Take yourself to the catacombs beneath the French capital with Andrew Miller’s Pure
If your idea of Paris is of beauty and fashion, delightful meals and romantic walks along the Seine, then I’m afraid you are in for something different with Andrew Miller’s novel Pure.
It is the 18th century, and the oldest cemetery in Paris is overflowing.
The Holy Innocents’ cemetery may have started out as your average church burial ground, but now it is a nightmare, with hundreds of thousands of bodies having been piled on top of each other for generations. And despite the bones being removed to be put in ‘charniers’, there is still insufficient room for the endless supply of new corpses. The nearby residents have had enough and are complaining that their water is being poisoned by the rotting flesh and the stench has become unbearable, so the authorities decide something has to be done. The bodies must be removed. And this is where our novel begins.
Charniers at the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris – Image via Wikimedia Commons
A young engineer named Jean-Baptiste is hired by the authorities to remove the corpses, an immensely difficult feat requiring all his skills. But there’s an added challenge beyond the engineering concerns; our young hero has been told he must do the job in secret.
What follows as poor old Jean-Baptiste tries to deal with this grizzly nightmare is fabulous. I relished this book – and if you are someone who enjoyed the novel Perfume, or The Shadow of the Wind, then I think you’ll love this one as well. There are some terrific characters, especially from within the nearby family that Jean-Baptiste lodges with, as well as amongst those who befriend him and try to help him with the project. And fortunately there’s also a little romance for our earnest young engineer.
Of course you have to be up for being a bit grossed out from time to time – there’s no protecting of your sensibilities here. This is a cemetery after all….
From cemetery to city square
But what if you were visiting Paris today and you wanted to see the cemetery for yourself? Well, I have to tell you, there’s not much sign of it these days. It seems Jean-Baptiste did his job very well.
The cemetery is now a small square surrounded by restaurants and fast food outlets, BUT in the middle of the square you can see this fountain.
It is called the Fountain of the Innocents, and it is the oldest monumental fountain in Paris, built around 1550. It was once placed against our cemetery wall – which you can see in this engraving.
Engraving of the Fountain of the Innocents – Image courtesy of Siefkin DR via Wikimedia Commons
When the cemetery closed down, the site was turned into a market square and the fountain was earmarked for destruction. Fortunately, after some community pressure, it was decided to move the fountain into the square, raise it up on a stone pedestal and have a fourth facade constructed so it could be free-standing.
Painting of Fountain of the Innocents 1822. Image courtesy of Musée Carnavalet via Wikimedia Commons
In 1858 it was moved once again to its present location in the middle of the square, where you can visit it today. You will find it, right in the heart of Paris, near to the shopping precinct of Les Hall and the Pompidou cultural complex.
But what happened to all of those bones?
After sitting by the fountain for a while, perhaps with a coffee, reading your copy of Pure you can take a 45 minute walk or a 20 minute ride on public transport to the place where all those bones got moved to; the spectacular, and slightly scary, Paris Catacombs.
Paris Catacombs. Image courtesy of albany_tim via Wikimedia Commons
A labyrinth of tunnels underneath the heart of Paris, the catacombs house the bones of six million Parisians. And the first bones to go in there were the very bones Jean-Baptiste spent hundreds of pages trying to dig up in this novel.
Engraving of the Paris Catacombs from 1855 – Image courtesy of Brown University via Wikimedia Commons
The Catacombes are not for the faint-hearted – and nor is this novel really – but they are truly one of the most memorable tourist attractions you will visit in Paris.
And to really appreciate them, I’d certainly give Pure a read before you go!
“Amid the several million or so souls that inhabit this city, what a happy accident it is, I consider, what an obliterating coincidence that we have found each other. What have I done to deserve this, to be so singled out?” – Seducing Ingrid Bergman p96
I discovered the novel Seducing Ingrid Bergman (which I talk about in the video above) after reading this article about war photographer Robert Capa. The article included the heartbreaking story of how most of the negatives for the photographs Capa took during the D-Day landings at Normandy in 1944 were destroyed before a single print was made, due to a mistake in the London photo lab of Life Magazine. I cannot imagine Capa’s frustration at this after putting his life in danger and witnessing such bloodshed. It makes the few surviving iconic images all the more precious (their appears to be a difference of opinion as to whether there were 10 or 11 of them, depending on where you read about it!)
I wanted to know more about this good looking Hungarian who lived life on the edge, found solace in women and drink and put himself in enormous danger so the world could witness global conflict, only to die after stepping on a land mine in Vietnam at the age of 40.
What a gift then to find a highly-praised novel in which Capa himself is one of the main characters. In Paris for the city’s liberation at the end of World War Two, Capa is at a bit of a loss. What does a war photographer do now that peace has broken out? Capa and his friend, writer Irwin Shaw, find themselves at the Ritz when who should arrive but Ingrid Bergman, the married Swedish-born movie star, who has taken the world by storm with films such as Casablanca and Gaslight.
Capa is smitten immediately and it is not long before he charms his way into Bergman’s affections and the beginning of an intense relationship. It was more than an affair for Bergman, who wanted to marry Capa but…. well, I think I should leave it for you to read the novel to see how it all ended up…you’ll get no spoilers from me!
We see a little of Paris throughout the book, especially as Bergman and Capa take to some famous streets, restaurants and nightclubs for their somewhat clandestine meetings, and it’s great to get a sense of what the city was like during this time of liberation.
“The newspapers are full of the Japanese surrender. V-J Day. People swarm in the streets with renewed fervour, waving flags and handkerchiefs, many clustered around boards where the front pages of the newspapers are displayed. Ingrid is with me on the back of a jeep as I take photographs. We’re driven slowly as part of an improvised victory parade through the wildly celebrating crowds.”- p68
While this is a work of fiction, it is highly researched, and much of it based on autobiographies by both Capa and Bergman. How much of it is “the truth” is always questionable in novels such as this, but it appears to capture enough of the man to help bring his work alive, and if you read it, you will always feel you know a little of the photographer himself whenever you see his images.
This part of Capa’s life is not the only novel in which he features. Susana Fortes’s Waiting for Robert Capa (which I have not yet read) is the story of the complicated relationship between Capa and one of the first female photojournalists to die on the frontline, Gerda Taro. The novel explores their lives and careers as the pair re-invent themselves from young radical Jewish exiles living in Paris by the name of André Friedmann and Gerta Pohorylle to two of the world’s most celebrated war photographers. Changing their names and re-inventing the art of war photography, the two produced some of the most recognised images of the Spanish Civil War. Read more about their relationship here.
There is much more to the Robert Capa story than I have room for here, but if you’d like to know more about his extraordinary life, here are some suggestions.
- Read the novel Seducing Ingrid Bergman
- Read the novel Waiting for Robert Capa
- Read Capa’s memoir Slightly Out of Focus
- Read Bergman’s autobiography My Story
- See the D-Day and other Normandy landing photos online
- Watch this documentary about Capa on YouTube, which includes comments by Bergman’s daughter Isabella Rossellini
- Consider this hefty book which contains more than 900 of his images or head off to the International Center of Photography in New York, a photography school and museum founded by Capa’s brother Cornell, where much of his work is on permanent display.
- Watch the documentary The Mexican Suitcase which tells the amazing story of how three lost boxes of negatives, mainly shot by Capa, Taro and fellow photographer David “Chim” Seymour during the Spanish Civil War were found in a closet in Mexico in 2007. The 4,500 negatives had disappeared from Capa’s Paris studio at the beginning of World War Two.
And as a special treat, there are two films currently in development about Capa and his life – based on our two novels.
It seems that 100 years after his birth, Capa’s work is still having an impact, while his event-filled life continues to fascinate.
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John Baxter’s The Most Beautiful Walk in the World is the kind of book that just makes you want to jump on a plane immediately so you can join him in wandering the streets of Paris. This is a book written by a man who truly loves to understand what he is seeing around him and ponder on how it all fits into the city’s history…and with this book, you will feel the same way.
Baxter is an Australian who has lived in Paris for more than 20 years. One day, in an effort to help out a friend, he found himself conducting a couple of guided ‘literary walks’ for writers visiting the city. It made him realise how limited traditional tours and guide books were, with their inability to allow room for the unexpected. Receiving a great reaction from his first “customers” and some encouragement from a highly entrepreneurial friend, Baxter decided to expand his tour operations…this book tells you that story, and of course, offers some great advice for those wanting to set off on their own literary meander around Paris.
What kind of a reaction have you had?
The book has been an astonishing success. It has already gone into five printings in less than a month, and reviews have been uniformly enthusiastic. Many people have also emailed me their appreciation. It’s been a welcome surprise.
How do you feel when you see tourists wandering around with cameras and guide book, practically ticking the sights of Paris off a checklist?
It’s better than not “doing” Paris at all, but I’m sorry to see them missing out on so much. At times, I want to grab them and say, “No, stop reading and look! “ An hour sitting in a café can tell you more than the most detailed guide book.
You really make the sixth arrondissement sound like the stuff of dreams, especially for those in love with all things literary, is it really as romantic as it appears?
Even more so! There is hardly a street or square that doesn’t have some literary association. There is a magic to the very stones. They breathe poetry.
If someone was coming to Paris and they only had one day to experience the city, what would you suggest they do?
Breakfast at the Cafe Flore or Deux Magots on Boulevard St Germain, a Metro ride to Montmartre to view the city from the terrace of Sacre Coeur, a sandwich eaten in the Luxembourg Gardens, a visit to the church of St Severin in the Latin Quarter and to the Shakespeare and Company bookshop nearby, a nap back at your hotel, then dinner in a great restaurant, and a walk across Pont Neuf, pausing in the middle to watch the Seine by moonlight. (Of all these experiences, the Seine by moonlight will probably be the one you remember best.)
Image courtesy of Savani1987 via Wikimedia Commons
I normally ask our contributors to recommend somewhere off the beaten track, a hidden gem they can go and visit, but your book is full of them. Can you give us a favourite?
At least once a month, you’ll find me at the flea market at Porte de Vanves that takes place year-round each Saturday and Sunday morning. It’s a cornucopia of treasures that also reveals an enormous amount about the history and culture of France. (Don’t be surprised if you run into Catherine Deneuve. She’s a keen flea-marketeer and a frequent visitor.)
And if a visitor just went to one place to eat, where would you suggest?
The Au Bon St Pourcain on rue Servandoni, next to Saint Sulpice church. A classic one-room restaurant that hasn’t changed in a century.
Your timing for the book is perfect. There seems to be a real Paris fascination at the moment, perhaps helped by Woody Allen’s new movie, ‘Midnight in Paris’…
There are times when Most Beautiful Walk reads like the Book of the Film. But it was pure coincidence. Oddly, Woody is an unwilling visitor to Paris. He doesn’t trust the water, doesn’t like the food, and speaks no French. But he’s as susceptible to its magic as the rest of us.
What do you hope The Most Beautiful Walk in the World leaves people with?
I hope it makes those who have never visited Paris decide to do so, and those who already know the city to return. The city is inexhaustible. There is always more to discover.
This book is not just about Paris though is it? It’s about walking, observing and taking it all in, wherever you are…
It’s about jumping in at the deep end; experiencing life without preconceptions. Life is more enjoyable if one can stop and look. Paris makes that easier, since there’s so much more to see.
Do you still offer guided walks yourself? How can people find you if they are keen to hear your stories in person?
I still do a few tours, but pressure of work has forced me to limit them. Anyone who is interested could email Terrance Gelenter at Paris Through Expatriate Eyes.
Do you have a favourite novel set in Paris?
Le Divorce by Diane Johnson, who’s another long-time expatriate (and neighbour). Despite the title, it’s in English; the witty and observant story of a collision between an American and a French family over marriage, infidelity, sex and a 17th century painting both claim to own. The movie version of a few years back didn’t do it justice.
The Most Beautiful Walk in the World reminds us just how much has happened on the streets of the cities we visit. How often do you fly through a place in a few days, just making sure you see the main sights before moving on? Of course it’s rare to have the luxury of truly exploring the streets as John does, but it is good to be reminded that even if we can’t always see them, the pavements we walk on and the buildings we pass are rich with stories of the past. Next time you are walking the streets of an unfamiliar city, just stop from time to time, take a deep breath and look around, and wonder what ghosts are walking along beside you.
And of course, if you are off to Paris anytime soon….then I highly recommend The Most Beautiful Walk in the World as a companion. If you are looking for a traditional guide book, then this is not for you. But if you are keen to explore the poetry of the streets alongside someone who can whisper stories in your ear – then John Baxter’s book is a fine way to do it.
Packabook was kindly provided with a review copy of the book “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World” by the publishers.
As you know we love to highlight books set in Paris on this blog, but today we thought we’d find out what some of the wonderful bloggers in France recommend as THEIR favorite reads. These are people who live and breath French life – so when they suggest a good book, we listen!
Now, you would think coming up with a favorite novel would be easy – but not for Doni from Girls Guide to Paris who says she has so many favourites it was almost impossible to choose.
Eventually she settled on The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.
“While it doesn’t ooze Paris or France the way some other books may, it is beautifully written and captures a very particular time and a society that largely doesn’t exist anymore. And since reading it, I always feel quite smart when I have a coupe de Champagne at the Café de la Paix near the Opéra Garnier,” Doni says.
Doni couldn’t help also sneaking in a non-fiction book as well — Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer, a book about his bohemian experience living and writing at Doni’s favourite bookshop in the world, Shakespeare and Co.
Shakespeare and Co. is a delicious bookshop – you really don’t want to go to Paris without dropping in!
Martina from Mad About Paris says there is one book you cannot visit Paris without….and that’s Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano. But she warns you will need to be prepared to enter a world of melancholy.
“Modiano is obsessed with one subject: disappearance,” Martina says.
“In all of his books he’s searching for traces of the past. Not any past, but the time when Paris was under German occupation. All his books are a travel through time. Often the starting point is a small fact, something he found in the archives, in old newspapers, and even old telephone directories.
In this case it was 1988 when Modiano found this announcement in a 1941 newspaper reporting that a 15-year old girl, Dora Bruder, was missing: “oval face, grey-brown eyes, wine-coloured jumper, dark blue skirt and hat, and brown shoes. Contact Monsieur and Madame Bruder, 41, Boulevard Ornano for any relevant information.
For more than a decade Modiano was obsessed with collecting any possible information about Bruder, only to discover she had been deported to Auschwitz. This book is his reconstruction of her life.
For people visiting the France, Dora Bruder is an opportunity to discover and immerse yourself in a Paris which has now disappeared.”
It’s a dark choice as well from Kristin Espinasse from French Word-A-Day.
Perfume: the Story of a Murderer is set in Paris, but also has scenes in Grasse, the perfume capital of France.
“The writer, Patrick Suskind, is amazing at description: the scenes of Paris and of Grasse are so vivid. It is a wickedly evil book… but the writing is so engrossing that it is difficult to put down as one follows, with amazement, the megalomaniac main character, who is a scent genius.”
Kristin and I agree you either love or hate Perfume, but there is only one way to find out which category you fall into, and that’s to give it a go!
“It’s a memoir about an American man who lived in Paris as a child and learns how to play the piano,” Richard says.
“He is traumatized by his performance at a recital and vows never to play again. He moves to Paris from the U. S. as a grown man with his wife and young son. On his way to taking his son to school everyday, he stumbles on a piano repair shop and befriends the owner. What later ensues is him buying a piano and getting in touch again with his passion for the piano and overcoming his childhood fear. There’s a wonderful romanticism about his take on Paris and the Parisians and the story is very moving. Also his description of the Left Bank and his neighbourhood and the interesting & warm people he meets is so enticing that it makes you want to move here. It’s a rich and rewarding true tale and a most inspiring ex-pat memoir.”
Ah – a renewal of passion in Paris – how can we resist!
And something quite a bit different from Lindsey of Lost in Cheeseland, whose favourite book set in Paris was actually written for children. It was published in 1953 and presents a thorough history of the city through vibrant illustrations.
“Miroslav Sasek offers the reader a visual tour of Parisian life – from its monuments, transportation system, and parks to its cafés and evens its animals,” says Lindsey.
“This Is Paris is part of a larger collection of “This Is…” city books which includes London, Rome, Venice, New York and San Francisco and although it was written for children, the cultural benefit for adults is just as significant. All of the facts have been updated in recent editions to account for modifications to urban planning and historical sites. Perhaps what is most appealing about the book is how relevant it remains today, vintage aesthetic and all! I offered the book to my young brother this year, it makes a great educational souvenir. “
So there you have it…a few suggestions from the experts. Thanks guys, you have given us some real treats to explore.
So how about you? Why not give yourself a little Paris time….and order yourself a literary trip to the French capital….I think I’m going to start at the top with The Razor’s Edge and work my way down…
And if you’ve read any of these recommendations, we’d love to hear what you think in the comments. Do our bloggers know their stuff?
In sorting through the books set in France we have on the main site, I couldn’t help but notice how many of those novels were to do with art or artists. It makes sense though – one of the first things to pop into your mind when you think of France (after the Eiffel Tower, champagne and berets of course) is bound to be something to do with art. Maybe the Louvre, or an artist (perhaps with a beret!) painting someone’s portrait in Montmartre, or even Monet’s famous painting of his bridge at Giverny.
So – there’s no point in resisting.
If you are going to Paris there’s a good chance that you are going to come across art in some way or another. So, the best thing to do is to arm yourself with a load of novels that will immerse you in the art world of the Belle Époque (Beautiful Era) and by the time you arrive in Paris you will know more that you could possibly imagine about the art on offer when you get there. You’ll probably know a fair bit about the streets of Montmartre as well!
So here it is.
A list of eight novels set in France about French art and artists
Dancing for Degas by Kathryn Wagner The story of a young ballerina at Paris’ Opera Ballet modeling for the Impressionist painter Edger Degas.
Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell Fictionalised version of the relationship between artist Claude Monet and his muse Camille.
I am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto When John Singer Sargent’s portrait of socialite Virginie Gautreau was shown in Paris 1884, it caused a scandal.
Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick Artist Vincent Van Gogh’s descent into madness through the eyes of the prostitute Rachel.
Cezanne’s Quarry by Barbara Corrado Artist Paul Cezanne is caught up in the mystery surrounding the murder of a mysterious young woman in Aix-en-Provence.
Depths of Glory by Irving Stone The story of Camille Pissarro one of the main figures of the Impressionist movement.
Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriett Scott Chessman The story of Lydia, whose sister Mary was at the center of the Impressionist movement in Paris.
Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland Focuses on one of Renoir’s instantly recognizable masterpieces, and imagines the story arounds its creation.
It’s a delightful mix of novels that blend fact and fiction to make the art and artists of the time come alive, forever changing how you look at their work. And what’s even better is the way the same characters appear in lots of the different books – you will feel like a member of the Impressionist family yourself if you manage to read all of these. I am certainly planning on giving it a good go. Why not join me?
P.S. If you’d like to delve beyond the art world, see what other books set in France we have discovered.