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by Marc Heberden

“Hermes in Paris”

The English historical novelist par excellence, Peter Vansittart, is a literary anomaly. Despite garnering absolutely dismal book sales figures for nearly 50 years straight, he is a writer publishers insist on publishing.
Why? Because notwithstanding near anonymity, he is one of the most respected and acclaimed historical fiction writers of the 20th Century. Vansittart’s “periods” include 16th century Germany, late medieval France, the Arthurian and Robin Hood myth cycles, the barbarian invasion of Roman Britain, and much more — and all of it done with a beauty of language and a critical accuracy which few writers approach.
In his newest novel, “Hermes in Paris” Vansittart gives us the God of Mischief, Hermes, deciding to amuse himself in Paris in the seminal year (for many things directly related to the making of Modern France) of 1870.
This is the Second Empire when under Napoleon III, urban-renewalist/demolitionist Baron Haussmann dismantled most of medieval Paris. In a coup d’état within his own état, Napoleon had taken ultimate power in December of 1869, convinced of his singular ability to bring forth happiness and prosperity for all his beloved, if somewhat unruly citizens.
Hermes, true to form, is unable to resist the opportunity to set adrift all this titanic project-making. And especially not in Paris, the world capital of luxury, fashion and taste, of which he is particularly fond. “Hermes in Paris” is an unstoppable literary juggernaut, bringing the Haussmannian streets of Paris to life in a way few other writers have ever achieved.
Vansittart writes with all the verve and wit of an Anthony Burgess, the dense inventiveness of a Paul West, the intuitiveness of a Bertrand Russell and the humanity of a Walter Lippmann. He’s almost single-handedly rescued historical fiction from the poubelle of mediocrity.
Why is such an amazingly entertaining literary writer so unknown by the public? In a sense, he resembles that other modern master of historical fiction, Patrick O’Brien, who also preferred a reclusive approach to writing; but where O’Brien worked the lucrative vein of maritime fiction, Peter Vansittart mines more esoteric galleries. Nevertheless, for lovers of fiction, historical or otherwise, “Hermes in Paris” is worth its weight in gold.

Briefly Noted

“The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris” by Edmund White (Bloomsbury, London)
With an outpouring of books using “An American (fill in the blank) in Paris” as subject matter, we are near the point of being able to ascribe this production to an official subliterary genre. But Edmund White’s contribution to this steadily accreting mass: “The Flâneur”— a modestly small volume — manages to bring some freshness to the genre.
That something of White's is “fresh,” naturally comes as no surprise. White is one of those writers who could make interesting an instruction manual for heavy duty equipment. In “The Flâneur,” he takes us for a stroll through some of his favorite Paris haunts.
White whisks us off to unknown little museums and neighborhoods which reveal, as he calls it, the invisible paradoxes of Paris. A true storyteller, the author dispenses vignettes of these less visible sides of Parisian life, the sides contrasting with the bourgeois “pearl gray city of monuments,” and their very quirkiness contributes to weave the true fabric of what the city really is beyond the Michelin Guide.
This is the Paris evoking it’s Jewish history, it’s avant-garde movements, the presence of blacks, gays, minority political movements — including that of Royalists — which are all given due and well informed scrutiny in the captivating and deceptively easy style White brings to his essays.

“The Twilight Years: Paris in the 1930s” by William Wiser (Carroll & Graf, New York)
This is the companion volume to Wiser’s “The Crazy Years: Paris in the Twenties.” As in his earlier work, Wiser gives shape to the essence of the decade through a rich selection of the seminal events, both artistic and social, which developed as the city moved slowly away from the avant-garde artistic explosion of the 1920s, and progressed forward toward the deep shadows of a looming European disaster. For expatriates in Paris, the ’30s witnessed an unraveling of the psychotically frantic optimism of the postwar ’20s. But as Wiser shows, that Paris continued to be the place where the expatriate-fueled revolution in anglophone art remained at its zenith.

“Paris Poète” by Catherine Aygalinc (Hazan Editions)
This book (in French) contains some of best poems and photographs inspired by Paris dating from the early 19th century until today. With poems by Baudelaire, Prévert and Breton juxtaposed with photos by such chroniclers of the city as Atjet, Brassaï and Doisneau “Paris Poète” is truely poetic.

Local authors

“Paris: Birthplace of the U.S.A.” by Daniel Jouve, Alice Jouve & Alvin Grossman (D. Jouve, 9 pl Vauban, Paris)
This little volume is a richly informative and interesting historical mini guide to Paris during the time of the American Revolution. The book constitutes an excellent anecdotal accumulation of addresses, streets and events and a good starting point for anyone interested in exploring America’s r