Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > The Emperor of Paris

The Emperor of Paris by C.S. Richardson
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's review
Jan 20, 13

bookshelves: historical-fiction, 2013
Read in January, 2013

Richardson's second novel transports the reader to Paris in the early twentieth century, to the Boulangerie Notre-Dame, a bakery in the eighth arrondissement, in a flatiron building called the cake slice - ironic, perhaps, because this was a bakery, not a patisserie. Here, Emile Notre-Dame, the thinnest baker in Paris, brings his Italian wife, Immacolata in 1901. In 1908 they finally have a child, a son called Octavio, who inherits his father's dyslexia. Immacolata, after praying for years for a child, now finds herself in the grip of post-partum depression, the price, she feels, for asking for a child. When Octavio is still a child, his father enlists in the army after the great war (world war one) breaks out, and together he and his mother - with the help of the blind watchmaker, Grenelle, who lives upstairs - run the bakery. Years later, Emile is returned to them, a shadow of the man they used to know, who barely recognises his family and spends his time sitting in a chair in the cellar where the bread is baked.

After a time, Octavio begins to take his father on walks through the city, a city he's barely ever ventured into in his life before. Over time, they gain confidence, and start going to the Louvre every Sunday. Unable to read, they continue the story-telling tradition that Emile used to do with Octavio when he was little, creating stories behind the photos on the front pages of newspapers. It is there, in the galleries, that Isabeau Normande first sees Octavio.

Isabeau was born to merchant parents who were obsessed with appearances. When, as a little girl, Isabeau suffered an accident in the kitchen and was left with a scar on her face, her mother teaches her to always cover her head with a scarf, and to avoid being seen. She finds work in the basement of the Louvre, repairing old paintings from accumulated smoke and grime, and spends all her free time in the park, reading, losing herself in books. It is there that Octavio sees her for the first time, noticing her because he has a drawing of her hung up in the bakery - a sketch he bought from Henri who owns a bookstall along the river, from whom he's been buying books - he cannot read them, but he loves the colours, and the apartment above the bakery, the stairs as well, are overflowing with books.

It is through a book, an anonymous gift from Octavio to Isabeau, that brings them together, on a fateful day when a fire guts Octavio's home, making the summer streets of Paris snow with paper. The story begins here, and ends here, but it is not a story about plot. I'm not sure you could sum-up just what it is about, except to say it is an artistic piece, a stylistic novel mirroring the art - paintings and literature especially - that are, in a way, its focus. This is echoed in the beautiful design of the book: a small hardcover (the size they used to be, a long time ago), in a lovely read stamped with genie shoes on the front (the one book Octavio owned from the time of his birth was an illustrated Arabian Nights that his father gave him, and it recurs throughout the book - in fact, it's how Isabeau finds Octavio the day his bakery burns). The soft, slightly thick pages are deckled (unevenly cut), and the old-fashioned endpapers perfectly complement the lovely, textured dustjacket:

The Emperor of Paris - endpapers

Everything about this book complements it, including - especially - the language, which is some ways is main focus of the novel, if not the story. It is written in a fable-like, omniscient style, like the dignified, elegant voice-over narrator to a quirky art-house period film. Words are chosen economically, precisely, sparsely, painting a picture in a few deft strokes -

One might have missed the soggy handkerchief, the stained headband, the flushed cheeks; such was the rehearsed swing of Pascal's walking stick. Here was a gentleman, one could assume, overdressed for the weather but still at ease with himself and his world, wanting for nothing. For Pascal Normande was in the business of illusion. [p.29]

I have to admire this kind of prose, which is so deft, so neat, so expressive and contained. But for as much as I admire it, and as much as it can conjure up colourful images in my head, it is still a style that renders me a passive reader, which is something I'm not so keen on. I could only work with what I was given, and outside of those images, the world of this story was a vague grey blank for the most part. The only thing I was actively engaged with, in reading this book, was in keeping track of events.

It is told mostly chronologically, but the story of Octavio and Isabeau's childhoods are interrupted by scenes in the lives of Henri the bookseller and Jacob the impoverished, homeless artist (the one who does the drawing of Isabeau reading), as well as short scenes from a single day in the "present", the day on which the bakery burns, which consist mostly of Isabeau's hasty journey across Paris. Keeping track of the different time periods and the cast of characters' stories (made trickier by their habit of jumping forward in age), was a struggle at times, though it would be a breeze on a second reading.

While the language is both simple and elegant, plain and sumptuous, it has a minimalist feel to it due to the absence of dialogue punctuation. I've read several books that employ this device - one I'm never exactly sure as to the authors' reasons for it - and this was definitely one of the most successful: it was always easy to tell when someone was speaking, and who was speaking, which isn't always the case.

One of the things I appreciated the most were the descriptions of books, and the pleasure Emile and Octavio - who couldn't read - got from books. When Octavio begins his almost obsessive book-buying habit (something I could entirely relate to), he doesn't choose books based on their stories or titles, but on what colour they are, and the descriptions he imagines his deceased father giving them:

Red, the thinnest baker might say. The colour of passion, my boy, of beating hearts and action. They're the bold ones, the reds, sure to be full of adventure. Or we could pick the blue ones, like the wide sea and those mermaids singing us home. Or perhaps the green of the trees in our Tuileries.

Octavio knew his father would assign each colour he saw. The golds would contain tales of treasure hunters and lost cities, the purples would conjur [sic] magic and spirits and fairy worlds. He wondered if his father would have considered black a colour at all. Regardless, he would have started with the red ones.

[...] Imagine a woman, my boy. Watch her as she steps out of a pastry shop. She does not look your way but, oh yes, you see her. Her face, her mouth, the curve of those red lips. You cannot resist. You wonder what would it be like to kiss those lips. As red as raspberries. You bump against her and find yourself sitting in the gutter. The red of raspberries, my boy. That is the colour we'll start with. [p.235]

It is this love for books, as much as the love for art, good food and companionship, that gives this book its heart. Everything is linked, connected - take that final description in the quote above, which is how Octavio's parents met, though this time he imagines it as a deliberate meeting, rather than a purely accidental one. The description of the books continues in a visual image that I found mesmerising:

The reds gathered in the attic, two or three at a time. Soon stacks of books threatened to block the doorways, as though a bricklayer was using them to slowly close up the apartment. When the walls could hold no more, the floors took over. In turn they began to sag, creaking bitterly under the weight. The blues descended the spiral staircase, half a dozen books to a step. By the time they reached the bottom tread, Octavio had moved on to the greens. These filled the kitchen. Piled under the sink, wedged behind the taps, thrown on top of the cupboards, jammed into the drawers, displayed on the table, three deep along the windowsill. Books in shades of gold followed the slope from bathroom to bedroom. A platform of editions bound in grey cloth raised the bed enough that Octavio needed four thick volumes as a stool to reach the mattress. He removed the mirrored door of the armoire so the purple ones might fit inside. The drawer where he had slept as a baby now barely closed, filled as it was with books the colour of wine. There were ones that flapped in the rafters: Octavio tied lengths of rope from one beam to the next and hung them open, gently nesting the rope into the gutter of each volume. [pp.239-240]

When I began reading The Emperor of Paris, I fell into the writing easily and found it light and graceful, like a dance or a landscape. I enjoy stories told like a fable, tracing the generations in leaps and bounds, lighting up a scene here and there that speaks the loudest, so that the pieces accumulate in your mind into something larger, more comprehensive, than the individual scenes. And I didn't mind the lack of focus - in fact, I enjoyed the slower, more gently telling of Octavio's family and his and Isabeau's childhoods and early adulthoods, than the actual plot, the "present day" snippets that show Octavio's bakery burning and Isabeau running through Paris with the book, Arabian Nights in her hand - these snippets are interspersed throughout without warning, in an effort to build and maintain momentum and tension, yet I found them the weakest part of the novel. They were like annoying interruptions, ones that jolted the rhythm of the rest of the story, and it always took me a moment to catch my bearings and figure out where I was now and who the story was talking about. I think I would have preferred it to just gradually build toward their meeting, in a more linear fashion, especially because, in terms of the "past", it took so long for the two to even learn of each others' existence.

This left me with entirely mixed feelings about the book, by the end. In fact, after enjoying the first half so much, the story seemed to deflate like a soufflé at the end - all air and no substance (the cooking analogies are hard to resist, when so much of the story revolves around baking and uses many analogies of its own). I certainly enjoy books like this more in the moment, while reading, than afterwards, especially when it is so hard to grasp the disparate elements of such a stylistic novel, to say what it was that captivated you, and what left you unaffected. All I can say is that, with The Emperor of Paris, style won out over plot, and fable-like story-telling won out over the unexplored beginnings of romance between the two young adults, Octavio and Isabeau, and this left me ultimately less satisfied than I would otherwise have been.
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