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.