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A few years ago, a young Japanese tourist approached me on Boulevard Saint-Germain. In a shy voice she asked, “Where are the writers?” I didn’t understand what she meant. “I’d love to see the writers,” she added. “My travel guide says Paris is full of them.” Of course I smiled and explained to her that times had changed and it was quite rare to see famous writers working in cafes. But I hadn’t dreamed of making fun of her, because that’s what I came to Paris for.
As a teenager in Rabat, Morocco, I hung a picture of Simone de Beauvoir in Café de Flore on my bedroom wall, along with one of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway on a terrace in Montparnasse. When I arrived in Paris at the age of 18, I thought of the people’s parade before the death of Victor Hugo and the cafes on the Grands Boulevards where Émile Zola’s characters drank themselves numbly. For me, Paris was literature, the heart and the capital – the city of exiled writers, cursed poets and existentialist philosophers. And even today I believe that there is no other city in the world that attaches so much importance to writers: those of the past, whose ghosts still haunt the streets, and also those of today, who recognize passers-by as if they were a singer. or be an actress. I have never lived in another city where literature was so important.
Table of Contents
What should I read before packing my bags?
I would recommend a classic, probably Victor Hugo’s masterpieces”miserable” or “The hunchback of the Notre Dame† Hugo was and remains one of the greatest geniuses of all time. And he captured, better than anyone else, the soul of Paris and its people. For a more contemporary vision, I like the “Vernon Subutextrilogy, by Virginie Despentes† With the character of Vernon, a homeless record dealer, we discover the right bank of Paris – the bars, the crazy parties, the mixed neighborhoods. It is also an extraordinary depiction of a gentrified Paris where money rules.
Which books or authors should I bring?
In my opinion you should read one book per district. Zola for the Grands Boulevards and the Ninth arrondissement; I especially like”nana” and “the stunner(which has had several English-language titles). His description of the Parc Monceau in “the murderis also extraordinary. Patrick Modiano for “Place de l’Etoile” (the first of three novels released in English translation as “The Occupation Trilogy”) and a dive into the Paris of the occupation. Marguerite Duras’The war†” to relive the time when the Lutetia Hotel welcomed Holocaust survivors return from the camps. James Baldwins”Giovanni’s roomfor Les Halles. I also love “Good morning midnight†” by Jean Rhys, for the beautifully evocative scenes of the Fifth Arrondissement in the interwar period. It’s perfect to read while in Paris: the story is so sad, yet so extraordinarily beautiful, that follows a woman who returns to the city after a long absence to reckon with a tragedy from her past. I also recommend”Disruption†” by Philippe Lançon, a masterpiece and a heartbreaking book about a man who Charlie Hebdo attacks and talks about his recovery in the hospital of Val-de-Grâce.
If I don’t have time for day trips, what books can I get out of the city with?
I love Normandy, just two hours from Paris – a land of great authors, such as Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant. I especially like Maupassant’s”The life of a woman”, an almost perfect novel. And if you go to the coast, you should read the passages that Marcel Proust devotes in “In Search of Lost Time” to Balbec, an imaginary city inspired by Cabourg† And of course Michel Houellebecqs”The map and the area” for a vision of contemporary France: It is a brilliant, funny and cruel book about a France that is falling apart and its cities are being turned into museums.
What books can take me behind closed doors and show me hidden facets of the city?
I love “Pigall people,” by means of Jane Evelyn Atwood† Atwood, a photographer, met a group of sex workers in Pigalle in the late 1970s. She photographs them without any voyeurism but with great tenderness and tells the stories of these women who live on the margins, use drugs and are also loyal friends. It is deeply moving.
†The Margot Affair†” by Sanaë Lemoine, is wonderfully Parisian without resorting to any of the usual clichés. It is a glimpse into the world of politics and journalism. The details of French food, daily routines and architecture are very well captured by the author.
Which writer is everyone in town talking about?
Annie Ernaux† She has been writing autofiction for over 30 years and has become a true feminist icon in France. There is also much talk of Constance Debré, a radical writer who left her husband and her bourgeois life and now embraces her homosexuality and total freedom. her latest book,nom”, has caused a sensation.
What audiobooks would be good company while I’m walking around?
Listen to poetry – in French! Poems by Charles Baudelaire or Paul Verlaine, walking along the quays of the Seine. Or poems by Jacques Prévert, when night falls and you walk through the streets of Montmartre. You don’t have to understand all the words. It’s like listening to music!
What’s a good place to curl up with a book? Are there any bookstores I should visit?
My favorite bookstore in Paris is Shakespeare and Company – for the choice of books, the welcome and friendliness of Sylvia Whitman, the owner. She is great and gives you very good advice! But you can also read on a bench in a park. My favorite is the garden of the Palais Royal when the magnolias are in bloom. In winter, I recommend having a glass of wine in the back of a cafe while it’s raining outside.
And for young readers, any tips?
“The Mona Lisa mystery,† by means of Pat Hutchinsin which children work together to find out who stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, and “one hundred million francs”, by Paul Berna, in which friends playing in the streets of Paris are surprised when a stranger offers them a lot of money for the broken old wooden horse they use in their games. When it’s stolen, they set out to find out why it’s so special. Otherwise, “roofers†” by Katherine Rundell, is a great adventure story. And of course”The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsène Lupin”, by Maurice Leblanc, recently made in a Netflix series with Omar Sy.
Leila Slimani’s Reading List in Paris
†miserable” and “The hunchback of the Notre Dame,† Victor Hugo
Vernon Subutex trilogy† Virginie Despentes
“Nana”, “L’Assommoir” and “The Murder,” Emile Zolac
†Place de l’Etoile,“Patrick Modiano”
“The war,” Margaret Duras
“Giovanni’s room,” James Baldwin
“Good morning, midnight,” Jean Rhys
“Disruption,” Philippe Lancon
“A Woman’s Life”, Guy de Maupassant
“In Search of Lost Time,” Marcel Proust
“The Map and the Area”, Michel Houellebecq
“Pigall People,” Jane Evelyn Atwood
“The Margot Affair”, Sanae Lemoine
Autobiographical fiction by Annie Ernaux
“Name,” Constance Debre
Poetry by Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Jacques Prévert
“The Mona Lisa Mystery”, Pat Hutchins
“one hundred million francs”, Paul Berna
“roofers”, Katherine Rundell
“The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupine,” Maurice Leblanc