Each text is paired with a black-and-white photograph of a Parisian street scene or another visual image suggested by the narrative. A Manet drawing of a coachman transports us into Maupassant’s “The Rendezvous.” The front page of Le Petit Parisien, Jan. 7, 1912, introduces Colette’s “Holdup in the Rue Ordener.” The face of a painted wooden Christ casts a sad glance over Marcel Aymé’s delightfully irreverent “Rue Saint-Sulpice,” in which a starving pianist, recently jailed for stabbing a violinist, is hired to portray Jesus in a series of “sacred images” and ends up walking, very briefly, on the Seine.
Zola, Simenon and more-contemporary voices guide our wanderings, expertly translated by Constantine, whose introduction parses the history of Parisian geography. She adds notes, author biographies, a map and a list of resources for further exploration and dedicates the book to the victims of the “unspeakable events” at Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan and other venues, and “to the brave Parisians who, in spite of the threats of barbarians, daily assert their right to walk in freedom in the streets of their city.”
THE MISTRESS OF PARIS
By Catherine Hewitt
358 pp. Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, $27.99.
If you haven’t read “Nana” — or, even more so, if you have and are hungering for a less censorious, more deeply researched and respectful biography of the 19th-century French courtesan on whom that novel by Zola is partly based — this book is for you. In it, Hewitt conducts us up the ladder from grisette to grande horizontale climbed by the self-styled “Comtesse” Valtesse de la Bigne, born Louise Delabigne, illegitimate and impoverished, in 1848. Hewitt’s occasionally colorless prose is counterbalanced by her social commentary — on, for example, the pay for different levels of mid-19th-century prostitutes and the “embourgeoisement” of French theater in that era — and by her protagonist’s labor-intensive irrepressibility.
A gorgeous, smart, ambitious, hard-working, steely autodidact and businesswoman whose product was herself, Valtesse would be totally at home in our self-branding society. She loved, as 21st-century America does, things: “Louis XIV armchairs in cherry-colored silk, luxurious velvet-upholstered seats from the time of Philippe II,” and of course her “throne,” “that famous bed which cost . . . just over half a million pounds in modern currency.” We are taken on exhaustive tours of her “palaces” in Paris, Ville-d’Avray and Monte Carlo, where she displayed the art she so voraciously collected. She collected men too, and women. Her consumerism, her profession, her politics — Bonapartist, anti-Dreyfusard, devoutly colonialist — and the sheer size of her wealth, make her, alas, a woman for our time.
By James Naughtie
322 pp. Overlook, $26.95.
April in Paris, 1968, barricades blossoming everywhere. Riot police cast shadows over the young in one another’s arms, the poems posted on the walls: “Be realistic! Demand the impossible!” This is the run-up to May ’68, when striking French university students, joined by workers, artists and intellectuals, nearly toppled President de Gaulle’s sclerotic right-wing government. It’s fascinating to walk Naughtie’s vividly conjured revolutionary streets, which crawl with diplomats and foreign spies and international reporters like Grace Quincy, a New Yorker writer seen by her colleagues as “a distant star in a trade that still cherished glamour and a feeling for the untouchable.”
The year 1968 marks the frigid middle of the Cold War, and one spring day, the British spy Will Flemyng is “picked up” in the Paris Métro by an East German, who hooks him with the murmured promise/threat “I can tell you something very interesting about your brother.” Thus opens the “game” that provides the structure for this thriller, whose subtext is family. The brother in question shares Will’s profession and his need for concealment. The two remain beloved mysteries to each other and to their older brother, a pensive historian who lives in rural Scotland, beautifully evoked in these pages. The brothers keep secrets even from their boss, the dying spymaster Freddy Craven, a family-member-by-proxy and one of the book’s most winning characters. “What didn’t he know?” is Craven’s recurring question. And ours.