Roaming the streets of Paris


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.


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.


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.


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!


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!)

Back into the Swing of Things


Getting my head round book reviews has not been uppermost in my mind lately, owing to life rather getting in the way of everything. But I *have* been reading (books having always been my coping mechanism) and I thought I would catch up with a couple of very disparate books I encountered recently.

Paris Tales ed Helen Constantine

paris tales

I read and loved Constantine’s “Moscow Tales” collection earlier this year, so it was a cinch that I’d want to follow up with her volume about Paris. I’ve not yet made it over the channel to the City of Light (though that’s on the bucket list) but I do have an eternal fascination with it, alongside my love of French authors). And “Paris Tales” is stuffed full of delights.

The book is structured around the various arrondissements (or districts of the city) and there’s a little map in the back showing which area relates to which story. Each tale has an individual photograph at the start to illustrate it, and it’s touches like these (and the quality printing/paper) which help to make the books in this series so special. “Paris” contains two works by Maupassant, who I’ve been meaning to read for decades and the first (which also opens the book), entitled “Nightmare”, is gripping and actually really scary. There are short texts by the always-wonderful Colette, which cover Montmartre and nature in Paris. And the book also has a story by my beloved Georges Perec, “The Runaway”. I’ve read the latter before but the impact isn’t lessened at all on revisiting this incredibly moving autobiographical tale of a young boy adrift in Paris – the ending is particularly emotive. There are also pieces by Gerard de Nerval, Balzac and Zola (to name but a few), all excellent.


But one of the joys of these collections is encountering authors new to you, and there were several here that I really enjoyed. However, the most stunning was “Blind Experiment” by Hugo Marsan; wonderfully written, evocative and going where you least expected it, this was one of those stories that took your breath away and sent you back to read over it again. I shan’t say much about the actual plot (with short stories, there’s such a risk of giving too much away ), but I’d urge any fiction lover to read it.

“Paris Tales” was perhaps not quite so strong a collection as the Moscow volume but still extremely enjoyable and I particularly loved discovering the Marsan story. Constantine’s collected together a wonderful and vivid set of stories and I’m even more eager to explore further cities, as I know several more volumes are available…. 🙂

Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars

dan yack

So when was it that Blaise Cendrars first strolled into my line of vision? I can’t recall – but I suspect it was in the 1980s, in my first flush of big reading. Certainly, I’m sure I had his “Moragavaine” on my wish list at the time, but I couldn’t tell you if I read it. Nevertheless, when I was browsing the Peter Owen Modern Classics list recently (as you do) I spotted a book of his called “Dan Yack”. The blurb sounded absurd and entertaining, so after a little browsing and clicking it was on its way to me.

Cendrars is an odd character (just check out his Wikipedia entry!) Briefly, he was of mixed Scottish and Swiss descent, running away at fifteen to travel the world having a series of picaresque adventures. And indeed, the titular character of this book seems to do much the same thing! The story opens in pre-WW1 St. Petersburg, where Dan has been abandoned by his lover, Hedwige. Wandering drunkenly into the Stray Dog nightclub, where Teffi is performing bawdy lyrics onstage, he passes out under a table only to come round listening to the conversations of the three men at the table – Arkadie Goischman, a Jewish poet; Ivan Sabakov, a peasant sculptor; and Andre Lamont, a French musician.

Yack is a very, very rich man and the three men are poor; on an impulse, he proposes a voyage round the world via the Antarctic, and amazingly enough all three agree. They set sail on a boat called the Green Star, and all goes (relatively) well until they reach pack ice and are put ashore on an island to wait out the long, dark polar winter. And it is here that things start to fall apart…


There are plentiful supplies of the superficial objects they need to physically survive the dark winter; but the four men are thrown back upon themselves and this is what causes the cracks to show. Each man becomes more and more eccentric, with their idiosyncracies becoming more pronounced and their behaviour more erratic. Gradually each man’s psyche disintegrates and whether they will all make it to the end of the winter is unclear.

It’s a wild tale, and Yack is a strange and wonderful creation; obsessed with gramophone records and his monocle, pining over Hedwige, his behaviour is often reckless to say the least. Goischman, Sabakov and Lamont are larger-than-life, caricatures perhaps, but representing the arts – one wonders whether Cendrars was commenting on the nature of art and whether or not it’s necessary to survival. The story is dramatic and unexpected, visceral in places, yet has moments of rare beauty when Cendrars’ writing captures the natural world. All in all, a very thought-provoking work, and I already have the follow-up, “Confessions of Dan Yack”, standing by….

(As an afterthought, as “Paris Tales” contains Colette, I guess that counts for Women in Translation month!!)

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