French Connections

Paris! The Eiffel Tower is an instantly recognisable image of the city, and this
photo (which I took a few years back) conjures up memories of happy holidays.

OK people, I’m still in French mode for Paris in July, so let’s start with a photo of the Eiffel Tower I took when I was last there. I look at this and it conjures up happy memories of some wonderful holidays in Paris. Anyway, enough of the past, now it’s time for a little frivolity, in the shape of a wonderful colouring book: Tomislav Tomic’s A Walk Through Paris. It’s got a picture of the Eiffel Tower on the front, and the inside is like a concertina, with eight panels opening out into a long panorama of the city’s iconic landmarks, and  ladies and gentlemen in Victorian costume strolling along the boulevards. When you look closely there are all kinds of things going on, like a daring young man looping the loop in his flying machine, a balloonist up above the city,  a man rowing on the Seine, and another on a penny farthing. On the other side of the picture are individual vignettes of the buildings, with brief details about their history, and there’s even a space for you to produce your own artwork.

Apparently Tomic is a renowned Croatian illustrator, and the book stresses that there are no rules. It’s your’s, to colour in as you choose, using whatever medium you want – pencils, crayons, inks, felt tips…  Or you can leave it blank, and just enjoy looking at it, which is all I’ve done so far, because I’m scared to make start, but I’ve got my pencils ready, and a mug of fresh coffee, and I’m going to make a start. I’ll report on progress at the end of the month!

There’s also a little section explaining why colouring is good for you (adults as well as children!). There’s been a lot of publicity recently about the current craze for colouring books for adults, which some people see as a money-making gimmick. Others say it would be better to draw or paint your own pictures, but we’re not all that artistic.  Personally I think they’re fun. And if you enjoy doing them, and they give you a sense of satisfaction why not? Among other things, colouring is supposed to boost your ability to concentrate, help you relax, and increase your self-esteem. 
Anyway, I promised I would write a few notes about Paris in July and the other French book challenges I’ve signed up for, with an outline of my Reading Plan.So here goes. Paris in July, now in its sixth year (it’s a couple of years since I’ve joined in) is hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea, and offers scope for all kinds of activities. You can read books (from any genre, fact or fiction), or watch a film, cook a meal, listen to music, walk round an art gallery – anything at all, as long as there’s a French connection, which is why I thought I’d include the colouring book. I spotted it a few weeks back when a friend and I thought we’d try out the café at John Lewis, which does an excellent honey and lavender cake… not French, but delicious nevertheless! At that stage I hadn’t really thought of embarking on a ‘virtual’ trip to Paris, but there’s a certain serendipity at work there I think.
And I’ve got a DVD of Marion Cotillard playing Edith Piaf, which I shall watch (again) and cry over (again) because Piaf had such an amazing voice, and led such a sad life. Then, of course, there’s a selection of books, some of which I’ve read during the past couple of weeks, but not written about yet, so whether I’ll get round to everything I don’t know. I’ve got plenty of choice!
I’ve already reviewed Emile Zola’s The Fat and Thin, and I’ve still got to write about The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen (which was on the TBR pile), and I spotted some Irene Nemirovsky novels in Oxfam, including The Wine of Solitude, which is ideal for Paris in July (serendipity again), and back in June I found Tigers are Better-Looking, a collection of short stories by Jean Rhys.(see what I mean about serendipity?)  Then I got Edward Rosland’s  play Cyrano de Bergerac, because I heard it on Radio 4 last month. And I’ve been dipping in and out of Paris Metro Tales: A Stop-by-Stop Guide, by Ruth Paget, which is packed with fascinating snippets about the stations and how they got their names. I love anything like that, but I don’t think it’s something I could read from cover to cover!
In addition I’ve acquired Paris and the Parisians, Frances Trollope’s account of her travels in early 19th century, and Balzac’s Pere Goriot, both of which I’ve always wanted to read.

I must admit that when I looked at my French Collection I was a bit taken aback, because it seems to be dominated by classics and literary fiction – not a live author anywhere, which probably reflects the state of my book shelves! Anyway, I felt I should include something a little more contemporary, so I snapped up  a charity shop copy of The Confectioner’s Tale, by Laura Madeleine, because I liked the cover, and it’s set in Paris, and features a confectionery shop, and the blurb makes it sound quite delightful.

And at that point I got a bit carried away by the whole French thing, because I discovered  the French Bingo Reading Challenge organised by Emma at Words and Peace, which started at the beginning of the year, and finishes in December, so it’s already half-way through, and it’s a bit late to join in. But it looks such fun, and I think most of my books would qualify for this (not the colouring book though!),  so I decided to take part. I keep saying I will read some foreign authors, and not doing anything about it, so this seems opportunity to explore French writers over the next six months, and it will test my ingenuity trying to find books to match the various categories.

There are 25 categories, including a romance set in France, a book by a French author before 1800, a book with the Eiffel Tower on the cover, and if one volume meets the criteria for several different classifications that’s fine (but I think it would be good to read as many different things as possible). If you can’t manage to complete the whole card it doesn’t matter, you can bag a row or column of the various classes, or just snaffle an odd title here and there, as and when you please and see where the game takes you.

I also found Dreaming of France, which is a weekly meme run by Paulette at An Accidental Blog. You don’t have to post something every week  (I think that might be a bit daunting), but you can link in when you have something suitable and, as with Paris in July, it’s not limited to books, because it extols the glories of France and the French, which means I can include my lovely colouring book!

So there you are, three lovely links to French themed challenges, which provide a bit of fun, and an incentive for me to read something different! And one of the nice things about them is that I can see what other people are reading, and pick some ideas, which will be useful for the French Bingo.

Revolution and Markets in Paris

I love Paris, but it’s a while since I’ve been there and, sadly, I’m unlikely to make it this year either, so I’m making do with a ‘virtual’ trip to the city, thanks to Paris in July, a month-long celebration of all things French being organised by Tamara over at her Thyme for Tea blog. As usual I’m behind-hand, even though I signed up in advance, and I’ve actually read several of the books, but haven’t got round to writing anything!

Paul Alexis reading to Emile Zola, painted by Cezanne in 869/70.
So here goes. First up is Emile Zola, who I read as a teenager, ploughing my way through Nana and Germinal because he was a Great Socialist Hero and a Man of Principle. But I didn’t like the books, and I’ve avoided him ever since. However, Paris in July seems an ideal opportunity to revisit Zola, so I’ve opted for The Fat and The Thin or, to give it the French title, Le Ventre de Paris which, apparently, means The Belly of Paris. And before anyone asks, no, I’m not reading this in French – my failed ‘O’ Level may equip me to order a meal and black coffee, or ask for directions, but there’s no way it’s up to the task of reading a book! 

The novel is set in and around the great food market of Les Halles during the middle of the 19th century, in the days of the Second Empire, when France was ruled by Napoleon III. It follows the fate of Florent, who was arrested by mistake after a failed coup against the Emperor in 1851, and imprisoned at Cayenne, in Guinea. Seven years later he escapes and makes his way back to Paris, and it is at this point that the story begins.  

Historical photo of Les Halles from Paris en images, courtesy of 
Parisian Fields
Florent finds shelter with his prosperous step-brother Quenu and Quenu’s wife Lisa. They pass him off as a distant relative, and reluctantly he accepts a position as inspector at the fish market and (less reluctantly) makes friends with a small group of like-minded socialists who spend their evenings discussing politics. They plot and scheme against the government, and one of them acquires a gun, while Florent makes red armbands.  

Their uprising is doomed from the start – there is government manipulation, and agents provocateurs are at work.  But in the end it’s human nature that brings Florent down. Idealistic and naïve, he fails to grasp that people don’t want to be free. They’re happy as they are, they’re deeply suspicious of anything (or anyone) new or different, and they don’t want their lives upset and they’ll do anything to protect their well-being. 

Old scores are paid off, new rivalries are played out, and actions are governed by greed, petty jealousies, and spite. Rumour and gossip abound. Revenge and treachery are afoot. Even the would-be revolutionaries worry about their status, and as Florent becomes important previous leader leaves.   

Florent unwittingly becomes a focal point for people’s fears and unrest. All their resentments and hatreds seem to focus on him, and there’s an unacknowledged conspiracy against him, as if he is in some way responsible for all the ills of society. By the time he is caught and sent back to Cayenne there’s a sense that he is a scapegoat, punished so others can thrive and enjoy themselves.  

An old postcard showing market women in Les Halles. From
He’s definitely not a hero in the conventional sense (it’s fair to say there are no heroes or heroines in this novel) and he’s a very unlikely revolutionary. He’s ineffectual, a thinker rather than a doer, a sensitive man who finds it difficult to make friends. He’s had a hard life, but he makes hard work of it, if that makes sense.  

There’s a cast of wonderful (if unlikable) characters, like placid, self-satisfied, passionless Lisa Quenu, constrained by her corsets and her outlook on life. Set against her is the tempestuous fish girl Louise, unrestrained in behaviour and appearance. And there are market traders and shopkeepers, malicious gossipy old women, street urchins, and a host of others, all brought vividly to life. Standing apart from all is Claude Lantier, the artist who befriends Florent, and warns him about the battle between the Fat and Thin, the haves and the have-nots.  

The real hero of the book (if there is one) is the market of Les Halles. There are glorious descriptions of the huge wrought iron and glass pavilions and the vegetables, fish, meat and cheese piled high in market stalls and shops.  It’s very sumptuous, very sensual, very enticing, but very overpowering. There’s a surfeit of riches. You feel sated reading about it, sickened by the excess. When Florent comes back to Paris he is starving in the midst of all this. He remains thin, and is abstemious about what he eats, so the theme of hunger and gluttony, poverty and riches, fat and thin is maintained throughout the novel. 

Zola writes about the: 

… luxuriant fullness of the bundles of artichokes, the delicate green of the lettuces, the rosy coral of the carrots, and dull ivory of the turnips… 

Or what about this description of a butcher’s shop: 

There was a wealth of rich, luscious, melting things. Down below, quite close to the window, jars of preserved sausage-meat were interspersed with jars of mustard. Above them were some small, plumped, boned hams. Golden with their dressings of toasted bread-crumbs, and adorned at the knuckles with green rosettes…  

And I love his account of the hot soup seller: 

Along the covered way women were now selling hot soup and coffee. At one corner of the foot-pavement a large circle of customers clustered round a vendor of cabbage soup. The bright tin caldron, full of broth, was steaming over a little low stove, through the holes of which came the pale glow of the embers. From a napkin-lined basket the woman took some thin slices of bread and dropped them into yellow cups; then with a ladle she filled the cups with liquor. 
A soup stall in Les Halles – customers used the cups, and handed them back
for the next person. I downloaded this and lost the reference.

But there’s something faintly sinister about the richness, and Quenu’s kitchen made me feel positively queasy with its: 

…perfect battery of deep copper saucepans, and swelling funnels, racks of knives and choppers, rows of larding-pins and needles – a perfect world of greasy things. In spite of the extreme cleanliness, grease was paramount; it oozed forth from between the blue and white tiles on the walls, glistened on the red tiles of the flooring, gave a greying glitter to the stove, and polished the edges of the chopping-block with the transparent sheen of varnished oak… 

As you read on you become aware of what lies beneath the surface: the rotting vegetable, the slaughtered animals, the blood dripping and running through the market – symbolic, perhaps, of how Zola saw the government. 

The novel was worth persevering with. It was interesting and, on the whole. I enjoyed it, although there were times when I was overwhelmed by the long descriptive passages (not something which usually bothers me – it’s one of the things I love about Dickens). Some episodes didn’t seem to add anything to the story. But I will read more of Zola’s work. 

This made me realise how woefully ignorant I am about French history. I did discover there really was a coup against Napoleon III in 1851. Reprisals were very harsh indeed, and hundreds of people were transported to penal colonies in South America, where conditions were notoriously bad. 

Napoleon III was responsible for the way Paris looks today. He ordered the massive rebuilding programme undertaken by Baron Haussmann, and the market (designed by Victor Baltard and constructed in the 1850s) was part of the modernisation. 

But if there was a Napoleon III there must have been a Napoleon II, so who was he, and what happened to him? And how come the French, having staged a revolution and established a republic, abandoned ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ and ended up with an emperor? And how did the country become a republic again? I need a decent book on French history…

PS: Just came across a French Bingo Reading Challenge 2015 at Words and Peace, It looks interesting, so I’m giving that a go as well! There are 25 ideas for books with a French link, so I’ve marked this off for ‘part of a series’. And I reckon it qualifies for Paulette’s weekly meme, Dreaming of France, at An Accidental Blog – though I’m not sure how long I can sustain my ‘French Connection’! I’ll post a bit about all three challenges, and what I’m hoping to read, later in the week. (Edited July 15, 2015).

Snapshots of Paris…

I’ve been looking through my old holiday photos and, since I’m on a ‘virtual’ trip for the Paris in July challenge, run by Karen at Book Bath and Tamara at Thyme for Tea, and Dreaming of France over at An Accidental Blog, I thought would post some of my pictures for a Saturday Snapshot, which is hosted by Melinda at West Metro Mummy. So I’ve dug out some street scenes to show why I love the city.
I love the way Parisians turn the tiniest of
balconies  into lush, green, hanging gardens.

And the pride they have in keeping their city clean –
especially this chap, sweeping the steps with an
old-fashioned besom, like a witch’s broom.

 And they have wonderfully decorative street lamps, 
where the top….

…and the bottom are works of art, 
so they are beautiful and functional.

 And there are buskers who play proper music (rather 
than strumming three chords on a guitar and singing
out of tune Dylan numbers. I enjoyed this harpist…
…and this jazz quartet…
 ...and this trio taking a well earned break – I’ll be it was
hard work moving the piano around!

 And I adore the pavement cafes where you can sit and 
watch the world go by as you sip your tea or coffee…

 Or browse around a market… this is the Bird
 Market, next to the Flower Market.

 And you stumble across unexpected little parks and
squares, with the most beautiful planting arrangements, 
and fountains, and statues, and benches.

 And there are tiny roads 
and hidden alleys and it’s 
all quite, quite wonderful.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

A Scarlet Pimpernel flower.
Does anyone else out there have a problem with the French Revolution? My view of it is much the same as my view of the English Civil War, and is best summed up by Sellar and Yeatman, who maintain that the Royalists were romantic but wrong, while the Roundheads were repulsive but right (it’s in their amazingly funny history spoof ‘1066 And All That’). Only in the case of France it’s the Revolutionaries who are repulsive but right, which is a shame, because when it comes to ideology I’m with them all the way, same as I support Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians.
Baroness Orczy
But it’s hard to hard to know how much of our image of the French Revolution is shaped by  novels like Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, which I haven’t read for years and years and years – I think I may still have been at school when I last picked it up! Anyway, since I have embarked on a ‘virtual’ trip to Paris with Paris in July and Dreaming of France, I felt it was time to reacqaint myself with Sir Percy Blakeney, his wife Marguerite, and the devilish French spy Chauvelin. And I am so glad I did. The novel is ideologically unsound and extremely biased, so I feel guilty about enjoying it, and it certainly couldn’t be described as great literature. But it is SUCH fun. And I am SOOO in love with Sir Percy, just like I was as a teenager! It’s a real romp of a book, a love story and an adventure yarn, that could even be described as a mystery thriller I suppose.
And, before anybody quibbles, I know it is not really set in Paris, but it begins and ends there, and it is all about the Revolution, and the Revolution took place in Paris. Did it happen elsewhere in France I wonder? I must admit I don’t know a lot about it, but there must have been uprisings and incidents in other places – or did the rest of the country just follow where the capital led?
I’m sure most of you know the story. Here we have the inane, foppish Sir Percy Blakeney and his beautiful French wife Marguerite, dubbed ‘the cleverest woman in Europe’ by those who know her.
Sir Percy Blakeney, as the chronicles of the time inform us, was in this
year of grace 1792, still a year or two on the right side of thirty.
Tall, above the average, even for an Englishman, broad-shouldered and
massively built, he would have been called unusually good-looking,
but for a certain lazy expression in his deep-set blue eyes, and that
perpetual inane laugh which seemed to disfigure his strong, clearly-cut
It was nearly a year ago now that Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart., one of the
richest men in England, leader of all the fashions, and intimate friend
of the Prince of Wales, had astonished fashionable society in London
and Bath by bringing home, from one of his journeys abroad, a beautiful,
fascinating, clever, French wife. He, the sleepiest, dullest, most
British Britisher that had ever set a pretty woman yawning, had secured
a brilliant matrimonial prize for which, as all chroniclers aver, there
had been many competitors.
Leslie Howard Merle Oberon starred
in the 1934 movie of the book.

However, the couple seem to have fallen out of love within months of their whirlwind marriage, and appear to have nothing but contempt for each other. Marguerite, like the rest of her glittering social circle, is fascinated by the daring exploits of The Scarlet Pimpernel, a mysterious master of a disguise who risks his own life to snatch aristocratic victims from the jaws of the guillotine. His symbol – the tiny red flower of the scarlet pimpernel – has become extremely fashionable, and there is even a popular rhyme which everyone is quoting:

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?

That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.
At this point we meet Chauvelin, the scheming French envoy, who blackmails Marguerite into helping discover the Scarlet Pimpernel’s identity. If she refuses, then it will death for her brother Armand, a republican supporter who has been revealed as a traitor to the cause.
Chauvelin was putting the knife to her throat. Marguerite felt herself
entangled in one of those webs, from which she could hope for no escape.
A precious hostage was being held for her obedience: for she knew that
this man would never make an empty threat. No doubt Armand was already signalled to the Committee of Public Safety as one of the “suspect”;
he would not be allowed to leave France again, and would be ruthlessly
struck, if she refused to obey Chauvelin. For a moment–woman-like–she
still hoped to temporise. She held out her hand to this man, whom she
now feared and hated.
She is convinced she has failed in her task, because the only person at the meeting place she uncovers is her husband, who is fast asleep… Eventually she tells him about the threat to her brother, and he promptly heads off to France to save Armand.

Only now does Marguerite finally realise the awful truth – her dull, stupid husband is the clever, brave Scarlet Pimpernel… and she has unwittingly revealed him to his enemies. So she follows, determined to warn him, and the tension mounts as Chauvelin tries to catch his prey, Sir Percy tries to evade him, and Marguerite tries to catch up with her husband. She seems to spend a lot of time hiding behind hedges and things, and she gets dirtier and dirtier, and her fine clothes get tattered and torn, but eventually she and Sir Percy get back together, declare their undying love for each other, and sail off into the sunset… well, back to England at any rate. And, in case you are wondering, Armand does get rescued, along with the father of Marguerite’s old schoolfriend. So everyone is happy, which is good. I like a happy ending.
Karen, who runs the Book Bath blog, and Tamara, over at Thyme forTea, are organising Paris in July, while Paulita, at An Accidental Blog is hosting  Dreaming of France.