Monday, April 25, 2011

The Armchair Travelogues : Paris

The more that you read, the more things you will know, The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.
-         - Dr Seuss

When Mr Kafkatokindergarten and I got married, all those gazillion years ago, we had plans to travel around the world and visit a new country each year. We did, for a few years anyway. Then came job changes, house changes and diaper changes and travelling got shoved onto the back burner. We do intend to start wandering about the globe again as soon as my little tyke reaches the stage where he can be bribed/coerced/tricked into sitting still for whole minutes at a time. Until then, books satiate the wanderlust.
The Armchair Travelogues is a new series that I hope to do once a month, focussing on one city, region or country at a time.  I don’t intend this to be a review of travelogues and tourist brochures. All that information is available easily enough on the net. I’m interested in books that capture the essence of a place and its people.  I have always loved to go on a trip armed with a book set in my destination. Long before the Da Vinci Code made book related tours famous. And if you can’t go on any trips at all, reading a book can be an equally exciting and memorable adventure. Not to mention trouble free and way cheaper.
     So pack your bags and don’t forget to bring that beret. Today we set off on our maiden voyage with a tour of Paris. Not just the shimmering and chic Paris of today but also the sombre and shaken Paris of the revolution era and the bohemian and hedonistic Paris of ages past.
Paris has played muse to several literary giants like Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant and Alexander Dumas. Since the city of lights continues to tantalize the imagination of modern day writers, there are any number of novels set here. These are but a few of my personal favourites.

1.       The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is a most beautiful monument with its Gothic architecture and eerie gargoyles. However, it owes much of its romantic mystique to The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. A great review of the book here.  We trudged up winding, steep, stone stairs to the very top of the cathedral. The view and the atmosphere at the top were worth every wheezing breath. Here did Quasimodo push Frollo to his death.
While the Paris it looks down at may have changed beyond recognition, The Notre Dame still stands today as it stood then.

2.       Moulin Rouge by Pierre la Mure
Moulin Rouge by Pierre la Mure uses the famous cabaret as a backdrop to tell the story of celebrated painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  The artist painted many posters for the Moulin Rouge and many of his paintings depict scenes of the music hall’s nightlife.  The current revue is more dazzling and spellbinding than it must have been in the 1800’s besides being more respectable.  Besides the cabaret itself, Moulin Rouge paints a vivid picture of the bohemian and artistic Montmartre.

3.       A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

So begins Charles Dickens’ epic love triangle set in London and Paris. The grim, tense Paris of the Revolution Era is so far from the shimmering, stylish Paris of today. Yet, the French revolution and its ghosts provide an interesting context with which to view the city today.

4.       Inspector Maigret by Georges Simenon
The Inspector Maigret Mysteries are a more contemporary and upbeat guide to Paris.  Georges Simenon churned out an amazing number of novels and short stories featuring the Commissaire, so you would visit a lot of Paris if you just followed him around.

That’s my two cents on books set in Paris. Any other great ones I’m missing? Which of these books do you think paints the best picture of Paris?


  1. Wonderful post. Thank you for linking to my thoughts on The Hunchback, I'm glad you liked it.

  2. This is a fantastic idea. Loved reading your post. On the few times I go away I like to read a book set in the place I am going to (and preferably by an author from there). I like a travel writing book too but always head straight for the fiction first.

    I am almost positive I have read books set in Paris before but it escapes me now. I haven't read Tale Of Two Cities but I do have a soft spot for Dickens.

    Look forward to seeing more posts in this series.

  3. Thanks so much for visiting my blog-I am now a follower of your blog and look forward to seeing it develop-I am currently reading The Collected Short Stories of Collette-a very French writer-I really like reading books about a place before I go there-I am looking forward to seeing your blog develop-