One might think that writers of bookish books would go on and on, produce vast treatises on their love of books and literature, but many bookish books are slim volumes.
Though there are long bookish books, like Carlos Ruis Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, and Thomas Wharton’s Salamander.
C.S. Richardson’s novel is not only a bookish book, but also a love story best served with baguettes and brioche.
Nonetheless, the intensity of one passion builds upon the dimensions of another.
The author’s lyrical prose is printed with generous margins, as though a tangible space for readers to dwell as they let the words soak in, so even if the wordcount is slight, the reading experience is expansive.
The use of language is designed to provoke an emotional response in the reader.
Sometimes this has nothing to do with books, as with the following passage, which creates an atmosphere so vivid that if you’re wearing a skirt while reading it, you’ll be tucking it around your body to hold in the heat.
“A December wind armed with ice and knives gathered its skirts in a northern sea. It stepped ashore near Calais, dithered before finding the Paris road, moaned its way south through thick and ancient forests, entered the town of Beauvais along the high street, paused in front of the cathedral, circled the market square, then lifted its frozen hems and slipped uninvited under the door of the town’s only clothing shop.”
And, yet, there are some beautiful bookish passages too.
Take this one: “Sliding his spectacles to the top of his head, the bookseller would plant his feet on the book’s open pages, lift his arms out from his sides and turn his face to the sky.”
And this: “A chance meeting in a little bookshop had brought me out of myself. It made me fall in love and took me across the world with no more effort than walking across a room.”
The vocabulary is simple, but the intersection of themes builds the strength of each. “Books are an amusement for when you are young and in love.”
Even the love story, however, is rooted in storytelling. “Let the story do the talking.”
Letting C.S. Richardson do the talking is not necessarily an invitation to all readers, however.
There is a definite sense of rising tension throughout the novel; as the years pass in some scenes, the minutes slow in others, and the reader does want to follow the more immediate action to its close.
And, yet, the temporal flux will not be to every reader’s taste. There could be as much debate about the pacing in this novel as there is to the question of flakiness in the “perfect” croissant.
For those who are willing to allow the scenes in this novel to coalesce, there is a reward; The Emperor of Paris is rich.
Poetic prose works sometimes find their way onto the shortlists (like Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night, Michael Crummey’s River Thieves) but with the exception of Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, they don’t claim the prize. Nonetheless, the historical expanse of the work and the lush design are in its favour.
A complex structure, which folds in — and rolls out — time and perspectives like a baker works with dough. It’s not linear, and the segments are not identified by either chapter names or placers; readers must determine which characters are at hand and assemble the timeline as they read.
Attention lavished on word choice and sentence structure. All senses involved. “Monsieur told them not as the book might have, but as he saw them, jumping to life before his own eyes.” Emphasis is on the telling, the telling as things can be seen, their existence jumping to life before the reader’s eyes. Simple vocabulary but complex scene development.
Paris, the eighth district. “Two wheels, four wheels, pushed and pulled and pedaled, grinding brakes, wheezing fumes, yelled obscenities filled their ears. And beyond the square the gardens of the Tuileries beckoned, offering a chair or two in the shade, a chance to catch one’s breath after a morning of walking and a minute of braving the mad Concorde whirlwind.”
Primarily though the atmosphere, which is anchored in lyrical prose; the environment in the vivid scenes and the prose will envelop the patient and attentive reader, but will overwhelm those who prefer plot and linear story-telling.
You appreciate a book cover that invites the soft undersides of your fingertips to cozy up. You’ve made (or dream of making) literary pilgrimages to bookish places in Europe. You love the novels of Helen Humphreys and those of other poets too. Your clothes fit a little snugger because of your weekly (or daily) pains de chocolat.
I’m reading my way through the 2012 Giller Prize longlist: have you read this novel, or are you thinking about reading it?