ColumnRead a book. Sustain your mind.
From a book lover’s perspective, Paris is a gift that keeps on giving. The city has played host to countless writers and their stories, from the Lost Generation of the 1920s, to post-War Existentialists, all the way through to the present day, as new work set on this classic stage emerges as a matter of annual routine. Indeed, the City of Lights does more than provide a backdrop for many of these efforts, great and otherwise; when treated properly, Paris functions as a character in itself, interacting with plot and people to drive storylines and affect outcomes. In literary terms, both historically and aesthetically, Paris lives.
Last year, like any other, saw its own batch of new titles set in the great city. Of note are Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife (historical fiction answering Ernest Hemingway’s great Paris homage, A Movable Feast) and Lynn Sheene’s The Last Time I Saw Paris, both of which saw critical success. Two other recent novels – Ellis Avery’s The Last Nude and Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing – provide excellent examples of how the city’s presence can inform and bring power to a story’s moral, philosophical and political framework, as well as how the Paris “character” presents itself in two very different eras.
The Last Nude, by Ellis Avery
Arriving in Paris toward the end of the 1920s, 17-year-old Rafaela Fano is wide-eyed and willing to sacrifice her innocence to engage and survive a new life abroad. An escapee from her family’s plans, she has penchant for fashion and genius for getting by any way she can. Her practical efforts soon find her modeling for the great Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempika. They quickly become lovers and their relationship takes its place in local bohemian society, a world fast becoming jaded as its characters begin to achieve notoriety on a European stage nestled and antsy between two cataclysmic wars. From their union emerges some of the artist’s most influential work – a series of nudes that rockets de Lempika to prominence and fortune.
The Last Nude (Riverhead Books, 2012) brings us inside a forge of art and relationships, exploring the trajectories of creativity toward commoditization, and love and lust toward betrayal. The arc of survival and hope, born of the savage events of the earlier part of the century and moving in the inevitable direction of yet another grand pulse of despair, is perfectly set in the waning years of this golden age in Paris. At-once strong and fanciful, Rafaela is caught in an emotional crossfire, trying to negotiate a whirlpool of human instincts and traps as the story foreshadows a cynicism emerging alongside the brutal century. These themes aside, the story progresses firmly throughout – yes, The Last Nude is a page-turner.
You Deserve Nothing, by Alexander Maksik
Alexander Maksik’s 21st century Paris is a flurry of multiculturalism, parties and protest. Politically reactive and morally ambiguous, certitude about anything – from relationships to cultural classes – is at best difficult to grasp. It is in this world that American William Silver teaches his small cadre of sheltered, private-high-school students. Cynical children of diplomats and international jet-setters, they are enamored by every word professed by the Great Man. Struggling with his own difficult past, Silver finds refuge in the classroom, offering his young tribe everything from Romanticism to Existentialism, from Keats to Camus, as a foundation for becoming brave and effectual in a challenging modern landscape.
You Deserve Nothing (Europa Editions/Tonga Books, 2011) looks at the struggle between courage and human failings, between dreams and life’s reality on the ground. As a teacher, Silver effortlessly and arrestingly presents ideal forms and noble questions – notably the great (and some say only) choice of “to be or not be.” As a damaged person, can Silver himself face that question and emerge to lead the struggling youth around him to honor and greatness, or are his own imperfections too deep to stand up to life’s desires and ambiguities (so well-embodied by his adopted city and its moral and political flux)? In You Deserve Nothing, Maksik presents a true and deep sense of dilemma in a way that will have you looking inward, posing fundamental questions of yourself and your value systems.
Editor’s note: News & Culture contributor Scott Adelson‘s biweekly feature, InPRINT, reviews and discusses books new and old, as well as examine issues in publishing.
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Main image: MoonSoleil