Did you know that Hans Christian Andersen spent time in Paris and wrote about his experiences in his diary? I didn’t until I read City-Lit Paris, an anthology of literary excerpts about the city edited by Heather Reyes. And I had never heard of Irène Némirovsky until I read the excerpt from her Suite Française selected by Reyes. It inspired me to read Némirovsky’s book.
Reyes presents 104 one- and two-page excerpts from 79 literary sources in this compilation. She has selected word portraits of Paris written by French and foreign authors from the past and present. Vignettes of Parisian experiences come from the works of Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Cara Black, Stephen Clarke, Marie Darrieussecq, Edmund White and many others.
This collection can serve as an introductory bibliography of books and authors who have used Paris in their writings, and even as a sort of travel guide, with vignettes about Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Canal Saint-Martin, Belleville, the Gare du Nord and other Paris locations. It also provides biographical excerpts, social commentary, observations about food, history and more.
For me, the greatest value of a book like City-Lit Paris is that it suggests other books that I might want to read. Unfortunately, there weren’t too many of them. I found the excerpts somewhat bland. The general reader will take little exception to what is presented in this compilation, but it includes no outrageous humor – not much humor at all, in fact. There are no vivid expressions of outrage about or tolerance for what Parisians experience in their lives in this beautiful and wondrous city. There are no well-written excerpts referring to the arts or politics or other topics that would provide insight into Parisian culture today.
Reyes begins her editor’s note with the statement that Paris is the most-written-about city in the world. Given the enormous body of literature from which she could have chosen, she would have better served the reader by offering selections reflecting a much wider spectrum of writing than those near the unexceptional center. That said, City-Lit Paris works well as a companion to a traditional travel guide and makes great Métro or in-flight reading.
Reyes is the author of Zade, a novel set in Paris, and co-founder of Oxygen books with Malcolm Burgess. Paris is the first in the City-Lit series of destination anthologies.