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The seamy side of pre-Revolutionary Paris @pushkinpress #OlivierBarde-Cabuçon

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Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

As might have been noticed, I’ve developed an interest in, and picked up any numbers of books set during, the French Revolution of 1789 and onwards. However, I realised recently that I didn’t really know that much about the conditions before the Revolution and facts which might have caused conflict. However, a newly translated book from the lovely Pushkin Press arrived recently, and it has much to say about Paris before the conflict – and it seems that it was not a pretty place…

“Casanova and the Faceless Woman” is the first in a series of novels featuring the most wonderfully name Inspector of Strange and Unexpected Deaths – now there’s a job title to covet! The man in question is one Volnay; a strange, reclusive man with a pet magpie, he was appointed to his position by King Louis XV after saving the latter from assassination. So when a nastily mutilated corpse is found just outside Versailles, Volnay is the one to be summoned. Instantly we’re plunged into a mystery, as there is a letter in the woman’s pocket which links her to the highest in the land. It’s a letter that many people want to get hold of, not least the notorious seducer Casanova, who finds the body.

So aided by his Watson, known only as The Monk, Volnay has quite a task on his hands, and things are complicated by the arrival of the beautiful Chiara D’Ancilla, a feisty young woman fascinated by the modern sciences, which we might call alchemy (and also by Volnay and Casanova!) Then there are the royals in their gilded cage of a palace as well as all manner of spies and political factions. There is a second murder, and it seems that there may be more to the crimes than simply the sadistic death of a young woman.

That’s a very simple hint at the plot of what is a very complex book, and it does simply ooze period detail. The narrative twists back and forward with revelation after revelation, and I did marvel at Barde-Cabuçon‘s skill in constructing such a clever plot. It’s not until the end that all motivations become clear and so I was really kept on my toes while reading it. The characters were a fascinating bunch, too, particularly the damaged Volnay who’s the heart of the book, really. His position is an odd one, given that he has a republican past – which makes him an unlikely defender of the king. And certainly he seems to bear no love for the latter and his degradation. Casanova himself is a creep, but one you end up slightly understanding – although he’s incorrigble to the very end and it seems that nothing will change his desperate need to seduce anything female he comes across.

As I mentioned, the book is mired in the era, and much as I enjoyed the mystery, I felt that the book excelled in showing just how decadent, vile and corrupt the old regime was and just how much the French revolution was needed. There are dark topics here, and the darkest perhaps is the behaviour of Louis, a paedophile and despoiler of young girls. There is stark contrast between the luxury of the king and his court, set against the filth and squalor of his subjects; and the political angle of the book lifted it above the run of the mill historical novel.

I did have a couple of minor quibbles with “Casanova…” however. If I’m honest it veered occasionally into bodice-ripper territory, which is fine if you like that kind of thing, but it’s not really my bag. And despite her feistiness, Chiara did end up responding to Casanova just like any other women is supposed to have done, which irked a bit. The subject matter can often be unpleasant – paedophilia and the exploitation of women are not happy or entertaining topics, or ones that always make for pleasant reading; but I’m guessing that it was necessary for the author to show just how rotten the regime was and how Madame Guillotine, when she finally arrived, would be quite justified in her actions…

Anyway, despite those minor niggles, “Casanova…” was an absorbing and intriguing book, combining detection, a fascinating central character and a lot of really illuminating historical detail which really brought the period to life for me. I understand this is the first in a series of seven books featuring the rather engaging Volnay and so I’ll be watching Pushkin’s catalogue to see if any more titles emerge! 😀

Review copy provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

Beginning this Beast of a Book…

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The poetry shelf has swollen recently (*sigh*) with the arrival of this huge, rather lovely but a little daunting book… I was prompted into buying it after watching an odd little documentary series on Sky Arts, all about French artists of the early 20th century. It was a bit strange (very patronising narration and too much animation) but it did set me off digging in the stacks. I was looking in particular for a book of Apollinaire’s poems which I was sure I had – or at least once had – but I really couldn’t find it, and what’s more discovered that I had very little French poetry at all, apart from Baudelaire and Rimbaud (of course…)

Needless to say, I ended up browsing online. There was an interesting-looking Penguin volume of French poetry but the translations were all prose renderings. I have no issue with poetic prose (I love it, in fact) but this didn’t seem quite what I wanted. However, this particular book came up in the searches and so I sent off for a Reasonably Priced Copy and it turned up this week in surprisingly good condition for the cost.

As you’ll see, it’s edited by Paul Auster who provides a loooong intro which I’ve just glanced at, and where he seems to be justifying his choices – which kind of implies omissions. I haven’t read it all, and I don’t know enough about French poetry to know what he’s left out! However, the poems included are translated by numerous talented people, each one credited after the work, and true to my stated intent, I have *dipped* into this book and so far found some really wonderful gems. I thought I would share a short one here, translated by Lee Harwood. I think this book may be the source of many great treasures…

Way
    – by Tristan Tzara

what is this road that separates us
across which I hold out the hand of my thoughts
a flower is written at the end of each finger
and the end of the road is a flower which walks with you

Recent Reads – The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter

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The lovely thing about time off work (in this case for the Christmas holidays) is that I get plenty of reading time – fairly essential when you think of the number of books I’ve amassed recently, and so maybe it’s a good thing this is another gift book (birthday this time).

beautifulwalk
It’s a little while since I’ve read any non-fiction and I was unsure what I wanted to read, so I picked up TMBWITW – and I wasn’t disappointed! John Baxter has written a number of books, but this is the first time I’ve come across his work. He hails originally from Australia but washed up in Paris via England and LA when he married a Frenchwoman and moved there. The book is the story of his walking experiences in the city, and an awful lot more!

Baxter begins by relating a driving experience gone wrong, when he was supposed to be travelling to in-laws for Christmas Day outside of Paris. He soon diverges into his history as a walker (you didn’t in Australia because of wild creatures, you did in UK to get to the pub, and if you walked in LA *you* were regarded as a wild creature!) However, he doesn’t stay directly on topic for long, and his book wanders off, in psychogeographical fashion, to cover the artistic past of Paris, his adventures taking walking guided tours round the city, food and drink, the building of modern Paris, visiting the catacombs, opium, cafes, clubs and much, much more! The US ex-pat community of Stein, Fitzgerald and very much of Hemingway are a regular current throughout the book, but it touches on indigenous French such as Colette and Cocteau; and Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Co is much in evidence.

“You can blame Hemingway for what happened next. Well, not personally. He had after all been dead since 1961. But his celebrations of hunting, shooting, fishing, bullfighting and war popularized the conviction that a writer should be a person of action as well as ideas. Numerous authors, inspired by his stories of safaris, boxing matches and battle, had been gored, shot, knocked insensible, or (not least) left with horrific hangovers trying to prove they were his equal.”

This is a pure gem of a book; Baxter obviously knows his stuff, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with his erudition. The book is incredibly well-written and readable, a beguiling mixture of fact and personal anecdote and also very, very funny. It actually tells you an awful lot about Paris, but in a fun, entertaining way and I just couldn’t put it down.

Baxter isn’t afraid to debunk myths along the way, and there are some nice little photos to illustrate the text. The book is surprisingly wide-ranging, and in a weird case of synchronicity, the place Baxter lived in England was East Bergholt (a village not that far from me) where he knew the guy who illustrated the covers for “Dance to the Music of Time”! How strange is that!

“On the way back [from the village shop] with a bag of groceries, I’d pause at one of its many pubs for a beer or cut across the fields to visit illustrator and novelist James Broom-Lynne, who never needed much excuse to be distracted. He’d designed all the covers for the twelve-volume series of novels by Anthony Powell called A Dance to the Music of Time and some of Powell’s amused weariness seemed to have rubbed off.”

rue maubert part - george hann

The book is categorised on the rear cover as “Travel/Memoir”, which in some way doesn’t do it justice. But it highlights one of the important factors of a volume such as this, and that’s the personal angle. Baxter is a funny and engaging companion on the journey through the physical and historical aspects of Paris, and lets into the book enough of the personal to make us involved, but not so much that it feels like an intrusion. Walking round the city of Paris, steeped in its history, is something of a dream for many readers (me, for one!) and this book comes as close as you can get in book form. Highly recommended!

“A walk is not a parade or a race. It’s a succession of instants, any of which can illuminate a lifetime. What about the glance, the scent, the glimpse, the way the light just falls… the ‘beautiful’ part? No tour guide or guidebook tells you that. Prepared itineraries remind me of those PHOTO POINT signs at Disneyland. Yes, that angle gives you an attractive picture. But why not just buy the postcard?”

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