THE PARIS HOURS by Alex George (2020)
Paris in 1927 was perhaps the most exciting and vibrant city in the world. It was a magnet for talented artists, musicians, writers, and various other creative souls. Hemingway had just married his second wife and birthed a new novel. Gertrude Stein was famous for her salon and for investing in the works of artists on the verge of fame. Young Josephine Baker charmed the entire city with her unique dances. Sidney Bechet and other musicians brought jazz to Paris. The city was alive with talent and the rich and famous; the city so many dreamed of visiting.
There were also ordinary people living ordinary lives in Paris, as people do everywhere. The Paris Hours is the story of 4 such people on a day in 1927. Each one will find the day extraordinary in his or her own personal way. All will interact in some way with one of those famous visitors.
The 4 “ordinary people” are:
Souren Balakian, a puppeteer who plied his trade in a park before an audience of children and lived off whatever he earned by passing his hat.
Guillaume Blanc, a struggling artist who owed a loan shark 1200 francs due by the end of this day. He managed to sell one of his paintings for half that amount to Gertrude Stein.
Jean-Paul Maillard, a journalist wounded in WWI which left him with a limp. His task for the day was to interview Josephine Baker.
Camille Clermont, a married woman originally from the French countryside whose husband arranged for her to work as an assistant for Marcel Proust.
Once readers have met each of the 4, we learn more about their pasts. The author has created interesting and sometimes horrific backstories with the ring of truth.
We learn that Souren was an Armenian refugee who lived alone in Paris for the past 10 years without meeting anyone else who spoke his native language. He loved putting on the puppet shows for children, but twisted the usual happy ending into something completely different and unexpected because he knew those were more realistic.
Souren’s history is that he was ordered by his mother to escape from the death march of Armenians by the Turks 10 years earlier. His harrowing escape and journey to Paris took him away from certain death by the Turks. While he was safer in Paris, he was lonely and re-living the horror of his brother’s death all that time. He had one friend from North Africa, but heard Armenian spoken in Paris for the first time on the day of this story. It was also his dying day by accident at Le Chat Blanc in the horrific manner of his brother’s death.
Guillaume, like so many artists in Paris pursuing their dream, was an impoverished painter perhaps a step or two above mediocre. The day of the story was the day his loan shark had set to be repaid 1200 francs, or Guillaume would suffer the consequences. Broke and desperate to find the money, Gertrude Stein was his last hope for quickly raising that sum by buying his paintings. As it happened, she offered to buy one painting for 900 francs, but ended up giving him half his needed amount.
Later that evening he met a woman friend at Le Chat Blanc, a popular nightclub with a bordello upstairs. He discovered that her young daughter was not sired by him, as he’d thought for years. That left him with no reason to stay in Paris, and every reason to leave it for his family’s home.
Journalist Jean-Paul survived a terrible wound at Verdun in WWI, but was left with a life-long limp. He returned to Paris to his wife Anais and baby daughter Elodie. One day Anais took Elodie with her to sing in a church program, but Jean-Paul stayed home to finish his work and meet a deadline. During that time, a German bomb landed on the church. Jean-Paul could identify his wife in the rubble only by a pin he’d given her. He never found Elodie, either in the rubble or afterward, despite heroic effort. She was lost.
On the day of the book, Jean-Paul had an interview with Josephine Baker at her apartment. It went so well that she encouraged him to bring a book he’d written to Le Chat Blanc that night. She would introduce him to Ernest Hemingway and ask for him to read it. This placed Jean-Paul also at Le Chat Blanc with the other characters.
Camille Clermont was a naïve country girl whose husband brought her to live in Paris. He drove at times for Marcel Proust, and later offered Camille as an assistant to him. Proust was unbelievably eccentric, a hypochondriac, spent most of his time in bed, and was particular about everything. Yet Camille was able to deal with his habits and quirks, and they became close friends over the years.
Proust wrote constantly, filling many notebooks in his lifetime. He demanded that Camille swear to burn them all before his death. She intended to, said she did, but saved and hid the last one in her home.
Camille and her husband wanted children, but it just never happened. One day several years earlier, he came home with a baby he said he found. He had been at the church when it was bombed, but not in the section that was destroyed. The baby had survived, there was no one to take her (that was before Jean-Paul arrived), so he brought Elodie home. They’d always intended to try to find the parents, but each day that passed made it more impossible to give her up. They named her Marie, and never told ANYONE of her true origin…except when Camille told Proust with his promise NEVER to tell.
He didn’t tell anyone except his notebook. Yes, the one that Camille kept and hid without reading until later. She was horrified to find her secret recorded there.
On the day of this book, Camille’s husband sold the Proust notebook before telling her what he’d done. He refused to tell her who bought it. She ended up at Sylvia Beach’s bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, where she learned that Ernest Hemingway had bought it. She, too, went to Le Chat Blanc that night to try to get it back, to no avail. Hemingway had other things on his mind, namely Josephine Baker.
As it happened, the Proust notebook and Jean-Paul’s notebook were both sitting on the table where Hemingway had sat and were identical. Camille took and destroyed what she thought was the Proust notebook without looking at it first. Jean-Paul picked up the other notebook thinking it was his book, found it was not but didn’t read it. He DID find a sheet of stationery inside that might be a way to trace the rightful owner…and we never find out if he learned the secret. Once again, we learn that secrets have a life of their own.
One idea that particularly interested me was the view about Americans. Jean-Paul had come to know many of them during the war and liked them. In fact, he had thoughts about emigrating to America. I especially liked this observation:
“All the Americans he has met in Paris seem so eager to become something other than what they are. Each of them has arrived in France hoping to forge fresh existences for themselves. The Americans’ faith in the regenerative power of new geography astonishes him. It’s a myth, this idea that you can change who you are simply by climbing on a boat or boarding a train. Some things you cannot leave behind. Your history will pursue you doggedly across frontiers and over oceans.” [p. 127]
For me, this is one of those books that stays with me after I’ve finished it. It’s beautifully told, no judgments passed, and I like the way he blended well-known people with an original and clever story.
I must warn readers, though, that because most of the chapters are short and going forward you learn more about the other characters, you’re inclined to think: oh, just one more chapter, THEN I’ll do whatever needs doing. We all know that trap!
Alex George had spent years in Paris during boarding school and later working in a law firm. I think his thorough knowledge of the city and obvious love for it adds to his good stories to make this a book I will remember, read again, and recommend.
This book will be available at the Grover Beach Community Library.