MAY 1 IS LABOR DAY in almost all of Europe (the Netherlands and Switzerland are the exceptions), and in France it’s a day for political demonstrations led by the unions or the political parties — or both.
I never want to miss a party, so I went out to Place de la République this afternoon to see the sendoff of the third demonstration of the day.
Anti-Le Pen demonstrators. The sign says “Hope, here and elsewhere.” The statue represents Marianne, the personification of the French Republic.
A novel by Charles Cumming. St. Martin’s Press, Feb. 14, 2017. 356 pages. (Advance hardcover edition reviewed)
Just a few months ago we thought the Cold War was long over, but now it seems to threaten us anew. Ever since John le Carré brought the dark world of spy-vs.-spy into modern popular fiction, it’s been a durable plot standard that has given millions of us many hours of entertainment with a scary side order of education.
Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy is an entertaining and thoroughly Le Carré-ish thriller set mainly in London. It’s the third featuring the ex-MI6 agent Thomas Kell, who in this book is a disaffected ex-agent, desolate because of the death of his girlfriend some months before, when he should have been euphoric because he’s successfully closed an important case.
A Divided Spyis the story of Kell’s hunt for the man, a Russian, he believes gave the order to kill the girlfriend, although he also blames his ex-chief as well.
Spy novels have evolved since Le Carré, not least because readers have evolved as well. Missing from this book is the bitter, hard-edged passion for the good side or the bad side. Instead, the characters are rounder, softer, more like educated Westerners of the Twenty-First Century. They aren’t so willing to break things. (Actually, a couple of them are, but they aren’t spies per se. More would be a spoiler.)
Cumming’s story reminded me a bit of Le Carré’s Carla books, the ones in which Smiley spends his career trying to entice the dark lord of Russian spycraft to come over to the other side. The reason he succeeds bears more than a passing resemblance to A Divided Spy, except that there’s much more of it in Cumming’s book.
And Cumming has taken the opportunity to throw in a terrorism subplot, an important one. What would any modern mystery be without ISIS?
If you read for the simple pleasure of the written word, you’ll find this one worth yourtime. Cumming’s technique is good — the plot and character elements are all in place, but you have to pay attention. Skip a sentence and you may find yourself puzzled by a character a few pages later. It will cost him a star or two from lazy reviewers, but it makes a better novel. Every word counts.
His ear for dialogue is snappy and the conversations are believable.
Everyone who’s taken a Bateau Mouche ride on the Seine has seen the copy of the Statue of Liberty installed on the Isle des Cygnes, near the Grenelle Bridge. While it is a miniature of the real statue, it’s no tiny thing. It’s 40 feet tall.
For landlubbers, there are (at least) two other good copies of Lady Liberty to be seen in Paris. The sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, donated a smaller copy to the Luxembourg Museum in 1900. Five years later, it was moved outside to the Jardin du Luxembourg, the famed Luxembourg Gardens. It stood there for more than a century, until 2012, when it was moved to the Musée d’Orsay.
A newly constructed bronze replica (photo above) stands in the garden.
Forty-plus years of living in Paris, first as a student then as the wife of a well-known banker and historian, have given Harriet Welty Rochefort the ability to look at both sides of the French-American cultural divide with a sharp analysis that’s both trenchant and humorous.
She’s published three books that I think of as cultural dictionaries. In them, she translates French culture in a way Americans can understand, even if we sometimes can’t quite comprehend. The French are different from us Americans (and from Germans, the only other European culture I know well enough to judge). But at the same time they’re much like us. Or we’re like them.
I met Harriet late last year at one of Patricia Laplante-Collins’s Sunday soirées. Patricia had invited her to be the guest of honor and presenter of a slide show based on her most recent book, Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing like the French. I also got to meet her husband Philippe, who retired as a banker then went back to the Sorbonne for his doctorate in history, and their friends Ron Rosbottom, the Amherst professor who had just published the outstanding When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, and his wife Betty, a noted cookbook author. (When Paris Went Dark is fascinating, and is on my list to be reviewed soon.)
Harriet’s focus is the differences wrapped within the similarities. There are plenty of both, and they seem pretty well matched in plusses and minuses.
An American tourist will generally cast the differences in superficial terms: a surly waiter (some are, most aren’t, and even those warm up if you are nice to them), or fashion. Here’s Harriet’s take on that:
“An American woman might, for example, get the dress, makeup and hairstyle right, but she can’t change her wide-open, trusting, smiling, innocent American face.”
Bingo. And the same goes for her American husband. We stand out, and we need to be conscious of that, since we’re guests in their home.
Dress aside (and that does seem to be less important year by year), the French are known as one of the most pessimistic people in Europe. Harriet’s take on that again:
“After watching the nightly eight o’clock news on France’s Channel 2, I want to immerse my head in a bucket of Bordeaux.”
I watch that newscast, too (it’s on the web at France2.fr. Be prepared to follow quick French) and it does seem to focus on the negatives of the day, but that’s pretty much TV news everywhere these days.
Les Petits Plaisirs
Harriet’s choice of chapters summarizes the culture differences well. There’s an important one on “Romance, French Style,” and one I especially liked entitled “Small is good: Les Petits Plaisirs.” Several deal with the special differences and attractions of French women, and she wraps it up with “How I Became A Little Bit French.”
Joie de Vivre is a charming book, informative at the same time it entertains. I give it five stars. If you’re already a Francophile you’ll enjoy it immensely; if you’re just thinking about a visit you should consider it as well.
Thomas Dunne Books. Kindle edition $11.99, hardcover $19.17. I reviewed the Kindle edition, which I purchased. Its Amazon page is here.
I use the Feedly app to bring in blog posts and RSS feeds from altogether too many sites, but one I always appreciate is Slate.com. Tonight, Feedly brought in an extraordinary, atmospheric Paris video.
This one is exceptional – three minutes of Paris that, and I can testify to this, is spot on. At one time or another I’ve seen every single scene shown in this remarkable video. It’s enchanting, and accompanied by a terrific soundtrack.
End of the line – the bank of the Seine, with Île Saint-Louis in the background
TWO YEARS AGO, when I had hardly started the writing of Last Stop: Paris, I was casting about for a good location to set the climactic, resolving scene. I needed a crowded urban site (not hard to find in Paris) where I could set a car chase that ended in the Seine. At the time I wasn’t sure that’s how the book would end, but it made more and more sense as I worked through the writing and revision of the manuscript.
Île Saint-Louis has long been one of my favorite walking haunts, even though it’s very crowded during during tourist season. The architecture is marvelous and historic, the shops are fun if not practical, and there are more than enough places to stop for a coffee or an ice cream, as my character Jeremy Bentham says in the opening chapter.
So the Île it would be. Starting the scene there would bring a certain roundness and sense of completion to the story because the first scene is set there as well. So, after hours of pacing its streets and quais, in the summer of 2014 I found my site.
I make a lot of photos of Paris, especially the parts that seem like they’d be good “characters” in a novel. Actually, that describes pretty much all of Paris, which is why I have thousands of JPGs stored in the Google cloud.
These are some of the photos I used in constructing that last scene.
Shoppers strolling on the sidewalk when a pistol came sailing out of a car window
Eddie’s near-miss when Khan was merging onto the Pompidou Expressway
The chase led around the City Hall, then down to the Pompidou Expressway
Last Stop: Paris is the sequel to Treasure of Saint-Lazare. Both are available on Amazon. The story will flow better if you read them in order.
When Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014 he was virtually unknown outside France. He is a prolific author, with 30 books published in French, but very few had been translated into English. Yale University press promptly picked up several of them for American publication, and now Amazon teems with Modiano offerings.
The Kindle edition I read was promoted by the New York Review of Books, which supports many old or under-read novels that I’ve enjoyed in recent months.
I knew nothing of Modiano when the Nobel award was announced, but I started looking around among his works and settled on Young Once (original title Une Jeunesse), for several reasons, not the least of which was that the New York Times called him “Marcel Proust for our time.” I am not inclined to argue.
Young Once is a coming-of-age novel set in the postwar years, with its roots deep in the small and not-so-small cons and tricks the Parisians employed to stay alive during the German occupation. Modiano’s own father skirted the edge of the Resistance, more involved in staying alive than in making a political point. The father of his protagonist was a bicyclist of some note who rode at the Vel’ (for Vélodrome) d’Hiver, the Winter Stadium best known as the collection point for French Jews rounded up for deportation in 1942. It was part of one of the buildings left over from the World’s Fair that ended in 1900 and is remembered with a plaque near its location, which is just a few hundred yards from the Eiffel Tower (Google Maps).
The charm of “Young Once” will be obvious to anyone who knew Paris in the ’60s. I was there early in the 1970s, when not much had changed, and the book brings back the memories of dark streets, cheap hotels, and neighborhood restaurants where a good lunch could be had for less than a dollar. Despite what you read about the “Trente Glorieuses,” the glorious thirty years of rapid recovery after the war, times were still tough. In 1960 the Marshall Plan had only been operating for ten years, and it takes longer than that to recover from a national catastrophe that cuts 70% from GDP.
The story is simple and the writing is understated (in Damion Searls’s expert translation):
Louis Memling, not yet 20, is discharged from his national military service and takes up with a shady character, Brossier, who promises him what he wants most: waterproof shoes with thick crepe soles, and an overcoat. His new friend provides them.
While Brossier is out of town on one of his mysterious business trips, Louis meets Odile, a painfully timid girl who lost her job in a perfumerie for shoplifting a few lipsticks, but has ambitions of being a singer. Her first patron helps her cut an audition record, then kills himself. She, a minor, is picked up at a police roadblock and forced to be bait for a rapist. In desperation, with no friends and two francs less than she needs for her coffee, she goes to a café, where Louis finds her. From then on they are inseparable.
Brossier finds Louis the job he promised, as a night porter at a questionable auto-rental company. It soon turns to money-laundering (remember: this was the time of international capital controls and there was no EU). The first trip, to England, goes well.
It’s a subsequent assignment that changes the course of Louis and Odile’s lives. A felony, plus the passage of time, turns them from petty criminals into substantial citizens with a house in the Alps, far away from France.
Modiano became known in the United States as the co-writer of “Lacombe, Lucien,” the 1973 film about the French Milice (the French branch of the Gestapo), co-written by Louis Malle, who directed.
Young Once: Highly recommended for Paris lovers and fans of sparsely written, penetrating literature. Originally published, in French, in 1985. NYRB edition March 2016.
I read the Kindle edition, published by NYRB Classics, which I bought from Amazon at this page. $9.99. Also available in paperback.
Patrick Modiano was born in the Boulogne-Billancourt suburb of Paris near the end of the Nazi occupation of France. He studied at the Lycée Henri-IV and the Sorbonne. As a teenager he took geometry lessons with the writer Raymond Queneau, who would play a key role in his development. He has written more than thirty works of fiction, including novels, children’s books, and the screenplay for Louis Malle’s film Lacombe, Lucien. In 2014, Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Damion Searls has translated many classic twentieth-century writers, including Marcel Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elfriede Jelinek, Christa Wolf, Hans Keilson, and Hermann Hesse. For NYRB Classics, he edited Henry David Thoreau’s The Journal: 1837–1861 and has translated Nescio, Nietzsche, Robert Walser, Alfred Döblin, and André Gide. He is currently writing a book about Hermann Rorschach and the cultural history of the Rorschach test.
BookGoodies, a well-known site for promoting books, was nice enough to do an interview with me this week. For your general edification, you can find it here.
Here’s one of the questions they asked — how I write. (If you’re not up on the lingo, a “pantser” is someone who creates the plot as he goes. Nobody is 100% pantser or 100% outliner — I create detailed outlines that are usually overtaken by events.
If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts, I name some of the most interesting software I’ve found.
Tell us about your writing process.
I’d like to be an outliner but I generally wind up being a pantser, because the process of writing sparks off many of the ideas that wind up in the finished work.
My main tool for information-gathering is Evernote. I tuck factoids about places, people, and things in it, organize them by book and character, then turn the notes into my rather detailed sketches. I keep those in Scrivener.
When I’m ready to write, I use an outliner (usually Tree, a neat horizontal outliner for Mac) or Scapple, the mind-map app from Scrivener. From there I start the writing process.
The first draft is longhand, but thereafter the manuscript lives in Scrivener. I edited on double-spaced printouts.
I found a few remaining paperback review copies of Last Stop: Paris, which I’ll make available to anyone who would like to read it and post a review on Amazon. If you aren’t familiar with it, you can click the cover image in the sidebar to see the first 10%.
The book is selling well, and the Amazon reviews have pretty much matched the rave it received from Kirkus Reviews. So far (on 19 reviews) it has a 4.8-star rating (of 5 maximum). I’m optimistic that it will eventually have as many reviews as Treasure of Saint-Lazare (145-ish), which is still selling well after three years on the market. It’s said that there’s no reason an ebook should go out of date, which makes sense when I look at Treasure.
Email me at this address if you’d like one of the paperbacks.
A New Story
There’s something new on the horizon. In a short time (I know better than to promise a date) I’ll publish a short story telling the history behind the plot of Treasure and Last Stop. It will be titled Lauren, and will tell the romantic story of Eddie Grant’s courtship of his first wife Lauren during their college days in the ’80s.
Lauren will be an ebook only, and I plan to offer it free to all my blog subscribers.
(Thanks again to Jane Dixon-Smith for the cover design. This is her third for me.)
If you’ve been visiting Paris for a long time, you’ll recognize FUSAC for what it used to be – a classified-ad service for expats looking for housing. It published a weekly magazine, but if you needed a place to stay, the place to go was the bulletin board in the entrance of the American Church, overlooking the Seine on the Quai d’Orsay, just down the street from the Alma Bridge.
(Don’t confuse the American Church (interdenominational Protestant) with the American Cathedral (Episcopal). They aren’t far apart and they work together but they’re as different as, well, Episcopalians and Catholics.
The bulletin board still exists (or did the last time I looked, which has been a couple of years),
The FUSAC series on water
but it’s been supplanted by an effective web site and blog, which in recent years have become much more sophisticated and interesting. Witness the current series on the waters of Paris. Today I noticed #5 in the series, on the canals. I recommend it.
Until Napoleon, water was the big problem for the less-affluent citizens of Paris (which was the equivalent of our 99%). Later, canals were dug, locks were installed, and water flowed, to the point that it is no longer a concern.
To quote the current issue:
“The city of Paris is the proprietor of and responsible for a fluvial network of 130km of canals which cross 5 departments (Paris, Seine-Saint-Denis, Seine-et-Marne, Oise and Aisne) and two regions (Île-de-France et Picardie). There are three canals that interconnect: canal de l’Ourcq brings in water from the rivers Ourcq and Marne to feed the canals Saint Martin and Saint Denis.
“The construction of the Paris canal network was ordered by Napoleon I in 1802 as a way of providing fresh water to Paris which was out-growing its sources. It was also instrumental in transporting goods including food and building materials by boat, with two ports established at the Port de l’Arsenal and the Bassin de la Villette. This was the first time that the same waterway was to be used for navigation and drinking water. It took 23 years to complete the network of canals. Rest assured the canal water is no longer used for drinking water, but it is still makes up 60% of Paris’ unique secondary water network for street cleaning and gardening.”
Read the installment here, and scroll to the bottom for links to other installments.
(H/t to Dr. Mary Greenwood Johnson for correcting my error – I had the denomination of the two churches mixed up.)
I’m the Part-Time Parisian. You can see my novels here.