Stories from Paris – Guest Post by Alex Christofi

Today I am delighted to welcome Alex Christofi to my blog. Alex’s first novel, Glass (which I review here), was longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize and won the Betty Trask Prize. His follow up, Let Us Be True, was published this week (my review is here). In this guest post he shares his thoughts on five real places from the book, and the stories from them that he had to include.

 

While researching my new novel, Let Us Be True, I became fascinated by the history of Paris. Wherever I looked, there were incredible stories to be found, of pioneering gardeners, hidden wine cellars, put-upon architects and bloody clashes in the streets. A few of these stories I couldn’t let go, and they made it into the novel: here are my five favourites.

1 – The Tour d’Argent

Overhead, the clouds bruised and cracked. There was a brief flash of lightning, the thunder inaudible behind the glass. He was in the world’s oldest restaurant, eating duck with a stranger who had just punched him in the head.

This Michelin-starred restaurant lays claim to being the oldest restaurant in the world, purportedly founded in 1582. Their speciality is the pressed duck, which was traditionally eight weeks old, fattened for fifteen days and then strangled, to retain the blood. The wine list is also 400 pages long. It has a great literary heritage, having been referenced not only by Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway, but also the 2007 Pixar animated adventure Ratatouille.

2 – Nanterre

Ralf followed the road, hoping to ask someone for directions. Next to the cleared land of the building site was an improvised town, laid out in rows to give the impression of planning, of order – a place where great pride and care presided over mud and scrap metal.

Nanterre is a fascinating place, though a little off the tourist beat. Once an improvised slum (a bidonville or ‘jerrycan town’) housing poor Algerian immigrants, who sometimes found it difficult to rent in the city either because of the cost or because of the prejudices of
landlords, the University of Paris bought a site there and built a huge brutalist campus, a little like the Barbican, but uglier and easier to navigate. The Nanterre campus would be one of the epicentres of the 1968 student protests, which spread and developed over the course of the spring into full blown riots and a general strike, bringing the whole country to a halt.

3 – The Tuileries

‘You know what they do to silk moths?’ said Elsa. ‘They boil them alive and unravel the whole cocoon using tiny looms.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘No. All sorts of things have happened here. I think it’s untoward for a garden to have so much history.’

The Tuileries in the centre of the city might look like an oasis of calm, but they are probably the most eventful gardens in the world. Named after the roof tilers that used to work there before Catherine de Medici bought the land, the garden was the site of the one of the first hot air balloon flights. At one point, they were vast royal gardens, and the head gardener decided to grow mulberry trees to foster a domestic silk industry there. Robespierre had a weird secular festival there, burning mannequins that represented an idiosyncratic group of sins (one of them was ‘False Simplicity’). It was a Russian garrison after the fall of Napoleon, and was also, at one point, used to store artwork looted by the Nazis – a Monet was seriously damaged in a shootout during the liberation.

4 – the Pont Saint-Michel

A police van pulled up at the far end of the bridge, and another on their side, at the entrance to Saint-Michel Métro.

An innocuous bridge metres from some of Paris’s tourist hotspots, the Pont Saint-Michel was the site of a terrible massacre of peaceful protesters by the police. On 17 October 1961, men, women and children were peacefully protesting against the curfew that had been set for all Muslim citizens. The Algerian War had been going on for years, with atrocious violence on both sides, and trust between communities was at a nadir. Unfortunately, a sub-section of the police were right-wing nationalists – in fact, the head of police at the time was Maurice Papon, who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war to deport Jews. The police violently suppressed the protest, beating people with long white batons and throwing them off the bridge into the Seine. There is no official death toll, but estimates are in the dozens.

5 – the Tour Eiffel

He looked out at the city. The sun backlit the dark clouds in chiaroscuro and for a moment broke through, catching each drop of rain so that the sunlight fell not just on surfaces but everywhere at once, manifested endlessly through the air.

The Eiffel Tower had to turn up at some point, didn’t it? You can’t visit the city without the tower peeking through the gaps between buildings, especially now that it’s equipped with that bizarre light which seems to have been inspired by the Eye of Sauron. Paris is unimaginable without it, but when it was built, poor Gustave Eiffel was the most hated architect in France. In 1887, a group of writers and artists clubbed together to petition against it, competing to see who could hurl the best insult (my personal favourites are ‘tragic street lamp’ and ‘barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments and belittling our works of architecture’). How times change.

 

This post is a stop on the Let Us Be True Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Let Us Be True is published by Serpent’s Tail and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: Let Us Be True

“When he was six years old, he had been taught that compassion was the only quality of any consequence, and tonight he had tied a knot along the smooth train of his life, and it would trail behind him, snagging over rough ground, staring back at him when he stopped to look, no matter how far he tried to pay it out.”

Let Us Be True, by Alex Christofi, is a love story – not a romance but rather a story of survival and its toll. The protagonist is Ralf who meets the beautiful Elsa in a run-down Parisian bar and embarks on an affair.

Ralf was born in Hamburg, the son of Emil – an academic who researched eugenics. Ralf and his mother fled to London as Hitler rose to power.

Elsa, a child of loyal Nazi sympathisers living in Berlin, carved out a life for herself in the aftermath of the conflict. She now seeks excitement but is loath to risk all she has achieved, even for love.

“They had all been prepared to suffer and be ruthless in service of a grand vision of the future, without seeing that all one is left with, in the end, is the past.”

The couple’s backstories provide insight into the life of ordinary Germans between the world wars. Given current events this makes for sobering reading. Emil’s story in particular moved me – a man who produced scientific evidence that nobody was willing to hear.

After serving with the British in the war, Ralf stayed in Paris rather than return to his mother in London. She wished for him to find a wife and raise a family, not appreciating how displaced he felt. In Paris he befriended Fouad, an Algerian Muslim suffering discrimination that the war should have proved indefensible. Fouad’s story is just one tragedy of many told here.

“We may struggle one way but we are all being dragged another by our heritage, by history.”

Ralf falls passionately in love with Elsa but she tells him little of her history or circumstances. When he surreptitiously follows her and discovers the truth it comes at a cost. He descends into a destructive spiral, becoming involved in student agitation, eventually emerging to return to London following the death of his mother.

The writing is poetic in its stark beauty, the phraseology adept and poignant, evoking a past that has been lived, futures lost. The denouement rises from a settling tenebrosity whilst avoiding compromising the preceding character development. Life goes on.

An affecting narrative of studied elegance that seduces the reader despite its dark core. This, his second book, places the author amongst those whose trajectory I will now closely follow. Literature lovers, you want to read this book.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

Book Review: Glass

Glass, by Alex Christofi, is a gentle, intelligent tale that, in the hands of a lesser wordsmith, could have slipped down the cracks of more typical, cheap humour. It is the story of one young man’s attempts to cope in our modern world. The protagonist is propositioned by older women, observes what teenage boys get up to in the privacy of their bedrooms, worries about losing his virginity and then his subsequent performance; yet his musings never descend into the bawdy or salacious. They retain a subtlety that enables empathy; canny observations succinctly expressed.

Günter Glass is twenty-three years old when his mother dies, leaving him to cope alone with a brother who he mainly argues with and a father who has turned to drink. Günter has lost his job as a milkman and spends his days studying Wikipedia in an attempt to further his education. It is here that he reads about a businessman who received an OBE for services to the Queen as her appointed window cleaner. He decides that this could be the career for him.

Günter’s grief following his mother’s death takes him to Salisbury Cathedral where he meets Dean Angela Winterbottom, a lady in need of a worker with a head for heights. It is she who is telling Günter’s story, following his death. Alongside the narrative are occasional footnotes which add a further layer of droll quirkiness to the tale.

Günter’s adventures as a window cleaner lead him into a number of regrettable, sometimes dangerous, situations. After being featured in the local newspaper he is offered a job in London where he shares a flat with an eccentric aspiring writer. Their conversations are sometimes bizarre but also piquant. Günter is aware of his lack of social skills and is trying to teach himself to fit in. His interactions make for amusing if somewhat poignant reading.

The story is told with wit and wisdom. Günter is overweight and regarded by many, including his father, as lacking basic intelligence. He may struggle to empathise with those he interacts with but he recognises the contradictions by which they live.

“It was so hard to act in the world without indirectly harming someone else, or contributing to the net misery brought about wherever humanity flourished. One couldn’t buy from fast-food shops, because they were cruel to chickens, exploited their workers and deforested the Amazon to farm cows, which in turn contributed to global warming with their imperfect digestion. One couldn’t buy cheap clothes because they would have been made in a sweatshop, but expensive clothes played into the hands of the fashion world, which peddled insecurity as their stock in trade. Besides, cotton was too often grown and wasted on T-shirts that were never bought, and fair trade only served to elevate a few lucky landowners. And if you were rich enough to be buying everything fair trade, you probably had one of those jobs that creates inequality in the first place.”

Günter mulls the workings of the world as he wades through each day. He may appear fat, foolish and difficult yet his thoughts demonstrate an acute if blinkered awareness. The Dean adds her own nuggets of wisdom.

“There is a story in the bible (Judges 12:6) in which two tribes are at war. In one tribe, people pronounce a word ‘shibboleth’; in the other ‘sibbolet’. They use this to identify the enemy, and to kill them, little realising the real tragedy that this is the sum total of their difference.”

Günter knows that he should eat fewer delicious waffles, a food his mother offered him, and partake in more frequent exercise. He decides to cycle to work and to visit his lady friend, pondering why people choose to go out running when they have nowhere to be. The Dean’s comment on this thought is typically pithy.

“Sisyphus was a (non-Biblical) king who tried to cheat death and was punished by being made to exercise constantly; truly, a modern parable.”

Although entertaining and engaging the joy of reading this tale was the understated depth and intelligent humour in the telling. Günter is a man derided, largely ignored and misunderstood, who does his own share of misunderstanding even those close to him.

The denouement is fitting, despite its poignancy. An impressive debut and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.