Two Short Books Set In France

What accounts for tastes? The appeal to your senses or sensibilities? The pressure to be a la mode, maybe? Or, because something helps the image of you that you want to project to the world?

There are a few things billions of people like for obvious reasons. Those, we have no need to explain. People’s fascination with Paris, for instance.

I’ve never actually met anyone who said they didn’t like Paris. That liking can range from lukewarm to obsessive, but it’s hardly ever neutral.

I like Paris and “living” there from two to six months across a few years deepened that feeling into love. If I had only known and if (big IF) I had spoken French as a callow youth , Paris is where I would have gone to study and eventually immigrate.

But English is what I learned and when it came time to break away, I headed to the United States. And stayed. So, other than my intermittent visits to Paris, I feed my love with books. Not just on Paris, though. Getting to know Paris also nurtured in me a love of many things French.

I don’t satisfy my passion with just any book on, or set in, Paris (or France). I always look for well-crafted prose and art is often a draw. Guide books don’t interest me, however.

Two not-so-well-known books piqued my curiosity not too long ago. Mercifully, they’re both short, easy to read between the long tomes I sometimes punish myself with.

The first, The Flâneur, is a personal essay by Edmund White on his ten-year sojourn in Paris.Flaneur

What do you do if you want to see the real Paris (not the guidebook city)? You flâner.

Flâner. A French verb meaning to promenade, amble along, without objective, but merely for the pleasure of watching and observing. A man who is thus engaged is a flâneur; a woman, a flâneuse. (Try this, as well, for an image-rich definition.) That is how Edmund White has seen Paris.The many parks and cafés of Paris (not to mention the Pont des Arts) help make this activity a pleasure.

He fills this little book with gossipy, relatively-recent histories of famous artists/writers who inhabited or frequented the places he writes about―Manet, Proust, Collette, Baudelaire, to name a few. Clearly, Monsieur White understands that, while the usual tourist attractions are interesting, the magic of Paris lies in the ghosts/memories of its streets as well as the curious behavior of its residents and tourists. This is also how we see Paris. It is the only way to really know Paris.

White also relates how it was like to be gay in Paris, particularly during the AIDS crisis. I found this chapter quite poignant and eye-opening.

FlyTrufThe second book, The Fly Truffler, is a novel by Gustaf Sobin, a poet who lives in Provence. Here’s the Publisher’s summary:

Philippe Cabassac has fly-truffled every winter since childhood on his family estate. Since the death of his young wife Julieta, however, the truffles come to represent far more than a delicacy for his palette. They trigger now a series of dream visions in which he and his lost wife communicate. – See more at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-fly-truffler-9780747549697/#sthash.308s9iRC.dpuf

Black truffleThe story is a lyrical narrative of the wasting away of two lives, set in the hills of Provence where truffles grow. Luminous prose from a poet oozes across the pages, including his descriptions of the nurturing of silkworms or of the growth of black truffles and its complete dependence on the natural rhythms of seasons.

It took me some time to read this short book because I wanted to relish its language and the metaphors it offered for life, loss, grief, and how we surrender to them.

Still, as sympathetic as I felt towards the main characters, I found myself watching them instead of inhabiting their persona (for those moments of immersion in the book, at least). This puzzled me since Monsieur Sobin’s prose and the images they evoke drew me in.

So, it seems there’s no simple way of accounting for tastes.

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