From Baudelaire to Balzac to Proust, these 10 titles provide an insider's guide to a city of intrigue, romance and squalor
By an accident of history, I spent part of my early childhood in Paris and French became my first spoken language.
Ever since, no matter how often I've returned, once to live opposite Balzac's failed printing works, Paris has been a city of memory and myth for me. Oddly angled sights and childhood smells live side by side with that dream city built up of the words of novelists and poets.
This is the Paris of crowds and contrasts, of forbidden pleasure and desperation, of glitter and nerves, of urbanity and poverty. It's the very essence of the cosmopolitan: dangerous and desirable. My novel Paris Requiem is set in the mystery of its teeming streets as the city moves into the 20th century.
1. Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac
Along with Lost Illusions, this is one of my great favourites in Balzac's many-volumed and populous Human Comedy. Balzac's depiction of Restoration Paris from the vantage point of an aspiring innocent from the provinces shows it to be a ruthlessly inhuman capital of inequality: only vice and manipulative corruption triumph. Seduction, love, talent are all tools for climbing the greasy pole to success, and along with filthy lucre, a means of buying a foothold at the aristocratic summit. Balzac's detail allows us to smell the grimy boarding house, the Maison Vauquer on Rue Neuve-Saint-Geneviève, where his provincial law student, Rastignac, begins his Parisian odyssey. At the end, after old Goriot's funeral, Rastignac stands on the heights of the Père Lachaise Cemetery and launches his challenge to the city: "A nous deux maintenant." ("It's between us two now.")
2. Les Fleurs du mal by Charles Baudelaire
Censored in its original 1857 edition for its "insult to public decency" – largely on the grounds of its lesbian poems – Baudelaire's enlarged Flowers of Evil of 1861 captures a city thrust into a shuddering modernity by Baron Haussmann's renovations. The poet-flaneur takes us, his hypocrite readers, on a 24-hour tour through the life of the changing streets. He walks, observes, takes in new sensations, mourns fleeting time, bumps into a putrifying cadaver, locks eyes with a desirable woman and loses her again in the crowd. He conjures up the unsung greats, the ragpickers, beggars, whores, gamblers: the workers whom bourgeois order casts aside.
3. Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
Published in 1869, this is the great prose master's ironic tale of city life, to counterpoint with his provincial Madame Bovary, who yearns for the capital. Set around the revolution of 1848, which put an end to Louis Philippe's materialist reign and inadvertently ushered in a new emperor, this is the novel of modern disaffection and anomie. Frederic Moreau, an intellectual manque, floats through life, paralysed by the many choices the city offers and able to decide on none. The city induces shifts in attention, passing sensations. Ultimately both the city and this new god comprised of sex, money and power defeat him.
4. Nana by Émile Zola
Zola's innocent blonde Venus rises from dire streetwalker's poverty to soar like a mythic amoral angel through the corrupt society of the second empire. Made for love, she enraptures with her performances and proceeds to wreak destruction on the corrupt male hordes who desire her. Zola's descriptions of the Parisian demi-monde, as well as his crowd scenes, are unequalled. Her death coincides with the announcement of the Franco-Prussian war.
5. The Ambassadors by Henry James
I have to confess that the plotline of my Paris Requiem was in part inspired by James's wonderful 1903 novel, in which New Englander Lambert Strether goes on a mission to rescue his straight-laced fiance's son from the corruptions (and illicit pleasures) of Paris. James is ever alert to the delights and dangers of the capital and is happy to have Strether seduced and bewildered and emerge all the wiser for the experience.
6. A la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust
Alongside its archeology of the emotions, Proust's great novel gives us a remarkable topography of the city. He was a psychogeographer ahead of time. Young Marcel "wrestles" with his childhood love, Gilberte, in the leafy pastoral of the Champs-Élysées and watches fashionable aristocrats and courtesans, dressed for spectacle and assignation, in the Bois de Boulogne. One of these last is Gilberte's mother, Odette. As a woman of the demi-monde, she used to live in a small house behind the Trocadero to which the dandy Swann drove her in a carriage, where they performed their first "cattleya" – the flower that stands in for their sexual congress. By the end, they've arrived at the aristocratic summit, the Faubourg Saint-Germain. (The "secret" homosexual brothel in which the book's wartime "apocalypse" takes place lies halfway between Proust's childhood home and the Boulevard Haussmann, where he wrote his novel.)
7. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Published posthumously in 1963, this splendid memoir of Hemingway's life in Paris during the 20s amid a bohemian circle of writers and artists has hugely contributed to the city's mythic appeal. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein and many more figure in its star-studded pages, meeting, drinking and talking in the Ritz, in Montparnasse cafes and bars and in any number of apartments, some seedy, some elegant, that then make their way into novels.
8. The autobiographies of Simone de Beauvoir
I learned a lot of my Paris from De Beauvoir. Her autobiographies, from her Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter on, provide a fascinating 20th-century history and cultural geography of the city. Born in the then new area of Montparnasse in 1908, De Beauvoir guides us through the cafes and clubs of her frolics and writing, as well as the hotels where she and Sartre largely lived – many of these no more than a brisk walk away from her birthplace. Her wartime Paris is particularly graphic.
9. Maigret by Georges Simenon
Any and all of the Maigret novels paint an unrivalled picture of the city and its inhabitants. Simenon and his detective are astute observers of the psychopathology of everyday life and the houses and streets in which it unfurls. From the bonne bourgeoise Madame Maigret in her floral summer dresses – worn to the little restaurant on the Boulevard de Montparnasse, where the couple dine on stewed mutton on the terasse – to the overbred (and murdered) Comte and Comtesse de Saint-Hilaire in the Rue de Varenne, Simenon is unequalled in his understanding of the city.
10. Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick
In this taut and witty homage to Henry James, the great Ozick takes her morally upright teacher, Bea Nightingale, on a journey into the murky depths of 1950s Paris, where wartime refugees jostle with intoxicated American expats, and Jewishness has different meanings according to which side of the Atlantic you're on. This is a virtuouso novel to rival the master's own in its understanding of the textures and shades that make up a (good) life.