Ask a Book Question: The 52nd in a Series (Paris Reading)

April 1, 2007 | 10 books mentioned 4 3 min read

Judy writes in looking for something to read on an upcoming trip abroad:

I am going to Paris for a week in April. I want to read at least a couple novels set in Paris before I go. I want them to be contemporary (as in written recently) by a French author but translated into English. Any suggestions?

I’ve read a number of novels set in Paris, and I’ve read some contemporary French fiction, but I can’t recall having read any contemporary French fiction set in Paris. So, to help me find an answer to this one, I turned to the Complete Review, my favorite spot for learning about contemporary literature in translation. After pouring over the French language selections there, I came up with a few of possibilities, but I would encourage those with more knowledge in this area than me to please share some recommendations in the comments.

coverHere’s what I’ve got. Though not technically contemporary, the book that ended up at the top of my list was Raymond Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro. Here’s the book description: “Impish, foul-mouthed Zazie arrives in Paris from the country to stay with Gabriel, her female-impersonator uncle. All she really wants to do is ride the metro, but finding it shut because of a strike, Zazie looks for other means of amusement and is soon caught up in a comic adventure that becomes wilder and more manic by the minute.” I thought this book would work well because it sounds like a light read and because the main character is a newcomer to Paris and thus will bring an outsider’s point of view that may be appreciated by a visitor to the city. The Last Days, meanwhile, is a fictionalized tale of Queneau’s own arrival in Paris from the countryside as a student in the 1920s. Queneau’s The Flight of Icarus is set in Paris even further back, in the 1890s, and is about a French author, who has lost the main character of his book, Icarus, and is searching for him.

coverMoving on to more recent books, Daniel Pennac’s “Malaussene Saga” is a series of comic mystery novels set in the Belleville quarter of Paris and follows Benjamin Malaussene, a professional “scapegoat” who takes the blame for all sorts of problems. The books are quite popular and by all accounts very entertaining. Based on what I know about the series, I suspect the books would likely make good airplane reading. The five-book series begins with The Scapegoat and continues with The Fairy Gunmother, Write to Kill, Monsieur Malaussene, and Passion Fruit. If you are looking for a more serious thriller, Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas may fit the bill. PW says, “A bestseller in France, Vargas’s U.S. debut presents a riveting blend of biothriller and historical cryptology: it takes a close look at the threat of bubonic plague to modern-day Paris.”

coverFinally, perhaps you will want to delve into a novel that provides a picture of Paris that most visitors likely do not see, a book that takes on one of the main challenges facing France today, the influx of immigrants and the difficulties of integrating them into French society. The riots that erupted in the poor suburbs of France brought this issue to international attention last year. In Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow Faiza Guene, whose parents were Algerian immigrants and who grew up in a housing project outside Paris, delivers a story set in those projects that follows a teenage girl named Doria. PW says of the book, “Throughout, the strictures of patriarchal Muslim culture clash with a nascent feminist freedom and Doria’s exuberant, sophisticated teen talk. This small novel reads like a quiet celebration within a chaotic ghetto.”

If anyone can shed some additional light on these titles or has better suggestions, please share in the comments! Thanks for writing, Judy, and have a great trip!

I should have also mentioned: Emre’s recent post about some contemporary French fiction he read.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.