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City of lights … and life – ‘The Paris Hours’

May 15, 2020
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“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

There’s an undeniable magic to the city of Paris. And while there has always been a romanticism attached to it – particularly by folks from this side of the pond – one could argue that one of the peaks of that magic came in the 1920s. The arts were alive and thriving, with expatriated folks from all over the world finding their way to the fabled City of Lights.

In his new book “The Paris Hours” (Flatiron Books, $26.99), author Alex George offers a look at the magic of the city through the perspectives of four people who live there. Over the course of a single day in 1927, he shows us some of the ways that a city such as this one can shine, but also recognizes that a place with so many lights casts a multitude of shadows.

Through the eyes of this quartet, we get a sense of the place in terms both general and specific. We get to know them and the challenges they face even as they cross paths – fleetingly or otherwise – with some of the preeminent figures of the era, luminaries like Proust and Stein and Baker and Hemingway. And yet, titans though those luminaries may be, they serve as supporting characters here, moving in service to the stories of our central foursome as they live their relatively everyday lives.

For years, Camille served as the maid to Marcel Proust. She catered to his whims and shaped her own existence to better suit his idiosyncratic lifestyle. She became a confidante to the great man, perhaps the closest thing to a true friend he had in his final days. Even after his death, her devotion runs deep – much to the chagrin of her husband. In truth, she only ever defied Proust’s wishes once; when he demanded that his notebooks be burned, she saved one out – one that happened to document her deepest, darkest secret.

Guillame is a struggling artist dealing with the consequences of his choices. He is deeply in debt to a notorious criminal; the debt is coming due, and he hasn’t the ability to pay. His only hope is to find a way to sell enough of his work, but there has been no interest – until now. A gallery owner friend has an in with a famous and wealthy American. If Guillame can convince Gertrude Stein to buy his work, he might yet avoid having to retreat to his childhood home, or worse.

Souren is a survivor, having been the only member of his family to successfully escape the Armenian genocide. He makes his living as a puppeteer, putting on elaborate shows in the public square. He retells fairy tales, only in his native tongue (though that doesn’t stop the children from understanding everything), always closing with a particular story that springs not from any book or folk tale, but from Souren’s own tragic past.

Finally, Jean-Paul is a journalist devoted to telling the stories of other people because his own is too agonizing to share. His latest effort is a story about the many fascinating American expatriates currently living in his city. But when he encounters the beautiful and charismatic Josephine Baker, he finds himself not only trying to delve into her story, but compelled to finally share his own. What ensues is … complicated.

On one fateful day, these four lives intertwine and interconnect in surprising and synchronistic ways. There’s far more overlap in their stories than any of them could ever have anticipated, leaving each of them to figure out just how the rest of their lives will play out following their connective, collective fate.

“The Paris Hours” is a lovely and transportive piece of fiction, one that strikes a balance between the notorious glamour and everyday quietude of 1920s Paris. There’s a richness to the setting that captures the mind’s eye, showing us the glitter and the grime with equal aplomb.

Intricately plotted, the book finds ways to build its characters’ interconnectedness with descriptive delicacy. Each of these individual storylines unfolds on its own; none of them actively require the presence of the others to function as fully formed, but the devil is in the details – George incorporates tiny cross-narrative signifiers that unobtrusively serve as connective tissue to guide these characters toward one another, all building to a final heartbreaking collision.

Oh, the characters. Each of these four main players is a fully and beautifully realized person, complicated and flawed and fascinating. They are guided by their individual triumphs and tragedies even as they weave in and out of the other journeys. To my mind, the most interesting story of the bunch is probably that of the puppeteer Souren, but honestly, your mileage may vary – every single one of them has something truly engaging to offer.

“The Paris Hours” is the kind of book that almost demands to be devoured; it’s hard to avoid being swept away by the journeys undertaken by each of these regular, yet remarkable people. Evocative and smartly-paced, driven by character and historicity, it’s a fantastic read. Bright lights can cast deep shadows; Alex George has undertaken to give us a glimpse of both.

“We’ll always have Paris.” – Rick Blaine

Last modified on Friday, 15 May 2020 13:57

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