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If New York is liberty and energy, and London is history and hardihood, then Paris is art and inspiration. It’s class over flash, and elegance for the sake of it. Think less urban jungle, and more cosmopolitan garden. This same spirit—somehow both delicate and defiant—is alive in the city’s remarkable literature.
Paris may have produced its own immortal writing talent (Molière, Proust), but it specializes in drawing the world’s literary ex-pats (Hemingway, Beckett) into this dense epicenter of genius. For your next trip to the capital of fashion, food, and all things French, do the city justice with a stroll along the Seine—and make a stop along the way to pick up a distinctly Parisian read.
The Sun Also Rises
Though American, Hemingway loomed large on the Parisian scene of the 1920s. His days as an expatriate living in the Latin Quarter transfer neatly to the pages of The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. The novel also serves as his defense of the post-WWI “Lost Generation,” thought to be permanently damaged and irreparably aimless as a consequence of their sufferings. For Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, and their boisterous friends, Paris amounts to fashionable cafes, seedy nightclubs, and sexual tension. A trip to Pamplona finds them boozing and brawling between bullfights, all chronicled in Hemingway’s characteristically restrained writing style.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Every tourist’s Parisian itinerary includes a stop at Notre Dame de Paris, the French Gothic cathedral that perches proudly on the Île de la Cité. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was Victor Hugo’s love letter to the cathedral, and to Gothic architecture in general, at a time when both needed their very own champion. You’ll recognize many of the characters (Esmerelda, Frollo, Quasimodo) and much of the plot from the Disney classic, but be prepared for lengthy digressions on Parisian history and—you guessed it—architecture.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery’s 2006 dual-perspective novel examines the self-imposed isolation and disguised intelligence of a 12-year-old girl and the widowed concierge who works in her upscale apartment building. Rich with cultural and philosophical references, The Elegance of the Hedgehog combats stereotypes with gentle but intelligent humor and illuminates the conflict between who we are and who we pretend to be. For a taste of modern but inescapably bourgeois Paris, float your way through this critically acclaimed bestseller.
The Bourgeois Gentleman
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name Molière, was France’s answer to Shakespeare—a master playwright and actor with an uncanny understanding of human nature. Like many of his plays, The Bourgeois Gentleman skillfully satirizes both the boorish middle class and the absurd affectations of the aristocracy. Monsieur Jourdain, the eponymous “bourgeois gentleman,” becomes a figurative—and literal, when performed—laughingstock in his efforts to climb the social ladder behind the closed doors of a class-conscious 17th-century Paris.
A Year in the Merde
This laugh-out-loud, hugely successful pseudo-memoir investigates the essence of Frenchness from a (very) British perspective. During a year-long stint in Paris, narrator Paul West recounts his many professional and romantic (mis)adventures, leaving just enough room for political commentary and travel advice. In A Year in the Merde—part cultural lesson, part cautionary tale—Stephen Clarke reveals every expat’s secret conviction: not only is an unfamiliar country relentlessly baffling, but every insight must be gained the hard way.
Great literature does what great cities do best: endure. Paris, and its inimitable novels and plays, are no exception. While you’re there, add some bookstores to your to-do list. Gibert Joseph’s Sorbonne-adjacent flagship store contains five floors of books in both French and English. Better yet, bury yourself in 40,000 stories at The Abbey Bookshop, located in the Latin Quarter. If you find yourself in Montparnasse, duck into Tschann Librairie, where Samuel Beckett was made famous. And whatever you do, don’t miss out on Shakespeare and Company—a tourist destination in its own right.
Jamie Leigh is an obsessive traveller, an avid reader, and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her published works on literature, travel, and pop culture have appeared in magazines, blogs, anthologies, and webzines in the U.S. and abroad.