Writers in Paris – Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke (2008)

No city has attracted so much literary talent, launched so many illustrious careers, or produced such a wealth of enduring literature as Paris. From the 15th century through the 20th, poets, novelists, and playwrights, famed for both their work and their lives, were shaped by this enchanting place. From natives such as Molière, Genet, and Anaïs Nin to expats like Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, author David Burke follows hundreds of writers through Paris’ labyrinthine streets, inviting readers on his grand tour.

Writers in Paris may very well be one of the most enjoyable and interesting books I own, one that you can browse, open at random, read from beginning to end or backwards, it will always be great. I don’t even know where to begin to give you a good impression, it is so full of fantastic details.

Burke organised the book by “regions”, so to speak, “The Literary Left Bank”, “The River and Islands”, “The Literary Right Bank”…

What I like best is that you can either follow the traces of an author, be it a Parisian or an expat, or you can find information on books set in Paris, and read about the places described in novels. Each chapter is divided in sub chapters and Burke will indicate who lived in what street, quote excerpts of letters and diary entries, passages of novels and poems.

In the case of Rainer Maria Rilke, Burke, describes the streets and places where the writer lived

On a first stay in Paris during 1902 and 1903, Rainer Maria Rilke lived in a shabby student room at No. 11 rue Toullier, between rue Soufflot and rue Cujas. The house is still there, neat, cream-colored, with weathered shutters. The Prague-born poet was twenty-six years old when he arrived, unquestionably gifted, but emotionally and artistically immature. To him Paris was a sinister place.

But Burke also explores the streets evoked in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Or he describes, where Rilke found inspiration for one of his most famous poems, The Panther, namely at the Jardin des Plantes.

There are many authors mentioned in the book, some famous like Rilke, Balzac, Sartre, Orwell, Hemingway and others who are less well-known like Lautréamont (One sub chapter is called “Lautréamont and Maldoror on rue Vivienne”). Some writers are named repeatedly because they either moved about Paris quite a lot or because their books are set in different streets, different arrondissements.

One sub chapter is dedicated to “The Noble Houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain”. In this chapter you can find long paragraphs on Proust’s The Guermantes Way or on Edith Wharton’s stay in Paris. But also Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story is set here.

During two years I had an apartment at the Place de la Contrescarpe where Hemingway had his first home in Paris. He describes that stay in A Moveable Feast. I was curious to see who else had lived there at a certain point in time. It seems that François Villon roamed the premises in the 15th century, Mme Vauquer, one of Balzac’s characters, lives here, James Joyce and Valérie Larbaud had an apartment close by. The side streets of the rue Mouffetard, which leads to the Place de la Contrescarpe, are described in great detail in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. I found this particularly interesting as Emma’s has recently reviewed it (here is the review) and I hadn’t even known before reading her review that Orwell also stayed in Paris for quite a long time.

The river Seine and the islands also play quite an important role in many a book like in Zola’s L‘Oeuvre.  Here is a scene in which the mad painter drags Christine to the river bank.

There he stopped again, his gaze fixed upon the island riding forever at anchor in the Seine, cradling the heart of Paris through which its blood has pulsed for centuries as its suburbs have gone on spreading themselves over the surrounding plain. His face lit up, as with an inward flame, and his eyes were aglow as, with a broad sweeping gesture, he said, “Look! Look at that!”

Other famous writers who have more than one entry are Colette, Proust, Céline, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, George Sand, Anaïs Nin and Arthur Miller.

Writers in Paris also contains quite a lot of black and white photos of writers and places, houses and streets.

Here is the homepage of the book with table of contents, lists of authors and some photos.

This is another contribution to  Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris in July.

22 thoughts on “Writers in Paris – Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke (2008)

    • You are welcome. I immediately thought of you when I saw the part on Orwell. And Wharton by the way. I think it is really great, it gives such a lot of information and you also get a good feeling for what writers were in Paris at a certain time,who knew whom… I like to read about the characters in books and where they live. It’s very well done.

  1. I love books like this–I have something similar but it has cities all over the world and the authors that have made it famous. You’re doing such a good job sharing books and films about Paris! I should look to see what else I have as I don’t think I’ll finish the other two novels I have before the end of the month! By the way I gave the title of the book on Quiet Corners of Paris to a coworker as she is planning a trip there next spring–she was excited to look for it, so thanks for the recommendation.

    • I’m glad to heat it. I hope she will enjoy discovering “hidden” places.
      I love books like this one. I would also like to have the one you mention. It is also interesting to see how some writers use their city and others, although they live somewhere famous, will not mention it.
      I was in the mood to do French/Paris post and I could have done a lot more.

  2. I hunted down Lautréamont’s lodgings on my first visit to Paris. Will have to visit his birthplace in Montevideo next. That’s a much longer flight, though. Sounds like a fun book, as are most books about Paris in my imagination.

    • It is a fun book. I followed the paths of other writers, especially Nerval and Henry Miller (odd combination) but now that I have the book I will look for other places. I would have thought that flying to Montevideo is about as far as flying to Paris for you. Shows I’m clueless about your exact location.

  3. I live in the Boston area in the U.S. although I’m actually from the other side of the country originally. 6 hours to Paris nonstop from here, about 12 to Montevideo with multiple stops.

    • Indeed…I don’t know why I placed you in the South. It took me 14hrs from Zürich to San Francisco. I guess the Mari Sandoz review did mislead me. I thought from California it would be closer to Uruguay than to France. 6hrs isn’t bad at all.

  4. Like Danielle, I love books like this. Anything that collects great writers together and produces fascinating tidbits about their lives is good by me! I shall have to look this one out.

    • I enjoy it a lot: I like the different angles, either you look for the writer or for one of his creations, in any case, you will find a lot of fascinating details.

  5. I downloaded in on the kindle and browsed through the introduction and the first pages. (It sounds great, really) David Burke points out that many streets in Paris have writers’ names and even the names of controversial writers.

    It’s a tradition in France. I live in a small suburban town of 188 streets (incredible what you can find on the internet). 15 streets have a writer’s name. And it’s interesting to see which writers are chosen:

    Rabelais, Pascal, Villon, La Fontaine, La Bruyère, Descartes (All 17thC writers. Why not a Molière or Racine street?);

    Lamartine, Hugo, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire (19thC writers but no Balzac or Flaubert)

    Pergaud, Saint-Exupéry, Courteline, Eluard (20thC. Not my top 4 of French writers for that time, except for Eluard perhaps)

    • I’m very glad you like it. I think he did a great job, It’s very interesting, what you write about the street names. I wonder who chooses these and what are the criteria.
      I don’t know which are the controversial writers who gave Paris some of its street names. Is there a Céline street?

      • I don’t know how they choose street names. All I know is that the person must be dead. Usually they choose local writers too, like Saint Exupéry here. I’m surprised we don’t have a Frédéric Dard street.
        For David Burke, my mistake, he didn’t write “controversial” but “naughty boys and girls”, and by this he means: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Villon and Colette. American vision of naughty. 🙂

        • Hehe…. I think Villon may indeed have been naughty… I would have been suprised if there was a Céline street. He is mentioned in the book, of course but I have doubts France would honor him with a street name. I briefly lived at the rue Pixérécourt…. Before moving in I had never heard of him. Quite educational to change apartments in Paris.

  6. Wow, i must find this before I go back to Paris next week. I wonder if I can find it in english??? could be a challenge for my french.. but sounds like the perfect companion for a visit to Paris

    • No worries, it is in English. If you have a kindle you could download it. It is really worth having and so is Quiet Corners of Paris, don’t know if you saw that, I reviewed it the week before this one.

  7. Hi Caroline – thank you so much for participating in Paris in July this year – I wanted to let you know that you have been chosen as a prize winner for our final week – congratulations! Please email me at karen_barrett@aapt.net.au with your address and I will post your prize out to you.

  8. Pingback: David Burke on Writers in Paris « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  9. Pingback: Literary walk in Paris for my book pals « Book Around The Corner

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