘coming of age’ cautionary tale, it’s a vivid account of what it’s like to be an attractive young woman just before feminism had made them more aware of the exploitative side of ‘love’. A few words from near the start, to put you in the picture:
‘I went to Paris because I was enamoured of the sexy nouvelle vague movies … I wantedto smoke in a Left Bank café, I wanted to be sophisticated and daring, nothing like my nice-Jewish-girl self and her nice Jewish parents from whom I longed to escape.‘
And I can’t resist quoting this line: ‘My parents were all for intellectuals as long as I didn’t marry one.‘
Funny, sad, moving, informative – and a good reminder of what could then so easily befall a young girl desperate to find freedom and happiness.
American David Downie moved to Paris in the mid 1980s. A widely-published journalist in the field of travel, the arts, and food, he has also become an expert on Paris and has produced two very enjoyable and useful books on the city. His personal discoveries and knowledge are delightfully rendered in two books: Paris, Paris: journey into the City of Light (2005 and 2011) consists of thirty-one prose sketches of Parisians and different locations around the city in a style that’s light-hearted, engaging, but informative. And the beautiful little black and white photos (by his wife, American photographer Alison Harris) make it a really worthwhile addition to any Paris library. His second book, A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and romance in the City of Light (2015, paperback 2016) takes the reader on a tour of Paris wound around with the lives and work of some of its great authors of the Romantic period – Victor Hugo, Georges Sand, Baudelaire, Balzac etc – and much more besides. (I particularly liked the part on the Père-Lachaise Cemetery, being a bit of an obsessive about the place myself! More of that later …)
If you want something humorous, a bit abrasive but informative, one of the best is Englishman Stephen Clarke‘s Paris revealed: the secret life of a city (2011). Irreverent, iconoclastic, but affectionate, Clarke assures us, in his foreword – in case we get the wrong idea from his tone – that he is not trying to ‘turn anyone off the city‘ , but that his book will help Paris become for us ‘a real, fully rounded personality rather than the glitzy, romanticised image that is often projected at us by her fans.‘ It’s true that you ‘don’t truly fall in love with someone until you know what makes them tick.’ And, despite all the fun and the put-downs, Clarke is truly in love with his subject. His novel, A Year in the Merde (2004) in which Englishman Paul West tries to adapt to life in Paris (despite a warning from his friend that ‘the French are hell to live with‘, is another humorous, warts and all but affectionate depiction of the city and its people. The same goes for Michael Sadler‘s An Englishman in Paris: L’éducation continentale (2002) – its subtitle playing on Flaubert’s great Parisian novel, L’Éducation sentimentale. Sadler spends a year in Paris and applies his very British wit and deep affection for the place, giving us a charming but insightful visit.
Another witty but affectionate portrait of the city is created in essays, covering the years 1965 to 1998, from the International Herald Tribune written by Mary Bloom, collected under the title A French Affair (2000). Like most intelligent outsiders, Blume adores her adopted city but is not blind to its quirks and irritations, though she observes them with humour and affection.
As a change from a predominantly humorous take on the city, try Paris (1983) by Julian Green (1900-1998), the first non-French citizen elected to the Académie française – though, to be fair, he was born in Paris, to American parents, and lived there most of his life, and wrote in French. The opening of this short book describes its pages rather well: ‘I have often dreamed of writing a book about Paris that would be like one of those long, aimless strolls on which you find none of the things you are looking for but many that you were not looking for.‘ Yes, it’s a rather delicious wander around the city.
Another lovely book by an American author is The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris (2001) by Edmund White. As he takes us on an amble around different parts of Paris, we learn a lot about the history and culture of the city, both past and present. The cover of my little hardback copy has an atmospheric photo of the Luxemburg Gardens under snow: it’s a physically beautiful little book – one to be treasured for all reasons.
Another foreign visitor writing about her time in Paris is Australian journalist Janelle McCulloch, whose La Vie Parisienne: looking for love – and the perfect lingerie (2008) is a delightful dip into the city. She has since produced further books on Paris in which the main focus is photographic images, though with some nice accompanying text. Enjoy a browse through her Paris secrets: architecture, interiors, quartiers, corners (2009) and Paris: an inspiring tour of the city’s creative heart (2012).
A moving insight
Sarah Turnbull – also an Australian journalist – accepts an invitation to visit a young Frenchman she meets while back-packing around Europe. The visit turns into a permanent relationship – and into a best-selling book, Almost French: a new life in Paris (2003). It’s the story of her gradual adaptation to Parisian life as she learns to modify what is considered acceptable behaviour in Australia. A humorous, honest and sometimes moving insight into Paris and Parisans.
For a portrait of post-war Paris, read A Girl in Paris (1991), a memoir by writer and singer Shusha Guppy (1935-2008), who left Iran at the age of seventeen to study at the Sorbonne. Her portrait is of a city still under the shadow of its wartime experiences but beginning to take on a vibrant creative life once more, and seen through the eyes of a young girl far from home and trying to adjust to a very different culture provides an angle we don’t always get from home-grown memoirs.
If you’re a ‘foodie’ and want to come at the city that way, have a taste of Paris on a Plate: a gastronomic diary (2006) by well-known Australian restaurant critic Stephen Downes, and travel writer Michael Booth‘s Doing without Delia: tales of triumph and disaster in a French kitchen (2009) – originally published the previous year under the title, Sacré Cordon Bleu: what the French know about cooking. It’s another tale of a man taking wife and kids off to Paris to start a new life, so the book covers their adjustment to la vie Parisienne as well as Booth’s adventures when he enrolls in the top French cookery school, ‘Le Cordon blue’. One more way to ‘come at’ Paris.
Another take on the theme of upping sticks and moving to Paris and then trying to understand the place and its people is provided by American chef David Lebovitz in his The Sweet Life in Paris: delicious adventures in the world’s most glorious – and perplexing – city (2009). And it isn’t just about food.
Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series, including city-lit Paris, featuring over sixty writers on Paris.
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.