Monday, April 26, 2010

Ask the Ape!: Paris Edition

Here’s the first edition of what I hope will be a regular feature here: Ask the Ape! (in which readers ply the Ape for bizarrely specific, wildly idiosyncratic, and utterly mundane answers to questions about literature)
Dear Ape-
I love Paris. Miss it dearly and wish I were there right now---and all the time really. What would you suggest to sate my Paris jones?
                                                          Bisous, M. LaFarge
Ah, April in Paris. “I never knew the charm of spring”….anyway. Well, there’s a bunch, way too many to do anything like justice to the question, and I’m going to leave out the obvious (Les Miserables, Moveable Feast, A Sentimental Education, etc). Here are two picks:

A Sport and Pastime by James Salter
Soooo, I’m cheating already. This one isn’t set it Paris, but rather in the countryside outside of it. Sue me. I include it here primarily for the opening chapter, which follows a young American ex-pat on his train ride out of the city for the fall. First line: “September. It seems these luminous days will never end.” Are you kidding me? Have mercy. The rest of the book is stunningly beautiful (and steamy to boot). A quick warning though; Salter doesn’t do the whole la vie en rose thing. The central relationship is difficult and the book is short on sentimentality—but the result is all the more resonant.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Recycling one from the Swiss Army Knife list, but it’s a great little Paris book, set in one of those apartment building-enclaves that inhabit my dream-Paris. Truth be told, I only picked up this one because I saw so many people reading it on the F train and I felt out of the loop (the F train being, after all, a fairly good barometer of middlebrow literary taste). And despite a plot that could reasonably be accused of pandering, I really enjoyed it. Barbery's nimble prose prevents her forays into watered-down phenomenology and aesthetics from stopping the narrative dead in its tracks. For it is the personalities of the two protagonists, a 12-year-old girl and a 50-something woman, that make TEOTH eminently readable. (I need a literary equivalent of the oenophile’s "quaffable," which I understand to mean something like "pleasing to drink." Suggestions can be sent to I think the characters are so good that I'd rather the book just follow them for a while rather than put them through the paces of an unsatisfying plot that, in the end, takes a short cut to pathos. One other aside: why does the 12-year-old have to be 12? She has the inner life of a much older person to the point that it strains credulity. Perhaps it's just that I've had enough of the weirdly precocious child character. Where did this start? It seems a relatively recent innovation. I need a patient zero so we can contain this outbreak. Anyway, good characters, lush prose, an immortal city. Not too shabby.



  1. Dear Ape-
    I reread A River Runs Through It this time every year. I plan to get this year's read in tomorrow on the airplane. I'm looking for an autobiographical read of similar nature... but not A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius which is my favorite example of self indulgence. Montana is not a prerequisite. Thoughtful exploration of why the people closest to us baffle us the most may be a great theme.

  2. Duly noted...stay tuned for next week's Ask the Ape.