The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson: book review

One of the most resonant phrases ever written is, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’ (Matthew 4:4). To me this means there is nourishment other than the basic necessity of food to keep us alive; there is the nourishment of the heart, nourishment of the mind, nourishment of the soul. To me, it says we are more than merely physical beings, that we are entitled to make the most of our intellect, creativity, spirituality and compassion. Moreover, that we have an obligation to – that we are morally compelled to be curious about the world and the gifts in it – and if we choose not to do this, then we are letting ourselves down in a terrible way.

Reading The Emperor of Paris reminded me of this idea.

This is CS Richardson’s second book (his first was the award-winning The End of the Alphabet). It is set in early twentieth century Paris. Part way through, the Great War disrupts the lives of the Parisians, and then the story resumes with the characters picking up the threads of their lives. But this is incidental.

It is a romance, as one would expect. There is a girl, Isabeau, who reads books in the park and cleans paintings at the Louvre. There is a boy, Octavio, the son of a baker, who inherits his father’s gift for storytelling. There is a terrible fire in the bakery that destroys his library. There are the gossips who act like a Greek chorus, commenting and speculating as events unfold. Anyone who has read Girl Reading could guess how it might appeal to me. All the ingredients are here; Richardson even dispenses with speech marks.

But there are other kinds of romance: the smell of croissants; the bookstalls on the river bank; the colour of book spines; the starving artist who washes his canvases in the Seine and never sells a single work; the young woman who resembles The Spring by Ingres, and yet hides her face from the world with a scarf. The perspective switches, taking in a variety of people with little lives and little dreams.

Sometimes when reading The Emperor of Paris, the images in my head turned into book sculpture. The characters seemed to be cut from the printed page, the landscape they inhabited was novelesque, as in ‘made out of novels’. I mean this as a compliment.

When I was giving my author talks at The Philharmonic in Naples, FL, several people asked me if I had seen the Painting Women exhibition? ‘It’s synchronicity!’ they exclaimed, referring to the epigram in my novel and one of the themes explored by Elaine Newton. Yes, I did indeed see the exhibition, and I thought it was superb. What they didn’t know, however, is that the very morning before I saw Painting Women, the showpiece of which is La Visite au musée by Degas, I had read the part in The Emperor of Paris where Isabeau is given the Louvre guidebook, then goes to visit it for the first time. Now that’s synchronicity.

Reviewing a book you like or respect is a simple matter. You tease out several good points, dotted perhaps with one or two weaknesses, and so the reviewer comes across as impartial, the review balanced. However, if you love a book (or hate it), your review turns into hyperbole. The reviewer’s voice raised in hysteria becomes unreliable.

I declare that I adore this book. It is fragile and beautiful. It aches with romance. It is for art lovers, book lovers and Francophiles. It tells its tale quietly and splendidly.

The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson

Published in the UK by Portobello Books, June 2013

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