Tag Archives: Paris

The String Bean – Edmond Séchan

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I first encountered The String Bean (Le Haricot) as a film and loved it. The mostly black and white French movie by Edmond Séchan, who also created the text for the book, has music but no dialog. It is the story of an old Parisian seamstress who lives alone, many floors up a winding staircase in a dark, shabby building. She is wizened and bent but her spirit is full of color and life.

Each day, after she makes glittering, pearl-encrusted evening bags for sale to elegant shops and has her sparse and simple meal, she puts on her hat and goes out to the public gardens. Wandering the Tuileries—scenes that are in color–the old woman dreams of the lush gardens of her childhood. On the way home, she makes a stop to window-gaze at a florist’s, full of gorgeous blooms she could never afford. One day, she finds an old clay pot with a dead plant that someone has tossed in the trash. She takes the pot home.

Once she has removed the dead plant with her only fork, she carefully pokes a bean into the soil and waters it. Then she sets the pot on her window ledge where it will get the few rays of sun to reach her apartment every day. She tries to protect the seedling from predatory pigeons and neighbors shaking out dusty rugs; she stakes the new leaves so the stem will grow tall. But the pigeons are too many and the sun is too weak for her plant to survive. She pulls a chair out to the hall, where a patch of brighter sun from a skylight will fall on the plant, and sets the pot on the seat.

It isn’t enough. The bean plant wilts and grows pale. So she decides to clandestinely transfer it to a boxwood border surrounding the Tuileries flower gardens. She will lose her daily companion but the bean plant will get plenty of sun and water to flower and grow. What happens next is both heartbreaking and hopeful. The photographs and straightforward text of the book are evocative and powerful, just as the film is.

The tale is an allegory for life and hope that is deceptively simple. As a book, The String Bean could certainly be handed to a kid but the emotions and the underlying concepts are very big—it might take some guidance or some maturity for the story to be appreciated. I’m happy to have experienced both the film and the book. You might have to search for a copy of either but the hunt would be worth it.    

The String Bean   Edmond Séchan | Doubleday  1982

The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. – Carole DeSanti

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Eugénie Rigault is a goose girl, grown up but not reconciled to life in the foie gras countryside. In France, in the late eighteenth century, a girl who follows her dreams and her lover to Paris, believing that she can remake herself merely by stepping on a train, is bound to be quickly disillusioned. The lover from a prominent family abandons her, alone and pregnant. The artist for whom she models leaves her at the mercy of merciless landlords and the streets. The whorehouse where she winds up hands her an herbal potion to abort the child—and she pours it in a potted palm.

Carole DeSanti’s The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is silk brocade, gleaming in the candlelight, and the silken luxury of real chocolate in a tart. And it’s the unspeakable isolation of giving birth alone in a shabby room, of a diseased customer breaking ribs and beating hope out of a young woman with milky breasts and a feverish infant. It is artistic notoriety, loyal women friends in the back streets of Paris, rampant duplicity and greed, callous lovers, corrupt bureaucracies and betrayals. Eugénie keeps trying to remake her world to match her dreams and that world is carved up and ripped away from her without warning time and time again.

The baby, Berthe, goes to a foundling home that is no better than a prison and from which Eugénie never stops trying to ransom her. The lovers, patrons, courts and house madams are a backdrop of misery that seduces, uses and controls. Through it all, the young women pour themselves into survival and schemes for self-determination and independence. One wealthy Confederate expat lover keeps Eugénie in style so her presence will conceal his homosexuality. The end of the Civil War abruptly ends his Paris exile and her comfortable life. Another lover paints a portrait of her that wins a salon prize and achieves a level of fame. “An Unknown Girl” is the name of the painting and it might be a stand-in for the model herself. Eugénie’s life is something unknown to her. She sees her motives only after she has paid the penalties for them. She spends a decade trying to reclaim her child and reconcile her sense of self with her reality.

The Siege of Paris is an unavoidable factor in the lives of women who live at the edge of society and ruin. Eugénie is forced to sort the lies and treacheries and find a price she can pay to survive. The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is the tempestuous story of a mesmerizing heroine who seems real and remarkably contemporary in our own conflicted and chauvinistic times. Really good read, lovely prose, compelling protagonist and great story. When an author gets fiction right it is such a gift to a reader. DeSanti has been generous with this one.

The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R.     Carole DeSanti | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2012

My Mother’s House & Sido — Colette

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Colette wrote lyrical vignettes that describe her unconventional country childhood and her beloved mother, the Sido of the title of My Mother’s House & Sido.  It is a collection rich in sensuous detail, mirroring the delight in nature and the keen observance Colette inherited from her mother. She writes of endless flowers in a much-cultivated garden and of Sido’s reluctance to cut them as ornaments for a neighbor’s funeral. She recounts meals, tastes and textures so faithfully a reader longs for the simple, natural breads, creams and country dishes of a past era.

Her eye captures the shimmer and hue of every fabric and her quick mind conjures the private motivations of neighbors, big brothers and the mysterious and indulgent parents who allowed her to grow up unfettered and a little wild, secure in her own choices and observations. It was an ideal childhood for a writer and Colette adds to the fairytale quality by idealizing what may have been very pedestrian events and the deprivations of a family out of fortune. She felt rich, her mother was certain of their abundance and the child exulted in her experience. Apparently, she never forgot a thing.

The second section of the book, Sido, deals in more depth with Colette’s father, a war veteran who adored his wife but was frustrated in his business dealings. After his death, the children discovered that a shelf of carefully matched volumes in his library was meant to hold his own books, all named on their spines, but was filled with beautiful blank pages instead. The Colette siblings—Colette was the family name of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette—were a headstrong and quirky lot. One brother became a doctor, another was a prodigiously gifted musician who preferred his solitude and silence to a career, an older sister kept her distance from the rest and married badly. Colette was the younger of the two children from her mother’s second marriage, and the baby, so she had Sido’s complete attention and the benefit of her considerable country wisdom.

Colette is such a wonderful writer that these bits are compelling and entertaining, even though they don’t follow a story arc and appear to be random musings. My Mother’s House & Sido evokes a lost world that seeped into the consciousness of a prolific writer, along with the scents, sights and sounds associated with an idyllic childhood and the woman at the center of Colette’s early memories.

My Mother’s House and Sido   Colette | Farrar, Straus and Giroux   1995

The Map and the Territory – Michel Houellebecq

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Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory is an oddly gripping story about an artist, Jed Martin, who allows life, love, inspiration, acclaim and skyrocketing market value to come to him. His is an unintentionally Zen existence; he remains detached from competition, much of the art world, the mundane irritations of daily living and even the day’s news.  Martin meets the love of his life, Olga, when she is working in Paris for the Michelin company. At the time, Martin is making photographs of Michelin maps and an exhibition that Olga helps to arrange puts him on the map and lands him a gallery. When Olga is transferred to Russia, Martin stays in Paris.

His mother’s suicide when he was young, his renowned architect father’s preoccupation with his work, his own ambivalence about pursuing anything—or anyone—instill in him a habit of silence and solitude that enhances his artistic reputation. Martin spends long years developing new directions for his art and then reveals a body of work when he has exhausted the medium. He progresses from photographs of industrial objects to photographs of road maps to painted portraits of people who typify professions. Subjects of the portraits that cause a sensation and boost prices for his work range from a prostitute to Martin’s father on the eve of his retirement from his successful architecture firm to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs discussing the future of technology to a reclusive famous writer—named Michel Houellebecq—whom Martin engages to write program notes for an exhibit, paints for his final portrait in the series, and attempts to befriend as a fellow seeker of truth and artistic mentor.

The real Houellebecq traces the arc of Martin’s life as fame overtakes him. The artist remains impassive, noting each time an event or a relationship comes to an end for him that this will be the last time he paints a portrait, sees a lover, speaks to his father, visits a friend. Occasionally he relapses into art making. More often he gets lost in his own thinking. One day he is enlisted by the police to help solve a gruesome and baffling crime—and this only adds to his wealth, his isolation and his mystique.

The Map and the Territory is a wonderful novel–it won the 2010 Prix Goncourt and a raft of enthusiastic reviews. I hated to put it aside when real life interfered and I was fascinated by Jed Martin and his search for meaning. The descriptions of places and people are beautifully rendered, the humor is intelligent, the skewering of society is performed by a master. This book was a pure pleasure to read in a day—I wish all of the books I encountered reached the level of Houellebecq’s and I will search out more of his work in hopes that it is all this good.

The Map and the Territory   Michel Houellebecq | Alred A. Knopf   2012

Murder on the Eiffel Tower – Claude Izner

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Murder on the Eiffel Tower is touted as an international best seller on its cover and the author, Claude Izner, is revealed on the back flap to be two sisters named Liliane and Laurence who are scholars of nineteenth-century Paris and second-hand booksellers on the Left Bank. I settled in for a good old-fashioned read but quickly discovered that the book is as odd and arcane as the byways of Paris might have been at the end of the nineteenth century.

The mystery opens with a preface that describes a murder, linked to Buffalo Bill and a troupe of performers arriving at Les Batignolles train station. The attraction for a ragged bunch of urchins and a motley crowd seems to be the chance to see live American Redskins—not the sports team. It’s a very unusual murder that will soon be followed by more with the same signature. But no one actually spots or links this murder of a poor man to the others that roll out about a month or so later. The Buffalo Bill sideshow is really a sideshow–not central to the plot.

Then we move to Chapter One and some detail about a nanny and three difficult children at the grand opening of the Eiffel Tower. It’s not giving away much to say that the nanny dies. She’s more of a plot point than a person, although her early and well-chronicled entry into the story makes her seem noteworthy at first.

Here’s where I started to lose it and never quite regained a connection with the narrative. The protagonist is not clearly singled out for a while but the cast of characters grows by leaps and bounds. A shocking collapse and death happens in plain view on the tower and it is blamed on a bee sting, however improbable that might seem. A start-up tabloid, staging a launch event on the tower, begins to sensationalize the weird death as a murder.

Soon murders and characters who behave in extremely untypical and arbitrary fashion multiply and a young bookseller falls in lust at first sight with a newspaper artist. For no apparent reason, the bookseller begins to investigate the bee sting deaths as if they are homicides. He also ties them to everyone he knows most intimately, including his selfless surrogate father and the object of his sudden affection, whom he would like to know more intimately. There are tons of tidbits about peculiarities of the time that might be clues, or not.

Maybe the translation misrepresented the original or maybe suspicions, actions and chance encounters with little ground, motivation or foreshadowing are the style of the authors. The illogical behavior of the characters jarred me out of the story frequently as did repeated clunky bits of exposition. It all wrapped up very neatly in the end but I wasn’t invested in the characters and wasn’t impressed with the puzzle and its resolution. It seemed flimsy and fixed and key motives arrived out of the blue at the denouement. Even the authors’ nom de plume and its explanation seemed like a ruse to cover another identity. I did look up Claude Izner and the team has produced a number of nineteenth-century mysteries, at least 10 starring the Eiffel Tower protagonist.

Disappointing. It’s hard to find good mystery series and the historical setting of this one promised an adventure. Didn’t happen for me. The whole thing was too shallow and difficult to keep track of. When I have to work at a book, I want it to be material I decide to master—like particle physics or the evolution of the dynasties of China. Mysteries are for pleasure and escape, like Paris. Murder on the Eiffel Tower failed to transport me to a Paris I could happily get lost in so I probably won’t take Claude Izner’s tour again.

Murder on the Eiffel Tower: A Victor Legris Mystery (Victor Legris Mysteries)   Claude Izner |  St. Martin’s Minotaur edition   2008