Paris Street Tales – edited and translated by Helen Constantine

Being the armchair traveller that I am, I do tend to love books that bring a place alive for me – especially when it’s one I’d love to visit but I never have. Maybe that’s why I read so many Russian books…. But putting that aside, I’ve always had a fascination with France, and Paris in particular; in fact, many of the first translated works I read were French (Colette, Cocteau, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus). So I’m probably the ideal audience for the latest release from OUP in their wonderful “City Tales” series.

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If you haven’t come across these books before, they’re a series of collections of stories based in a specific city. So far there have been titles covering places like Vienna, Rome and Berlin, to name just a few. I’ve read, of course, “Moscow Tales”, and also the first covering Paris, “Paris Tales”. Intriguingly, the City of Light warrants three volumes – the first, then “Paris Metro Tales” and now the new “Street” volume – quite a tribute to the appeal of the place! OUP were kind enough to provide a review copy of the latest book for me, and it was a real delight to read.

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Helen Constantine has once again translated and edited this collection and a fine job she’s done. Even on the volumes where the translation is by somebody else, you can see the care that’s put in to collating the stories. In this case, the tales are located in a particular city street, and there’s a little map of the area in the back plus biographical information about the authors.

What’s nice about the format of these books is that they’re so loose they can encompass anything from a classic tale by Maupassant of a lovers’ rendezvous to a very modern 21st century take on the traditional ‘policier’ by Didier Daeninckx. To contrast with that there’s a wonderful Maigret short story where the lugubrious detective solves a crime and dispenses his own kind of justice. The stories range from pure fiction, through reflections on life in Paris, to beautiful descriptions of particular areas.

Some of my favourites included Marcel Ayme’s “Rue Saint-Sulpice”, a thoughtful and intriguing tale about a man who takes his job a little too seriously; Roland Dorgeles’ “Rooftop Over the Champs-Elysees”, a beautiful memoir of his apartment in the city and the changes he’s seen; and of course the always wonderful Colette, with a typically idiosyncratic report of a crowd’s reaction to a hold up from her journalistic days. These are just a few highlights of what is a really marvellous collection with myriad riches to choose from. The last work in the book, “Rue de la Vieille Lanterne” by David Constantine, is the only one not translated and it was specially commissioned for the book. It’s a beautiful and moving retelling of the last days of the great French poet Gerard de Nerval and it’s evocative and poignant.

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This was such a wonderful collection of stories; the variety of styles and genres, the different locations and the excellent choice of authors really brought the streets of Paris alive. And despite its chunky length (272 pages in all), I got to the end of it and wanted more! I decided I really need to read the “Metro” volume as well, and then a little voice niggled in my head – and when I checked I found I do actually have it!

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So that was a close shave as I could well have ended up with duplicate books again. As it is, I have more wonderful tales of Paris to look forward to, and more happy armchair travel!

(Review copy kindly provided by OUP, for which many thanks!)

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