Summer Reading Special: A Bibliophile’s Miscellany of France
July is the month when many countries celebrate their national day: it was Canada Day on the 1st, America’s birthday (of course) on the 4th, but also Algeria’s and Venezuela’s Independence Day celebrations on the 5th, Malawi’s on the 6th, Argentina’s on the 9th, and so on for another 20 countries. And yesterday (the 14th) was Bastille Day, a holiday commemorating the culmination of the French Revolution in 1789, when commoners charged Paris’s Bastille fort-prison and demanded their cherished rights of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
So, to tip my virtual beret to Bastille Day and honor a country I’ve visited with pleasure on four occasions now, I’ve assembled a list of ten amazing books about France. If you’ve read Peter Mayle’s charming travelogue A Year in Provence (1989) and its several sequels, terrific! – but you mustn’t stop there. Here are some of my favorites, five works of nonfiction alternating with five novels, all of which should provide perfect summer reading for any Francophile – or travel-loving bibliophile.
1. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
(published posthumously in 1964)
Start your French pilgrimage with this classic account of expatriate writers living the bohemian life in 1920s Paris. If you’ve seen Woody Allen’s lovely 2011 movie Midnight in Paris, you’ll already know that the cast of characters is a literary who’s-who of the early twentieth century, including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. It has many wonderful comic moments – such as Scott Fitzgerald asking ‘Hem’ to evaluate the size of his manhood – but also plenty of sadness and insecurity. Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, struggled to make ends meet, and the fractures in their relationship were already beginning to show:
“Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”
Yet A Moveable Feast is perhaps most memorable as a true-to-life account of the writer’s occupation:
“I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”
Hemingway is a writer’s writer, but even he acknowledged that authorship is more often about plodding drudgery than breathless inspiration.
2. Still Life by A.S. Byatt (1985)
A.S. Byatt quickly became one of my favorite novelists after I read her delicious, Booker Prize-winning Victorian pastiche Possession (1990). Her novels are dense and richly textured, like those nineteenth-century novels she reveres, and contain many superb descriptive passages – especially about colors. In this, the second book of her “Frederica Quartet” (don’t worry, you needn’t have read the others to keep up), about a high-spirited young woman growing up and coming to academic fulfillment in the 1950s-1970s, Frederica travels to Provence one summer to work as an au pair. Byatt’s vivid descriptions of the countryside of southern France evoke Van Gogh’s paintings of sun-kissed wheat fields and gnarled cypress trees, and I can still remember the relaxed atmosphere of the languid, hot days Frederica spends lying in bed reading classics of seventeenth-century British literature.
Still Life also has perhaps the most shocking ending of any novel I’ve ever read, a complete slap in the face after 400 pages of meandering family drama. And I’m not alone in thinking it a masterpiece; Francesca Segal, author of The Innocents, named it as her ‘book of a lifetime.’
3. Something to Declare: Essays on France and French Culture by Julian Barnes (2002)
Julian Barnes is a Francophile extraordinaire. Not only has he published a translation from the French (of Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain) and set most of his novels at least partially in France – he’s also the only author to have been awarded both France’s Prix Médicis and Prix Femina, and in 2004 he became a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In this collection of pieces on French culture, he tracks his love affair with France back to his first visit there with his family when he was 13. He indulges some of his personal obsessions here (with Gustave Flaubert, for instance), but also muses on the difficulty of the biographer’s enterprise, death, love, the Tour de France, and French food. Henry James, Edith Wharton, George Sand, and Ivan Turgenev are just a handful of the historical figures you’ll find traipsing through these learned but always enjoyable essays.
4. Pure by Andrew Miller (2012)
Along with Hilary Mantel, Andrew Miller shows just how historical fiction should be done. This is a flawless tale of the clearing of Paris’s Les Innocents cemetery in the late eighteenth century, undertaken by young engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte. The graveyard was so overcrowded and fetid that it was considered a public health hazard. Miller brings his historical setting to life with all the requisite sights, sounds, and (ugh) putrid smells. Pure always finds just the right image to capture what it means to say; one of my favorite of Miller’s exceptional metaphors was “the licorice shimmer of a human eye.”
5. The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food by Adam Gopnik (2012)
New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik is brilliant at taking simple, everyday things and lives and using them to get at general truths about ‘life, the universe and everything.’
In this wide-ranging culinary collection, he ruminates on the origin of the restaurant in Paris, the evolution of cookbooks, and the development of taste, while also considering the merits of specific food regimens such as vegetarianism and localism. There are many worthwhile books out there about French gastronomy (everything from Julia Child’s classic My Life in France to Michael Steinberger’s demythologizing Au Revoir to All That; I’d also recommend, for dessert lovers, pastry chef David Lebovitz’s memoir The Sweet Life in Paris), but this book goes further toward positing a more general theory of eating. (It also contains a splendid ‘recipe’ for making the best-ever scrambled eggs.)
As Gopnik concludes, “The things we do without thinking are often the things most worth thinking about. If we don’t think about them, then the thoughts we have are just the thinking that others have done for us.” Read this as you think for yourself about what food means to you. It can be not just a means of survival, but an art form: “Something we have to do – eat – becomes something we care to do – dine – and then something we care to do becomes something we try to do with grace.”
6. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (2011)
Told from the perspective of Hemingway’s first wife Hadley, The Paris Wife captures the energy and sophistication of the Hemingways’ Parisian milieu but also reveals a hidden desperation. Essentially it’s a portrait of the slow collapse of a marriage; Hadley is expected to act as if everything is normal, even when her husband’s lover Pauline sets up a sort of ménage à trois for them on a vacation:
“Everything could be snarled all to hell under the surface as long as you didn’t let it crack through and didn’t speak its name, particularly not at cocktail hour, when everyone was very jolly and working hard to be that way and to show how perfectly good life could be if you were lucky as we were. Just have your drink, then, and another and don’t spoil it.”
The novel centers on the Hemingways’ years in Paris but also depicts their beginnings in the Midwest and their various European trips, including the Spanish travel that so influenced Hemingway during the writing of The Sun Also Rises. It’s rich with 1920s slang and nicknames, and even includes third-person sections that imitate Hemingway’s style. McLain has produced a fantastic historical novel, worthy to sit alongside A Moveable Feast on any Francophile’s shelf.
7. French Children Don’t Throw Food: Parenting secrets from Paris by Pamela Druckerman (2012)
[Alternate U.S. title: Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting]
There’s been a spate of books over the last decade that marvel at how the French do it – how they succeed with such effortless nonchalance, in ways that make their European neighbors emerald with envy – such as Mireille Guiliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat (2004). You don’t have to be a parent to be intrigued by Druckerman’s comparison of French and Anglo-American parenting tactics. She advises instituting a framework of regular meal times, introducing new foods gradually as a process of learning taste, teaching patience and self-control through instances of frustration, and adopting an unconditional air of authority (“C’est moi qui décide”: “I make the decisions around here!”).
Sleep-deprived American mothers will be astonished to hear that French infants usually sleep through the night by three months. As Druckerman explains, babies wake up and cry between sleep cycles; if, rather than attending to them immediately, parents wait for them to fall back asleep on their own, they will learn to sleep through the night. Moreover, French babies quickly get onto the same eating schedule as adults, eating at regular four-hour intervals (for example, an 8:00 am breakfast, a 12 noon lunch, a 4:00 pm goûter or snack, and an 8:00 pm dinner). The overall goal is twofold: first, giving mothers a balanced life not overtaken by parenthood, with time to be simply a woman and a wife; and, secondly, letting children live their own lives, develop their character, and become comfortable in their own skin.
8. The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox (1998)
I can guarantee you’ve never read another book quite like The Vintner’s Luck. Though it’s structured like David Nicholls’s One Day (2010), it’s the bizarre relationship between a winemaker and a fallen angel in nineteenth-century Burgundy that makes Knox’s novel unique. It begins one night in 1808, when novice vintner Sobran Jodeau is eighteen and the Napoleonic wars are brewing. In the cool of the vineyard at evening, Sobran meets Xas, the beautiful and unpredictable creature who will reenter his life every year on the same day. As in One Day, the challenge to the reader is to extrapolate from one day’s events what has been happening to the characters over the past year: who has married, died, fallen ill, or turned pious. Sobran and Xas’s relationship, spanning over half a century, is a strange and sensual evolution that in some ways mirrors the continent’s historical revolutions.
9. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (2000)
David Sedaris is a hilarious essayist with a surprisingly cosmopolitan background: although he’s from Raleigh, North Carolina, he has lived in New York, London, Paris, Normandy, and Tokyo. His self-deprecating humor is touching; he seems a loveable mess, with horrible fashion sense, no ear for languages despite living abroad, and a more than occasional temper when faced with unpleasant people. Meanwhile his partner Hugh seems like quite the catch: a wise, cultured artist who loves Sedaris enough to lance a boil from his rump.
Although When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008) is my favorite of his collections, there are some great pieces here about learning to speak French and feeling out of place in Europe; as an expat in London I always warm to tales of learning how to deal with life as an outsider. He relates one incident when he was riding the Métro with Hugh and stood next to two American tourists who, wholeheartedly assuming that Sedaris was French, proceeded to comprehensively insult him, commenting on his odor (“he’s a smelly little froggy!”) and the high likelihood of him trying to pick their pockets. There followed an internal debate about whether to reveal his true nationality; however, deciding he didn’t want apologies and a parting handshake, he chose to leave them in their bigoted ignorance. It’s funnier that way, too.
10. The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier (1997)
Tracy Chevalier writes the kind of cozy historical fiction you can devour in a matter of hours. For fans of Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) and Falling Angels (2001), this one may be an undiscovered delight. Chevalier’s first novel is different from the rest of her work in that there are both historical and contemporary elements: in the present day, Ella Turner has just moved to small-town France to work as a midwife, but she’s troubled by curious dreams that link her to another redheaded woman who lived in the area nearly 400 years before. As Ella explores her French heritage and tries to make sense of these nightmares featuring the color blue, she’ll discover surprising links with the parallel story of a sixteenth-century peasant named Isabelle du Moulin.
On with a summer’s worth of Francophile reading! Vive la France! And bon appétit!
Do you have any favorite books that feature France? Share them with us in the comments box below.
The featured image, of the Eiffel Tower seen from a Paris street, is by Serge Melki (russavia) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.