"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.
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".
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
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
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
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:
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:
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.
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.
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Authors Jacques Réda, Julien Green,
Honoré de Balzac,
Jacques de Voragine,
Guy de Maupassant,
Gérard de Nerval,
Théodore de Banville,
Gérard de Nerval
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.