Books on postwar France

By Alex Christofi

By Alex Christofi

A Sport and a Pastime: Picador Classic

James Salter

£9.99 £9.29

This romance in the Burgundy town of Autun may be the only erotic novel ever to have been written where the prose is as good as the sex. (“They lie exhausted, side by side, as if just having beached a great boat.”) But it is overwhelmingly a melancholy novel, tinged with loss. “It is not the great squares of Europe that seem desolate to me,” the narrator writes, “but the myriad small towns closed tight against the traveller, towns as still as the countryside itself.”

Never Any End to Paris

Enrique Vila-matas

£8.99 £8.36

The author begins by telling us he was once disqualified from an Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest, much to his chagrin, for not looking enough like Papa. Hemingway reminds him of his youth in Paris, an earnest young writer with a well-thumbed copy of A Moveable Feast, who spent much of his time avoiding his landlady, the novelist Marguerite Duras, to whom he owed a great deal of rent. Despite its wonderful rhythm, it has the whiff of a tall tale. But Vila-Matas would say that “truth is more important than reality”.

Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile

Francoise Sagan

£7.99 £7.43

Sagan was only 18 when her debut novel became a sensation. In the years before the yé-yé girls and sexual liberation of the 60s, it was remarkable for presenting an emancipated young woman – albeit one who has an oddly Oedipal relationship with her father – living the high life on the Riviera. The novel is jammed awkwardly into the form of a Wildean morality tale, but the sins are related with such gusto that no one ever remembers the moral.

On Leave

Daniel Anselme

£9.99 £9.29

Daniel Anselme was a bon viveur who, one academic notes, was “often compared to Balzac for his corpulence, not the body of his work”. He could generally be found draped over a chair in a Left Bank cafe, chatting to whoever came in, from existentialists to army conscripts. These conversations led him to write On Leave, which follows three conscripts on 10 days’ leave from the Algerian war who find themselves strangers in their own country. The novel is driven by dialogue so natural you feel as if you are chatting with friends.

Georges Perec: An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

Georges Perec

£10.99 £10.22

An author sits in a public piazza, on a soggy day in autumn 1974, and jots down what is going on, as it occurs. Putting that kind of constraint – formal and physical – on what an author can say is a bit mad, but it’s an important notion for Oulipan authors such as him. In Oulipo, authors find that formal tricks can show us our world in a way that brings back its colourful, glorious oddity, almost as if looking through a child’s pupils (also, on occasion, writing lipograms, as I just did).

The Dud Avocado

Elaine Dundy

£9.99 £9.29

Some American girls are like dud avocados – they stay green forever – and Elaine Dundy’s heroine, Sally Jay Gorce, is as starry-eyed as the best of them. With dyed hair, wearing a ballgown because her other clothes are in the wash, Sally is a wonderful creation, spilling bons mots all over the shop, a progressive forerunner of Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw (she even has an orgasm). Although it’s sometimes farcical, Dundy once observed that “all the impulsive, outrageous things my heroine does, I did. All the sensible things she did, I made up.”

Nairn's Paris

Ian Nairn

£14.99 £13.94

This idiosyncratic guide to Paris architecture is written by Ian Nairn, a professional drinker and critic. Although his descriptions are precise, his real gift is to peer into the soul of the city. For him, Sacré-Cœur is “a waste of talent” but the Pont des Arts “has the same serial precision and detachment as Monet’s observations of Rouen cathedral in the Jeu de Paume, a mile away – or of Simenon, patiently stalking human frailty in a hundred novels”.

After the Circus: A Novel

Patrick Modiano

£12.99

Set in the mid-60s, After the Circus draws us into an enigmatic romance between a young man just short of his majority and an older woman who seems reluctant to tell him everything. It’s also a great introduction to Modiano’s work, in which memory and meaning often haunts the forgotten backroads of the city. “Topographical details have a strange effect on me,” writes the narrator. “Instead of clarifying and sharpening images from the past, they give me a harrowing sensation of emptiness and severed relationships.”

Let Us Be True: From the Betty Trask Prize-winning author of Glass

Alex Christofi

£8.99 £8.36

My own contribution: a love story centring around a chance meeting in the spring of 1958, set against the backdrop of a modernising, volatile Paris, the Algerian War, domestic political crisis, and the long shadow of World War II.