The Emperor of Paris, by CS Richardson

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The Emperor of Paris opens with a prologue set close to the present in a scene that author CS Richardson will return to often as the novel progresses and his narrative streams come together. The neighborhood bakery is on fire and the regulars have gathered to observe the disaster:

Mark this day, someone says. We are witnessing the devil’s work. Only Satan would burn a library.

The bakery’s more level-headed regulars appear. Some to stand rooted to the cobbles in disbelief, others to pack back and forth, frantic now to do anything that might help their bread man. An old fellow elbows through the mob and pulls at the bakery’s blue doors. The locks hold firm, his thick spectacles knocked askew with the effort. Three or four boys scatter in search of buckets; a fifth runs off to call the fire brigade. An elderly woman shouts the address after him.

For Parisians, the purchase of freshly-baked bread from a convenient nearby source is a daily event — so that aspect of the concern of the regular customers is easily understood. But what is that reference to Satan burning a library all about?

Author Richardson leaves that seed to germinate for some time as the novel then turns back to 1907 and begins the back story of the BOULA GERIE NOTRE-DAME, the N having long since vanished — although its absence has provoked a number of urban myth explanations, if that is what they called the phenomenon then. The bakery occupies the ground floor of a flat-iron building “known throughout the neighborhood as the cake-slice”:

The bakery’s location in a building named for a pastry confection was an irony lost on no one. For centuries there had been an order to the world, a natural division of gastronomic labours. Bakers worked their dough, pastry men fussed with their marzipan. Each kept to his own, begrudging enough if he found himself walking past the other’s shop. To feed your family, you were off to the boulangerie. Weakness for a macaron meant a trip to the patisserie and be quick about it. It was a sensible order: everyone knew to visit a fruit seller when looking for squash was foolishness; dogs and cats in the same litter meant the end of civilization.

The Emperor of Paris is the study of life in a neighborhood, one centred around the bakery and its owner, Emile Notre-Dame, “thinnest baker in all Paris”. His wife, Immaculata, as generously round as he is thin, runs the front shop of the operation and is every bit as much a fixture.

While The Emperor of Paris is 276 pages long, they are generously spaced and the book itself is small — the result is best characterized as an extended novella, so I need to be careful in just how much detail I reveal. Let me scatter a few baguette crumbs instead:

– Each Sunday, when the bakery was closed, Madame would head off to mass and Emile would buy his illustrated newspaper and carefully scrutinize the pictures. It takes a while before the author reveals that Emile cannot read the words.

– Emile and Immaculata produce a son, Octavio, in the summer of 1908: “The morning of the eighth of August found her hard in labor in the cellar of the bakery, splayed on the same table where, were it any other Saturday, Monsieur would have been scoring his second lot of baguettes”.

– When the Great War arrives, Emile will enrol in a burst of patriotism. Immaculata and Octavio, with the help of a neighbor, will keep the boulangerie running throughout the war.

Along the way, the reader is also introduced to another multi-generational family that runs a used-book stall (painted a very distinctive green) beside the Seine. And Pascal Normande, a tailor in Beauvais, who eventually moves to Paris and sets up a down-market fashion shop there. The Normande’s daughter, Isabeau, suffers an accident that leaves her face scarred as a child — she eventually finds her life’s work restoring great works of art as a conservateur in the basement of the Louvre. And then there is Jacob, a sidewalk artist, who paints the Pont des Arts, over and over and over, trying to capture it in all types of light.

And of course there is that question of Satan destroying a library — I’ve supplied enough teasers on that one already.

All those characters and stories will eventually come together, climaxing in the fire that introduces the book. The Emperor of Paris is a sentimental novel and, like most novels based on emotion, readers will either love it or hate it — if the elements I’ve outlined turn you off, don’t even try it. If they spark some curiosity, it is well worth the reading. For what it is worth, it would have made my Giller shortlist — my fellow Shadow Juror, Kimbofo, I am sure would have left it off (her review is here), as the Real Jury did.

One final note about The Emperor of Paris. While Richardson is an author (his first novel, The End of the Alphabet, has been translated into ten languages), his day job is book designing, where he has also won several awards — he designed two of this year’s 13 Giller longlist titles. He didn’t design this book (Kelly Hill and Terry Nimmo get credit for that) but his designers and publisher paid him an homage that has to be saluted. As a physical book, Doubleday Canada’s version is the best that I have seen in a long time, an ideal example of why properly produced books will survive. The cover not only selects appropriate images, it is embossed in a way that rewards the fingers as well as the eyes as the the book is read. The pages are deckled and the endpapers not only feature images there is a nameplate. Most important of all, when the dust jacket is removed, the cover is a suitable reproduction of a volume that is prominently featured in the novel itself.

Only Satan would destroy such a book. Even if you decide not to read it, check it out on the shelf they next time you see it.

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6 Responses to “The Emperor of Paris, by CS Richardson”

  1. www.acommonreader.org.uk Says:

    It sounds quite charmant. Not one for ebook format though! (a terrible shame to miss the deckle edges and the end-covers hiding another book cover.

    I enjoyed the baguette crumbs which gave a very good idea of the style of the book.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: Quite right about the unsuitability of an e-book format (although it is the kind of book that would make for a very good airplane book). And I am glad you liked the baguette crumbs — icing and marzipan just aren’t my kind of thing.

  3. Lisa Hill Says:

    I think any of us who are romantic about Paris will like this one. Alas, it looks as if I will have to wait a while before it’s available internationally, and it doesn’t look as if it has the splendid cover either. Still, although I agree with what you say about how gorgeous covers are what we miss not only in eBook form but also in the penny-pinching practices of too many publishing houses, the story sounds as if it will be more than enough to enjoy.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: Approached with the right kind of expectation (that romantic idea of Paris), I think this is quite a worthwhile novel — no, it is not a great one but it does succeed in what it tries to do.

    And I must say that readers of “real” books in Canada continue to be well-served by publishers here. As much as I might be grumpy about the quality of this year’s Giller list, the physical books themselves are a real treat.

  5. buriedinprint Says:

    This wasn’t my favourite either, but I immediately knew it was going on the “to buy” list for two reading friends who will fall in love with it. His focus on mood and setting does appeal to me, and I do agree that the quality of production is remarkable (I especially like the plate inside the cover created to hold the owner’s name), but the parts I most enjoyed were the bookish bits, like this snippet: “A chance meeting in a little bookshop had brought me out of myself. It made me fall in love and took me across the world with no more effort than walking across a room.”

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