Paris Street Tales edited by Helen Constantine

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Reviewed by Harriet

I live in rural France, and visit Paris from time to time, generally rather briefly. I’m beginning to get the hang of the city and to appreciate the character of its various arrondissements, but I want very much to get to know it better – the place fascinates me as it has fascinated people for centuries. So when I spotted this volume, just published by OUP, I thought it looked as if it would be just the thing to increase my knowledge and appreciation. And I was right.

It turns out that I’m rather late to the party as this volume is the latest in OUP’s series of City Tales, of which two earlier ones are also devoted to Paris. Something to look forward to. Meanwhile, this one, as the title suggests, contains a selection of short pieces that revolve around, or are set in, one particular street in the city. There’s a helpful map at the end, complete with numbers, so you can find the actual location you are reading about.

The contents, whose original publication dates range from the nineteenth century to the present day, are arranged in no particular order, as far as I could see, and include short stories, essays and journalism.  There are some big names here – De Maupassant, Zola, Colette and Simenon among others – but also writers I’d never heard of, and even a specially commissioned short story by David Constantine, who happens to be the husband of the editor-translator but is also a celebrated poet and author in his own right.

It’s always hard to write coherently about a collection of short pieces, but, of the short fiction, I particularly enjoyed De Maupassant’s story, ‘The Rendez-Vous’, which gives an account of a young woman on her way to meet her lover, ‘while her husband, very much a man of the world, was at work in the Stock Exchange’. The affair has been going on for years, and though the Vicomte is handsome, she is frankly bored with him. She makes her way to his apartment with agonising slowness, and is delighted to run into another acquaintance, the Baron, who invites her to come and see his collection of Japanese Art…

I’d never heard of Marcel Aymé, though it seems I should have, but I very much enjoyed his story, ‘Rue Saint Suplice’, about a man who is taken up by a photographer who produces religious images because, poor and hungry, he makes a perfect model for pictures of Christ. Unfortunately, owing to the money he earns for posing, he grows fat and healthy-looking and no longer fits the bill.  

There are a couple of crime stories in the volume. One is very contemporary in date and theme, taking place is the Rue de Degrés, ‘the shortest street in Paris’ and dealing with cyber crime, and the other is a delightfully typical Maigret story by Simenon. The final story in the collection, the commissioned piece by David Constantine, imagines the tragic final days of the poet Gerard de Nerval, homeless and wandering the streets after his release from a mental asylum.

There’s also great pleasure to be had in the non-fiction pieces in the collection. I particularly liked ‘Rooftop over the Champs Elysées’ by Roland Dorgeles, in which the author looks out from his eighth-floor apartment over the streets of Paris, musing on the difference between Montmartre, where he really had wanted to live, and the greatly contrasting area, on the edge of the famous Champs-Elysées, an ‘island of the bourgeousie’, where he was initially surprised to find himself living. It was the view, he says, that he took the flat for: ‘I rented something not mentioned in the terms of the lease: the silence and the sky’. Then we have the flaneur Jacques Réda, who writes that:

On foot or on my bicycle, I am no longer under the illusion that I can do what I please….The streets don’t care who or what, I am, but move, dance about of their own accord – and I let myself be moved along secretly sharing in the fun they are having. They vanish, come back, disappear again. In vain I’ll try to follow one – the two, then three – to compose some sort of itinerary: other streets always turn up and cut across them, taking me somewhere quite different.

This is exactly the sort of aimless wandering that is clearly a requirement for getting to know and understand Paris, with its great history and its many mysterious and diverse corners. But failing the ability to do it in person, this lovely collection will give you a real sense of the city’s character, and I defy anyone to read it without a great longing to get there and explore. 

Helen Constantine has translated all the extracts (apart from her husband’s, which was written in English), and in addition to the map there‘s a useful biographical list of the authors, some explanatory notes, a list of further reading, and attractive black and white photos illustrating all the stories. 

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Helen Constantine, ed., Paris Street Tales (Oxford University Press, 2016). 9780-198736790, 250pp. paperback original.

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