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Visit the places that come alive in the pages of France’s best loved novels and poetry.
We need not congratulate the French any further on their abilities to make winningly bad pop music, always look good in Breton striped shirts and retire at the age of 52. Far less heralded is how the best French authors have managed to imbue their places of origin into their greatest works in ways that just beg for further exploration. Whether your urge, after reading Madame Bovary, is to seek out the provinces of France that Emma dreamed of fleeing from or whether you desire a night in the bawdy bars depicted by Balzac after reading A Harlot High And Low, here are five of the greatest French literary home towns.
Half-timbered houses lining the banks of the Seine, a towering Gothic church and bijou brasseries; the hometown of Gustav Flaubert plays a starring role in Madame Bovary where bored Emma meets Leon the lawyer inside the cathedral before embarking on a very carnal cab ride around the town and surrounding countryside, a passage which put Flaubert himself in the dock for an obscenity trial which he won. Heavily damaged during World War II, the town today is home to the Museum of Flaubert, a gallery where you can see images of the hospital where his surgeon father worked and the room in which Gustav was born.
More evocative is the Flaubert Pavilion in the small town of Canteleu, about 15 minutes’ drive outside the town. This is the only part of the house where Flaubert worked and lived for around 15 years that is still standing, and it’s full of miscellaneous writing equipment, engravings and drawings that all belonged to the great chronicler of petit bourgeoisie frustrations.
Jules Verne’s Nantes
The father of science fiction would, one would assume, not be too surprised where he to return to Nantes today to see a giant mechanical elephant parading around an industrial wasteland. That is exactly how Jules Verne’s legacy has manifested in the form of ‘The Machines Of The Island Of Nantes’. Located in the middle of the Loire river the 39 foot high elephant (which you can take a ride on top of as it moves around the island) has recently been joined by an immense carousel which visitors can move about amidst a ballet of aquatic animals.
Stay the night in Le Plateau Jules Verne, a collection of Verne themed suites. The De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon) is a delight with a spaceship style sleeping bunks for kids and a stone cellar lined with cabinets filled with ephemera inspired by his books.
The largest city in the Centre-Val de Loire region was strangely modest about its status as the birthplace of one of the founders of the 18th century realist movement in literature until very recently. Balzac’s novels may be full with the noise of rowdy Parisian hotel bars and raconteurs bickering in cafes but the man himself was raised in a typically bourgeoisie household with distant parents who packed him off to live with a wet-nurse as an infant for four years.
Despite this far from loving upbringing Tours was a town he returned to again and again, describing it once as “amorous, buxom, blooming”; the town, and its Gothic Cathedral Saint-Gatien, the Abbaye de Marmoutier, and the grandiose Pont Wilson bridge are mentioned in more than 40 of his works. The most atmospheric spot of all is the Hotel du Theatre. Located opposite the opera house this is the intimate spot (called Pension Le Guay in Balzac’s time) where young Honore learned to read and write between the ages of five and eight. The hotel today has a dedicated Balzac nook where you can sip coffee (Balzac drank up to 50 cups a day) and get cracking on Le Comedie humaine.
There may not be quite so many Gauloises smokers and there are definitely fewer black polo necks on display but the outdoor tables at Café de Flore on the Parisian Left Bank still exude a bohemian air. This is where Jean Paul Sartre, along with his partner Simone de Beauvoir and a motley crew of the city’s intellectual elite would discuss essence, existence and (possibly) the larcenous price of a café au lait in this defiantly unchanging café- still with the Formica and nicotine stained wood interiors that the existentialist thinkers would have known.
From here it’s a five minute walk to place Saint-Sulpice, home to Cafe de la Mairie. This was where Sartre and Albert Camus would regularly meet during their tenures working on the radical left-wing newspaper Combat. It’s also known as the last place they met, a fierce argument in 1951 resulted in the two of them never speaking again. Over in Montparnasse Cemetery lies Sartre’s final resting place. Despite numerous infidelities and fallings out, Sartre and de Beauvoir were buried together (Simone died in 1986, six year after Sartre). You can find their modest grave by picking up a free map from the warden’s hut. The faded sandstone grave does usually have some brash licks of colour on it; lipstick marks from those who kiss the headstone. Hell is other people indeed.
“My house remains for me what it always was, a relic, a burrow, a citadel, the museum of my youth”, wrote the grande dame of French letters back in 1907. Colette’s famously acute vanity and high self-regard suggests she would be delighted by the meticulous retro-fitting of her childhood home in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, 100 miles from Paris, into how it would have looked during her time there.
Away from the salon style furnishings of the house (think pianos, oil lamps and acres of terracotta and marble) the village, in the departement of Burgundy, L’Yonne, is also home to the Musee Colette. Housed in an ancient chateau and opened by her only child Colette de Jouvenel in the 1990s, the rooms are full to the brim with photos of Colette and her family. Around 100km east in the pretty town of Saulieu Colette’s favourite restaurant is still in business. Called L’Hostellerie de la Côte in her time, the name may have changed to Relais Bernard Loiseau but the lusty Burgundian dishes of frogs legs and hazelnut liqueur soufflé are as rich and robust as she would have remembered
Understanding Picasso’s art, Gilot’s memoir shows, is inseparable from understanding both his genius and monstrousness.
Early on in their relationship, the painter and writer Françoise Gilot almost left Pablo Picasso. It was 1946, and the pair had gone from Paris to the South of France for the summer. It sounds romantic and likely would have been, if Picasso hadn’t insisted that they stay in the house he had given to the photographer Dora Maar, his partner before Gilot. Maar wasn’t around, but soon after they arrived, Picasso began receiving devoted daily letters from yet another former lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, which he would read aloud every morning. As if that weren’t enough, the place was overrun with scorpions. Suddenly, Gilot found herself stuck in a “hostile environment,” as she writes in her memoir, Life With Picasso, which was originally published in 1964 and recently rereleased by New York Review Books Continue reading “The Entwined Lives of Françoise Gilot and Pablo Picasso”
Puzzling as it may seem in a country that appears to have so much going for it — fine wines, haute cuisine, high fashion and roughly 1,000 different cheeses — the French are Les Misérables. As author Sylvain Tesson told France Inter radio recently: “France is a paradise inhabited by people who believe they’re in hell.”
Economist Claudia Senik, a professor at the famous Sorbonne University, has studied the French malaise and believes it dates to the 1970s and the end of the “Trente Glorieuses,” the 30 postwar years when France boomed.
“It’s linked to the way the French view the world and their place in it. They have high expectations about the quality of life, freedoms and many values driven by the French Revolution and this sets a high benchmark for satisfaction,” Senik says. “They look back at a golden age when France made the rules of the game, and now we are just another smallish country forced to accept and adapt to rules.”
In her research paper, “The French Unhappiness Puzzle,” Senik found that even when they leave France to live elsewhere in the world, they take their gloominess with them, suggesting it is not France but being French that makes people unhappy.
“I was surprised to discover that since the 1970s the French have been less happy than others in European countries, much less happy than you’d have thought, given their standard of living, lifestyle, life expectancy and wealth,” Senik says. “It’s a problem of culture, not circumstance. It’s the way they feel, their mentality.”
On paper, the French have few reasons to be gloomy: They enjoy free and universal access to an enviable health system ranked first by the World Health Organization, free schools and universities, a maximum 35-hour workweek, six weeks’ annual vacation, paid parental leave and an enviable welfare safety net. Continue reading “Les Misérables: Why are the French, who seem to have much, so quick to protest?”
His figures capture the most universal of human emotions – passion, contemplation, despair. Auguste Rodin is known as the father of modern sculpture, an artist who managed to convey the drama of life in stone and in bronze. His talent and monumental works have been celebrated for a century now at the Rodin Museum in Paris. FRANCE 24 brings you a special programme on Rodin’s artistic legacy.