Paris Metro Tales
  Translated by Helen Constantine

Oxford University Press
2011







"He had forgotten Tante Suzy, the crematorium, Père-Lachaise, and the expression he ought to assume.
He threw away the rest of his cigar and addressed the person who was speaking to him. 'Oh God!'
'I understand,' said the man in black. 'Do you wish to see her cremated?'
"


Reviewed by Tania Hershman

This delightful anthology of short stories, part of a set that includes Berlin Tales, French Tales and Paris Tales, is specifically focused around the Paris Metro, and provides a handy and informative "Notes on the Metro" section in the back, as well as the usual author bios.  There is something about Paris - a city that I love - and the Paris transport system that seems to lend itself to this particularly well, for this reader anyway.

The stories, some of which are less story-like than others, were written by authors some of whom are still with us  - Marie Desplechin, Martine Delerm, Paul Fournel -  and some of whom haven't been for quite a while, such as Jacques de Voragine, a Genoese priest who lived from 1228-1298, Honoré de Balzac and Colette. All of these authors were completely new to me.

This makes for a very interesting melange of styles and content. As translator and editor Helen Constantine says in her introduction, "the location of some of these stories is actually in the metro itself...but to discover some of these stories, not least because some were written before the metro was built in 1898-9, you must leave the metro behind you and explore the world above ground".

If you are looking for Robert Doisneau-esque "Paris, city of lovers" stories, then this is not the book for you. The city that emerges from these twenty two stories is fairly bleak, often dark as a metro tunnel, fairly violent, with flashes of humour.  This endeared the book to me even more. This, perhaps, is the Paris of its inhabitants, not its visitors.

Jacques Reda opens the book with a beautiful short piece that employs fine details such that it becomes more like a meditation, on the Gare du Nord:
You pass from the old universe of the traveller into the silent flow of the almost abstract modern world; while upstairs, under the glass roof, the great burning steel monsters with the high wheels and the long oily rods chunter rhythmically, the porters in smocks with brass badges shout and farewells are said. Like the untiring waves of the sea to which it is heading, all this ceaseless to-ing and fro-ing continues to burden and cast a gloom over the Gare du Nord.
The second piece is also a description, of St Julien Le Pauvre church, by Julien Green, and then comes the first "proper" story, Summer Rain by Marie Desplechin, a fairly surreal take on relationship troubles which takes a surprising turn into depression, via a walk across Paris which
is more disturbing than reassuring.
 
I really enjoyed Daniel Boulanger's Refined, from which the quote at the top of the page is taken - perhaps a piece of Parisian flash fiction, combining death and food, and with an excellent last line which I shan't share for fear of spoiling it for you!

If It Were Sunday is one of my favourites in this book, by Annie Saumont, now in her late 80s. In the author notes she is described as "the grand dame of the modern short story in French... known for her breathless, stream-of-consciousness style". This is a very powerful piece about two teenage girls on the metro, about friendship and alienation. Saumont's embedding of dialogue into the text with no differentiation and her lack of punctutation adds to the surreality and increasing sense of menace:
He'd got permission to see me every Sunday he yawned uncovering his yellow teeth the decay of the molars the inside of his mouth a purplish pink like the flesh of fat figs opened up by the rain.
This is no fairy tale, but a brilliant, violent story of loss of innocence, or perhaps an attempt to regain it.

Minuet,
one of the two Maupassant short stories included, is quite wonderful: a middle-aged man telling someone of an incident that left a lasting impression, an encounter with a pair of elderly dancers in the Luxembourg nursery gardens:
They moved forwards and backwards in childlike posturings, smiled at each other, poised, bowed, and hopped on one leg just like two old marionettes made to dance by an ancient, slightly broken machine built many moons ago by a skilled artisan, in the style of the times.
Claude Dufresne's Romance in the Metro is not at all what the title might lead you to expect. Boring and methodical civil servant Hilaire Robichon has a surprise in store when, for the first time in twenty-three years, his daily routine is disrupted by a mysterious beautiful woman who shows a great deal of interest in him:
Gathering all his remaining strength, Hilaire still had enough to protest: 'But what will Monsieur Chalabar, my office manager, say?' It was obvious that the mysterious woman cared as much about Monsieur Chalabar as about her first pair of false eyelashes. She was already briskly hailing a taxi and ushering Hilaire, now at the end of his tether, into it.
This anthology, as well as being a wonderful showcase of French short story writing, is a great testament to Constantine's translation skills across such a variety of styles and voices.  While these stories were not commissioned for Paris Metro Tales, and all, of course, stand alone, they work so well together, taking the reader on a tour around this city, overground and underground, and of its inhabitants across the centuries.

I would have liked the inclusion of a writer or two who was born after 1959, to find out what the young French short story writers are up to - perhaps instead of including two stories each by Maupassant and Martine Delerm -  but this is really my only gripe about a very enjoyable and evocative anthology that introduced me to so many French writers I might never otherwise have come across.  


Read a story by Guy de Maupassant from this collection on Classic Reader.com


Tania Hershman is editor of The Short Review. Her first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Tania is currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University, working on a collection of biology-inspired fictions.

Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Chris Beckett "The Turing Test"

Petina Gappah "An Elegy for Easterly"

Sean Lovelace "How Some People Like Their Eggs"

Amnesty International "Freedom: An Anthology of Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"

A L Kennedy "What Becomes"

Davy Byrnes Stories

Janice Galloway "Collected Stories"

Peter Orner "Esther Stories"

Seán Ó Faoláin "Selected Stories"

"The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis"

Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud "A Life on Paper"

Jonathan Papernick "There is No Other"

Edgar Bayley "The Life and Memoirs of Dr Pi"

Anthony Doerr "Memory Wall"

Carol Emswhiller "The Collected Stories"

Rachel B Glaser "Pee on Water"
                     
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Authors Jacques Réda, Julien Green, Daniel Boulanger, Colette, Annie Saumont, Honoré de Balzac, Frédéric Fajardie, Paul Fournel, Martine Delerm, Jacques de Voragine,  Guy de Maupassant, Émile Zola, Gérard de Nerval, Andrée Chedid, Théodore de Banville, Georges Simenon, Claude Dufresne, Cyrille Fleischman, Gérard de Nerval

Editor/Translator Helen Constantine taught languages in schools until 2000, when she became a full-time translator. She has published two volumes of translated stories, Paris Tales and French Tales, and is currently editing a series of City Tales for Oxford University Press. She has translated Mademoiselle de Maupin by Théophile Gautier and Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos for Penguin. She is married to the writer David Constantine and with him edits the international magazine Modern Poetry in Translation.