When it comes to fiction, there are simply avalanches of books to choose from. Start with some substantial French classics of the nineteenth century, the six biggest names in French prose literature of the period are Stendhal (1783-1842), Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Gustav Flaubert (1821-1880), Émile Zola (1840-1902), and Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), with Marcel Proust (1871-1922) straddling the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So, quite a lot to choose from, especially as some of them were hugely prolific writers – though the choice is slightly narrowed by the fact that a good many of their novels are not set in Paris.
A number of Balzac‘s great series of novels, known collectively as La Comédie Humaine, have a Paris setting (one series of novels has the general title of ‘Scenes from Parisian Life’). One of his best, Lost Illusions, begins and ends in the provinces but has a very strong central section set in Paris – as in Stendhal’s Lucien Leuwen.
After the success of the musical based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, it probably scarcely needs to be mentioned – except, perhaps, to point out that it’s not about ‘the’ French Revolution of 1789 (I’ve heard people assume as much), but the later 1832 uprising. And, of course, there’s Hugo’s other world-famous Parisian novel, Notre-Dame de Paris (known to some as ‘The Hunchback of Notre-dame’). Despite its ‘Disneyfication’, it’s a powerful evocation of Paris in the late fifteenth century. I particularly love the description of the view from the top of Notre-Dame, which retains some of the same ‘feel’, even today.
Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Maupassant’s Bel-Ami, Zola’s L’Assommoir, Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris), and Nana are all good reads with plenty of insights into Parisian society, high and low, the poverty and inequalities of the time, though my own favourite is Zola’s Au Bonheur des dames (‘The Ladies’ Paradise’), set in the world of that new phenomenon, the great Parisian department store, and his L’Assommoir . (The English translations of these last two usually retain their French titles.) The latter is set not far from the Gare du Nord, once the poorest part of Paris, and tells the story of laundress Gervaise and her alcoholic husband and their descent to the lowest depths. But there is happiness too, at least at the beginning – their wedding day beside the Seine and their wedding party’s visit to the Louvre is truly touching. Few writers can rival Zola for sheer story-telling power.
For those who want to wallow in Belle Époque Paris – the period from the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 to the start of the First World War in 1914 – there’s nothing to surpass the novels of Marcel Proust (1871-1922). Their reputation for being ‘difficult’ is not really deserved: they’re just long and rich in the most illuminating details and observations. The overall title for its collected volumes is In Search of Lost Time (sometimes translated as Remembrance of Things Past) and totals something like three thousand pages. Not all of it is set exclusively in Paris, but Parisian society is very much the focus of the work.
The first parts of the first volume, Swann’s Way (1913), are set in ‘Combray’, but the third section of that volume, Swann in Love, is a luscious portrait of upper-class Paris of the Belle Époque. But my favourite Parisian bit comes a little way into Place-Names: the name (the last section of the first volume) when the child Marcel is taken to play on the Champs-Elysées where he sometimes sees the little girl Gilberte for whom he harbours a secret passion. (It’s particularly good on winter-time Paris.)
The most famous parts of In Search of Lost Time work depict social occasions among wealthy Parisians, described by Proust in entertainingly and revelatory forensic detail. But it’s impossible to do justice to this amazing work in a short book of reading recommendations, and it isn’t a work to tackle if you’re short of time of just want a quick sense of Paris now. But it is something to savour when you have the leisure. Do try the first volume, even if you don’t make it through all the others – which are Within a Budding Grove (1919), The Guermantes Way ( I and II, 1920 and 1921), Cities of the Plain (I and II, 1921 and 1922), The Captive (1923), The Fugitive (1925), and Time Regained (1927). As you’ll see from the dates, the last three volumes were published posthumously.
A modern ‘spin-off’ from Proust’s masterpiece is Albertine by Jacqueline Rose (2001). She takes one of Proust’s major characters and re-imagines the story from her point of view. A good period read.
Covering the early part of the Belle Époque are the Parisian Sketches (1880) of J.-K. Huysmans (1848-1907), a collection of brief portraits of people and places – including ‘The Streetwalker’, ‘The Chestnut-seller’, the Folies-Bergère, inns, cafés and views of Paris. Easier-going than Proust, if you’re short of time, though not as satisfying. The murder mysteries of Claude Izner are also set in the period, but we’ll meet these properly when we come to detective fiction.
The Ambassadors (1903) by the great American writer Henry James (1843-1916) also takes place in La Belle Époque. It sees the middle-aged Lambert Strether dispatched to Paris to bring home Chad, the son of the rather formidable Mrs Newsome, who is apparently enjoying life a little too much in that sinful city. But Strether himself is, unsurprisingly, seduced by the charms of Paris and her people … Quite honestly it isn’t an easy read – especially if you’re not used to James’ rather dense and complex prose style, but it is a classic, and the author is said to regard it as his best work.
Just a few years after The Ambassadors, the serialised version of The Phantom of the Opera (1909-1910, translated 1911) appeared from the pen of Gaston Leroux (1868-1927) – a journalist and prolific writer of detective fiction who was the French equivalent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We are told in the prologue that the events described took place less than thirty years before and that the story is ‘the most extraordinary and fantastic tragedy that ever excited the Paris upper classes.’ And, of course, the hit Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the novel has been exciting audiences of all classes since 1986.
If you like the work of best-selling author Robert Harris, and also want an important bit of Parisian history, read his novel (he also writes non-fiction) An Officer and a Spy (2013), set in 1895 and featuring the famous Dreyfus Case which polarised French society at the time. Dreyfus was a Jewish officer in the French army wrongly (as it turned out) convicted of spying for the Germans. Harris’s novel is the story of the man who set out to prove the truth – that Dreyfus was innocent and the real spy was still at large and operating.
Much more accessible than either Proust or Henry James – and much shorter and more fun – are some of the stories by much-loved French writer Colette (1873-1954). Many believe her masterpiece to be Chéri (1920), followed by The Last of Chéri (1926), depicting the relationship between a young man and a much older woman, and the eventual end of that relationship. Set before then after the First World War, it’s the world of Proust – but, I must admit, yes, easier to read. Colette is also author of the novella Gigi (1944), made famous by the Lerner-Loewe musical film version of 1958, staring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. Set in turn-of-the-century Paris, it features a young girl being groomed for life as a high-class courtesan – the only way she will be able to make a reasonable living – but who finally achieves marriage and happiness with a suitably wealthy young man. Despite the surface gaiety of the story, it tackles what was a serious problem for women in an age before they could receive the kind of education to support themselves ‘respectably’ if they happened not to be among the wealthy minority.
Colette’s ‘Claudine’ stories – her earliest works – are also great fun, particularly Claudine in Paris (1901). After divorcing her first husband (who’d locked her in a room to write the successful ‘Claudine’ books, published under his own name!), Colette worked for a while as a music-hall ‘artist’ and her novel The Vagabond (1911) is closely based on her experiences. (I particularly remember her description of the prostitutes who go to the bars of Montmartre for their meagre meals.)
Literary visits in Paris
Balzac’s House, 47 rue Raynouard, Passy
Victor Hugo’s house, 6 Place des Vosges
Or visit the last homes of writers in the famous cemeteries:
Père-Lachaise for Balzac, Colette, Proust, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, Apollinaire, Oscar Wilde, la Fontaine, and Molière.
Montparnasse for Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant, Susan Sontag, Julio Cortazar, Marguerite Duras, J.-K. Huysmans, Ionesco, Mavis gallant, François Mauriac, Carlos Fuentes and Henri Troyat.
Montmartre for Zola, the Goncourt brothers, Théophile Gautier, and Alexandre Dumas fils
Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series, which includes 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.