Having just written about the informative and cheerfully colourful Guide des Curiosités Funéraires à Paris (Guide to the Funerary Curiosities of Paris), the irony of following up with the extremely dark Die In Paris is not lost on me, but here we go!
Die In Paris is the novelised true life account of a certain 'Dr.' Marcel Petiot, supposed French Resistance hero who claimed he ran an escape network for Jews and others fleeing the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War in occupied France. The real truth lies elsewhere.
He did indeed remove would-be fleers, and their most valuable possessions, from the imminent grasp of the Gestapo, but in a way they could never have imagined, even in their foulest nightmares. I'm giving nothing away by simply quoting from the blurb on the back cover to give you an idea of what was going on:
Dr. Satan? The author leaves us to decide
"A spring night in Paris. The most beautiful city in the world is dark and silent. Uncertainty devils the air. As does normality: War time normality. The Nazi flag flutters from the Eiffel Tower. The Parisians are huddled inside.
"Suddenly the night's stillness is shattered by sirens and excited voices. For days foul smoke has been pouring from the chimney of an uninhabited house close to the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. Police and fire fighters are racing to the house to break down the bolted door. They make a spine-chilling discovery. The remains of countless human beings are being incinerated in a furnace in the basement. In a pit in an outhouse quicklime consumes still more bodies."
"Neighbors say they hear banging, pleading, sobbing and cries for help come from the house deep into night. They say a shabbily-dressed man on a green bike pulling a cart behind him comes to the house, always at dawn, or dusk. The house belongs to Dr. Marcel Petiot - a good-looking, charming, caring, family physician who lives elsewhere in the city with his wife and teenage son..."
Coal and flesh burner in Dr.Petiot's basement
The story starts, curiously, with what seems like the end: the discovery of the bodies. But the doctor has not been apprehended at this point and from here an uneasy investigation is sparked by the collaborating French police, uncertain just how deeply they should dig in case they discover too many more Nazi atrocities which would put their own jobs, and lives, in peril.
From this chilling opening we are taken back to the twists and turns Petiot's childhood and adult life, which allow us to understand, if not sympathise with, how the Doctor's poorly maintained Paris town house could have become the gruesome grave to so many poor souls. Or what was left of them.
What was left behind...
I hardly ever have the time to read such books, but I was intrigued, as Ms. Tomlins obviously was, by this tale of depravity and, fundamentally, madness; or perhaps some form of tightly controlled, compulsive and pure amorality. Indeed, if it hadn't been for the Paris link and the 'true story' aspect I don't think I would have bothered with Die In Paris, but in the end I was treated to a rich double whammy of an experience: a gripping tale in the best tradition of dark crime writing set in the streets I thought I was so familiar with, coupled to plenty of period ambiance and detail from the times of the notorious 'collaboration' I was keen to learn more about, when the French government of the time cooperated with the occupying Nazis.
Although I have no experience as a critic of novels, I can see that the author's voice is highly efficient and the story chugs along at a very satisfying pace. I was toying with the phrase ascetic prose, in the sense that she doesn't at first seem to inject much characterisation to the cold hard facts she presents in the novel. As I got more and more into the novel, however, personalities did start to flesh themselves out, and this very absence of embellishment at the beginning in fact added to the story's compellingness and pace. The focus is firmly on the events and facts, the conversations reported with almost newspaper-like clarity, and we are left, to a great extent, to inject our own emotions and assumptions and, given the subject matter, this isn't difficult to do.
Georgette, Petiot's wife
In fact, this 'permission' from the author to deduce how people are feeling ourselves has actually been one of the most satisfying aspects of the book for me. References are often made to those who wrote about these events later, or who reported on them in the newspapers of the day, and this gives us the impression that we are almost there in the midst of the action.
We finally arrive at the moment described at the beginning, the discovery of tens of decomposing and half-burnt corpses in the Paris townhouse just off the avenue Foch, around two thirds of the way through the book. The rest then concentrates on Petiot's subsequent trial and the tension mounts right up to the inevitable conclusion and we accompany this extraordinary man to his destiny, if not with compassion then with undeniable pathos.
La Maison d'Arrêt de la Santé, in the 14th arrondissement
I wrote this review as I was reading the book and I just finished about five minutes ago. I'm left feeling... perhaps shell-shocked isn't the right expression but it's something akin. Drained, maybe.
The fact that it was a true story; the fact that the author is far closer to Petiot than we would ever imagine; the paper-thin boundaries that sometimes exist between brilliance and pure barbarism... all these things go to make up a read I will remember for a long long time as I troll the streets of Paris looking into the darker corners which are so often more interesting, and more dangerous, than the brightly lit avenues to a city chronicler's eye.
One might be tempted to classify this book with the 'curiosities' of its title; it's not often an entire, full colour, sheeny volume is devoted to the dead. Or representations and reminders thereof.
But at the danger of boring you, Paris is one of the world's great cities of the ceased-to-be. For a start, a lot of people have passed through Paris on the way to the hereafter. For a second, many of them have been famous for one reason or another. And for a third, what has been created to remember them by has often been remarkable in its beauty, artfulness and originality.
This book celebrates all this in the best possible way: lots of beautiful pictures accompanied by fascinating commentaries on the artefacts of the unliving to be found across, and just beyond, the city walls. And all of this conveniently categorised into arrondissements, and then actual cemeteries or other places of eternal rest. Until they dig you up again for one reason or another (not enough room, lease expired, fancy new wing opening in the Catacombes, new shopping centre, that sort of thing) but let's not worry about that here.
To all intents and purposes most of the gems you'll discover within these pages look as though they've been there forever, and as far as most of us are concerned, they'll probably still be there when we next decide to go and track a few of them down.
Of course, ex-humans' mortal remains might not be your thing, and I appreciate that. This is definitely a special interest volume, for people like me who will buy almost any book with 'Paris' in the title unless it also has words like Michelin, Fodor's, Guide, Englishman or Merde, because, umm, I've probably got them already.
But anyway, assuming you've made it this far without rigormortis setting in, let's talk about dead people for a while. Or rather, how living ones close to them have acted after their deaths. Because if there is an afterlife, it's most evident in the memories and acts of those who carry on after the loved one is gone.
Just for that it's always a sobering experience to wander around these places and see, and absorb, just how people have dealt with their loss. And it's not always depressing either. In fact, I've had some of my most profound, and often uplifting conversations whilst wandering around these cities of the dead. Not to mention taken some rather cool photos, even if I do say so myself. And so can you! I include a few cemetery photos at the end of this review taken using a phone camera for my Paris and I blog, and don't see why you shouldn't too. Click on the little photos below to be taken to a bigger version with story.
Cemeteries are great for taking photos! Is it disrespectful to wander around a cemetery snapping away, as someone suggested recently? You decide.
With the dead lies the history of the place, and a book like Guide des Curiosités Funéraires à Paris, which is in French by the way (even the photos), lets us discover some incredible facts and fables about these cold stones and the people below them.
Guess which of the photos below... a) is Baudelaire's grave, b) is a famous inventor's grave, c) is part of a memorial to the deportation during the Second World War, d) is joking about death, e) is possibly a distant relative of mine! Ask for answers in the comments section if you wish.
This book is one in a great series which I'll be revealing to you gradually over the months, are are really some of my Paris 'bibles', if I may put it that way, and certainly at the very heart of my Paris book collection. You might want to start with some of the more accessible walking titles, but if you fancy tackling a few of the city's famous and atmospheric burial grounds, you could do a lot worse than to have a copy of the Guide des Curiosités Funéraires à Paris in your hand as you do so. Let me know what you discover, and I'll go and have a look too!
If you fancy a bit of a slow city show, you can stroll along the Canal Saint Martin a bit, just round the corner from République and the Gare de l'Est, and watch the boats going through the Pont Tournant. There's a fairly regular amount of traffic on the river, as it's one of the main watery gateways to the north of France, and eventually Belgium and Holland, from the Seine. Indeed, it arrives in the heart of the capital at the picturesque Port de l'Arsenal at La Bastille.
I've always been intrigued by how this bridge works, and it was only this August, on a photo tour of the canal, that I was actually in the right place at the right time to see how with my own eyes.
I'd always looked at the place the bridge was split, in the form of two curved lines on the ground, and the space available, and the angles concerned, and said to myself: there's no way that can swivel round anywhere!
Of course I was wrong and it can and it does and it's quite impressive to watch. It actually rotates off to one side to allow the boats to pass through and is a totally different spectator experience to watching lock gates open, which you can also do here too, by the way (that'll be another post quite soon probably, as I dream of fresh spring and summer and autumn days in this cold chilly winter as I type this!).
Hot 'n' bothered tourists, poor things...
Adding to our viewing pleasure is the fact that there's one of those lovely little Eiffel Tower-like pedestrian bridges with big chunky iron girders and knobbly bits all over it right next to the swivelling bridge. This means that you can look down on the whole operation, including the people and cars waiting for the road to open up and it's quite exciting in a laid back sort of way.
On hot days you can half laugh at and half envy the passengers on the pleasure cruisers who are spending their day waiting for various water retainers to open and close. In yet another post I'll be doing something I've been threatening to do for many years: take this very boat right the way from the Basin de la Villette right down to the Basin de l'Arsenal (which hurts a bit as a theoretical Tottenham supporter) actually going under the road for quite a way! Have you done it yet?
Not interested in the Pont Tournant
The canal itself was started in 1802 by Naploeon I to provide the city with clean(er) drinking water, and to make commerce with the north easier. It linked the rivers Seine and Ourcq and was used for transporting stuff like grain and building materials. It was apparently funded by a new tax on wine, and took over 20 years of boozing to build... it's a miracle it ever got built at all when you look at it like that <hic!>...
The canal, especially the portion between République and La Bastille which is now covered, was also a major strategic barrier (i.e. problem) for government troops who wanted to be able to quell disturbances and uprisings in the rebellious eastern parts of the city quickly. Napoleon III just covered it over to solve this little problem, and it remains so today. It almost got filled in during the 60s and replaced with a highway; think how much poorer Paris would be today if they had!
Look, you can spit on people's heads as they go by
The Pont Tournant has a brother, by the way, just down the canal a bit, called the Pont Mobile, which works on the same principle. I must admit I spent about an hour looking at my main picture here and Google maps trying to work out which bit of rotating roadware my photo was actually of.
The Canal Saint Martin really is one of the hidden treasures of the city and I do recommend you have a stroll there, probably when the weather's nicer to make the most of it.
In case you're interested, you can see some of my arty iPhone photos of parts of the canal here, here and here. Comment are always welcome.
I told you about this earlier in the week, and just wanted to remind you, and ask you to help me out with your feedback.
This is the first in a series of photo quizzes I am producing to cover all the major parks and green areas of Paris.
They will all follow the same style and are intended to be used either on your computer for fun at home, or on your smart phone as you walk around the park.
There is a route to follow clearly marked with a starting point and an and point.
You can, however, do the questions in any order and any number at a time.
You click on the blue question mark to make the little question box pop up. You can click on the picture to get a bigger version.
You click on the little happy/sad theatre masks to get the answer and more photos.
The photos can again be enlarged. The photos are by me, and are as beautiful and artistic as I could manage!
The questions are designed to be as informative and entertaining as possible.
What I would like more than anything is some feedback from you guys who have tried the quiz out. Did you like it? How did you do? And is there any way to make the next ones even better? I'm particularly keen to know if this Google thing works on everybody's computer. You never can trust modern technology, can you? Let me know if you can, thanks!
Oh, just one more thing: if you liked this quiz, what would you like me to do next? I have a list of about twenty possible quizzes, but no particular order, so let me know that too, and good luck!
In this post I'd like to introduce you to one of the features of Paris If You Please I'm very excited about: The Bookshop. Unfortunately, in my desperate and probably misguided attempt to have all the above heading begin with 'P', all I could think of was 'Purchaces'. Not very sexy, I agree. Maybe 'Presents' would be better. 'Pressies' too twee. 'Paperbacks' to restrictive. The only thing is they're not presents at all are they, until you buy one and give it to someone!
But the idea is this: an Amazon bookshop stocked with all the best books about Paris, from histories to novels and from walking guides to personal stories. All of these personally picked by me, Sab, the creator of this site and self-confessed Paris book junkie.
The Wonderful PIYP Bookshop. Now with added books.
Now I know you might think I'm just trying to make money from this, but believe me, I'm not. I've spent probably hundreds of hours in the past creating fantastic bookshops and in all that time sold about three books and made about three bucks, which I don't think I was even able to claim!
What I am excited about though is the idea of a bookshop for this site in itself. There are so many, and I mean hundreds of great books about this great city, and I'd love to share a few of my favourites with you. Feel free to tell me about your favourites too! I'm in the process of creating and stocking the various sections, which include:
City Walks & Curiosities
Photo & Picture Books
Fance If You Fancy
Paris Books In French
So here's how it works. I've chosen the Amazon UK store, as it tends to have an excellent range of books, including lots of good quality second-hand ones, often at phenomenally low prices (e.g. £0.01! - you just pay two or three pounds for postage). If you're in France then getting them shipped over doesn't cost too much, but you might want to have a look at Amazon.fr, especially for books originally in French, where the choice may be better.
For customers further afield then Amazon.com or your local one might be a better bet, but I've noticed that the UK store often gives you US options for many of the titles second-hand. Once you're signed in you can just click on an international link to see if there's a better option for you. But my little bookshop here should give you plenty of ideas and if you did ever buy a book or two through it I might get a euro or so from time to time!
Watch out for lots of book reviews here as I can't seem to keep quiet when I've got a great new book about France, and I'm keen to have your suggestions too. Between us we should be able to keep the market covered. And finally, I'd be very grateful if you commented on the reviews, saying what you thought of both the review, and especially the books if you buy them. It's always good to have more than one opinion.
And really finally, I'm not a fan of writing reviews which criticise books unnecessarily. I'd rather be writing about books I love and which I can recommend wholeheartedly, so expect every review to be a potential buy - it's much more fun that way! Pop in to the Bookshop sometime and say hi...
This purposely spooky picture was what I confronted readers of my Paris Photo Quiz a few weeks ago. I wonder how many of you would have knows what it was and where it is too!
Well it's a mire, if you please! And not just any mire, but the mire du sud, no less.
So what's a mire (pronounced 'meer' a bit like in meerkat), you are probably asking. Well, in this case it's a device which apparently helped scientists to calculate the meridian line which passed through Paris and was the equivalent of the Greenwich international dateline today (GMT and all that).
I should tell you at this point that my descriptions of the various weird and wonderful things I'll be telling you about here on this blog will be based on a mixture of my readings, my photos and my own blah-blah and experiences. I could obviously copy and paste vast tracts of Wikipedia kwowledge, but what would be the fun in that?
So all the mistakes and omissions will most certainly be mine, and I'll be quite happy to have them pointed out, corrected and ridiculed in the comments section if you feel so inclined.
Well, having got a bit mired down in that little disclaimer, back to the question at hand. For me, the most intriguing thing isn't the actual original use this thing was intended for. It's the fact that the front of it exhibits a very strange thing: there's a hollowed out rectangle with nothing in it at all! Can you guess what used to be there?
Well apparently it was the name 'Napoleon'! It's just under the words 'du regne de', which basically means 'in the reign of', which goes to show two things. One, Napoleon considered himself as near as damn it to a King, because normally kings have reigns, don't they? And secondly, times were so turbulent in those days that monuments would go up one minute, and be torn or melted down, thrown in the Seine or defaced the next!
The 'reign' of the first Napoleon was indeed surrounded by republics and proper 'reigns' (i.e. by kings and queens) of one sort or another, and here you can see that those who brought him down didn't particularly like seeing his name chiselled all over the place, and removed it.
It also has a far lesser-known sister, on the slopes of Montmartre, and the two were 'observed' from the Paris Observatory, which is just next to the Luxemburg gardens, back in the days when there was a clear view that far. Unfortunately, from our point of view, the mire du nord is in the private garden of one of the old windmills up there and I haven't yet managed to get at it with my lens, but it's on my list!
And if you are into magical mystery tours, then have a look at my 25 question Parc Montsouris Quiz, which is a fun Google Maps adventure.
You click on the question marks for the... questions, and the happy/sad masks to see how you did. And you can enlarge any of the photos you see just by clicking on them. There's a route to follow marked on the map and everything! It looks a bit like this picture on the right, but when you do it it'll be much bigger...
In fact, I'm so excited about it, I think I'll devote a whole blog post to it forthwith. I'd absolutely LOVE feedback, so have a go, see if everything works (it's still kinda 'beta' to be honest) and tell me how you did too! Good luck, and don't cheat unless you have to :-)
Heather is the editor of a new collection of Paris writings, city-lit PARIS, which we reviewed recently. She is also the author of a novel,Zade, inspired by Père Lachaise cememtery, runs her own publishing company, Oxygen Books, and also writes for children.
HEATHER REYES: Always. It's both very beautiful and intellectually exciting. There are always new places to discover, and the bookshops are marvellous. The art, the architecture, the way they display their fruit and vegetables!
PIYP: Could you sum up your own, personal relationship with Paris in a sentence?
HR: Love at first sight - a love that has deepened over time.
PIYP: How have things changed since you wrote your first novel, Zade, set in Père Lachaise cemetery?
HR: With the economic difficulties, there are many more strikes and demonstrations. Back to 1968?
PIYP: How did you choose the final pieces for city-lit PARIS?
HR: With great difficulty! There is SO much good writing on Paris and some was, inevitably, left out (in fact, I’d love to create a second volume).
PIYP: The range of material is quite remarkable though...
HR: We try to make ‘variety’ the keynote in our collections – variety of genre (everything from classic literature to blogs, by way of memoirs, history, journalism, detective fiction, letters, diaries, even the ‘Bluffer’s Guide’ … as long as it’s good writing and reveals something of the city), variety of voice, tone, length of extract etc – so this plays a large part. The pieces also need to fit into the section headings – but these are quite broad and varied so it’s usually possible to find a place for anything that is really good.
As in all our city collections, the emphasis is very much on the modern and contemporary so although we do include pieces by Flaubert, Hugo, Balzac, Maupassant and Proust (there’s no Zola – it was a toss up between him and Hugo), they are very much in the minority.
PIYP: So did you start with your personal favourites and take it from there?
HR: Personal enthusiasms have to play a part: I’m a great fan of Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, Georges Perec and Edmund White, for example, so I made sure they were represented. But, above all, I chose the extracts that seemed, to me, to ‘get under the skin’ of the city in some way. Although some extracts will introduce readers to places in Paris they might not have otherwise visited (such as Colette on Montmartre Cemetery or Jeremy Mercer on the Shakespeare & Company bookshop), the main purpose is to enhance the visitor’s feel for the spirit of the place, to draw attention to the unexpected and deepen the appreciation of what the visitor might already know. We also like our books to be a kind of ‘illustrated reading list’ – and we know that many readers seek out some of the books they first encountered in our series.
PIYP: And I suppose you can't just grab someone else's writing and put it in your book and sell it!
HR: There are practical considerations – like the cost of ‘permissions fees’ … though with the Paris book this was only a factor in one case: it was a real anguish to me to leave out the extract I’d chosen from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, but the fee being asked for was just too great – we couldn’t justify it.
Above all, I tried to imagine I was two different kinds of reader – one who was visiting the city for the first time, and the other who already knew and loved the city and always wanted to increase their knowledge of the place. I tried to put together a collection that would be enjoyed and appreciated by both.
PIYP: That sounds just like this web site! But weren’t you sick of 'perfect bloody Paris' by the end of it? Wasn't there a danger of too much of a good thing putting you off altogether?
HR: Frankly, no! The process of putting the book together just made me realise why I love it so much. And actually it's not perfect, though it is my favourite city. I think immigrants sometimes have a harder time in Paris than in London, for example, and I have included some extracts that, while not horribly negative, convey something of the reality of living in Paris when you are not fairly well off or come from a different culture. The two extracts from Abdelkader Djemaï's slim but very moving novel Gare du Nord are among my favourite pieces in the book (specially translated for our volume), along with the lively piece by the young Faïza Guène (a kind of 'laureate of the banlieus'). Although it’s been wonderful to visit all the other cities we’ve produced books on, I still can’t wait to go back to Paris.
PIYP: Do you have an absolute favourite piece of writing on Paris?
HR: I dread this question! There is so much in the book that I love. But the quirkiest favourite is probably the extract from Raymond Queneau's hilarious novel Zazie in the Metro in which a rather foul-mouthed little girl from the suburbs is being given a tour of the city by her Parisian uncle and one of his friends. They attempt to interest her in the architectural wonders of the city they love (though they don’t know the Panthéon from the Gare de Lyon) – but all she is interested in is riding on the Metro (which, in good Parisian fashion, is on strike). There’s a brilliant film of the book, by the way, directed by Louis Malle.
PIYP: Do you have a personal 'defining' (or memorable) Paris moment, or a place in the city which is special for you?
HR: The statue of my hero, Montaigne, in the rue des Ecoles, near the Sorbonne. I discovered Montaigne's essays when I was sixteen - the Penguin paperback was the first properly adult book in my now extensive library. It also happens to be almost opposite the Hotel Claude Bernard where I stayed with my parents, as a school girl, in 1968, experiencing the unforgettable events in the city that year. I always visit the statue when in Paris and give his foot an affectionate rub.
PIYP: What do you remember from that now historical time?So give me one memory from the student uprising of '68 and a favourite quote from Montaigne...
HR: The students had painted the lips of many of the city's statues bright red: it was the kind of 'carnivalesque' gesture that was in keeping with the spirit of the times and made one smile, even while dodging the scary-looking riot police. A favourite quote from Montaigne - "Without lightness, I achieve nothing" (from an essay on 'books').
PIYP: What are your plans for the immediate future?
HR: We've now brought out six anthologies on European cities, so we thought it was time Oxygen Books went a little further afield. I'm working on a New York collection - and it's tremendously exciting. I'm also trying to find time to do more of my own writing. I have a short book on 'bibliotherapy' that needs a final edit ... ditto a couple of children's books. I'm also part the way through a book on nuns! But running a small publishing company is very time-consuming - but great, great fun. And I'd rather be reading really great writing for our books than spending too long on my own work!
PIYP: Has Paris 'set you free' in any way?
HR: Yes, in two ways. Although I was young at the time, experiencing '68 was important. But reading the work of the Paris-based Existentialists - especially Simone de Beauvoir - was a very 'shaping' experience in terms of personal freedom. And I only have to step down from Eurostar onto the platform at Gare du Nord to feel more tinglingly alive - and free.
PIYP: And just to wrap up, what's your philosphy on life, if you have one?
HR: I tend towards Buddhism. One should try to live intensely in the moment while keeping a sense of the vastness of the universe and beauties of the world, and to keep a sense of proportion on one's own life by being aware of the lives of others with whom we share the planet. (I'm quite political.) I suppose 'social responsibility' plus 'wonder' and 'love'. Probably sounds pretentious, but hey ..
Note: Many thanks to Heather for taking the time to fully answer my questions and give me all the help I needed with information, photos and so on. And particularly for offering three copies of city-lit PARIS as a wonderful prize, which you can still win by leaving a comment on the review here!