France and Spain are occupying my thoughts this month. Any chance I’ll have an air ticket in my Christmas stocking?
Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs (Phoenix) by Jeremy Mercer
Shakespeare and Company is a bookstore like no other. It stands on the Left Bank in Paris, with a view of Notre Dame, and for almost a century its multi-level, labyrinthine rooms have housed thousands of volumes and almost as many struggling artists and writers.
Its eccentric and generous owner, George Whitman (who encourages the myth that he is related to the poet Walt Whitman), occupies a third floor flat in the building. He lives by the rule ‘be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise’ and seldom turns away anyone who asks for shelter. Beds share the space with books; residents squat rent-free in return for helping with chores, occasionally participating in upstairs tea parties attended by bemused book-buyers and mad poets.
The author, a Canadian journalist who has fallen on hard times, stumbles upon this haphazard, unsanitary but heaven-sent refuge. This is the almost-factual account of his time at the shop, the friends he made and his role in reuniting the ageing, failing George with his long-lost daughter and heir, Sylvia. The pace is a little slow at times but it’s an entertaining read and a window into the Paris tourists don’t see. When I get there, the bookshop will definitely be on my itinerary.
Left Bank (Headline) by Kate Muir
After the real-life detail of Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs, this frothy novel set in the same part of Paris is a disappointment. The characters are clichéd and unattractive: Madison, a second-rate film star who started out as a small-town American, is unhappily married to Oliver, a suave French media personality and gourmand whose tastes extend to other women. Their shallow, pretentious lives are upset by the arrival of a new nanny and the brief disappearance of their daughter. Presumably (I only made it to chapter six) this event will make them reassess their priorities and change them into nicer people, but I don’t see that happening in a convincing way.
It’s the self-conscious writing that bothers me the most: useless adverbs (‘“Ahheerggh”, said Monsieur Malin incomprehensibly’); overdone alliteration (‘he disliked the wet-bottomed tedium of toddlerhood’) and what Julia Cameron calls ‘little darlings’ – those oh-so-clever constructions that get in the way of the story. My all-time favourite example of this is on page 45: ‘The noise in the room rose, as drink oiled the chattering classes with their clattering glasses.’
I hate giving up on a book, but there are limits. Tonight I start something more promising …
The Shadow of the Wind (Phoenix) by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Well! After the thin Left Bank, this fat best-seller is overpoweringly dense. Its multiple plots and throng of characters are woven into a story as convoluted and intense as the historically layered Barcelona streets on which it unfolds. Set soon after the Civil War in the sinister atmosphere of Franco’s Spain, the action begins when 10-year-old Daniel accompanies his bookseller father to the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ in the heart of the old city. He may select something from this library of obscure titles (to keep the memory of the author alive), but his choice of a novel by one Julian Carax plunges the boy into a nightmare of lies, betrayal, madness and murder.
Zafon is a master storyteller, and the translation from Spanish by Lucia Graves, daughter of the poet Robert Graves, is a triumph. The book is part thriller, part melodrama, part historical novel and part sweeping saga love story. I wouldn’t call it a fruit salad – that’s too light a description. It’s more like slow-cooked Spanish paella, simmering with loads of ingredients. You start off unsure that you like it (too many flavours, too many narrators, too many tangled stories within stories), but then the tension and tragedy take over, eased here and there by humour and the restorative powers of friendship and love. When you’ve finished it your head hurts, mainly because once you get into it, you can’t put it down.