‘The Emperor of Paris’ by CS Richardson

Emperor_of_Paris

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 279 pages; 2012.

I love Paris, I love cooking and I love reading. No surprise, then, that a novel about a Parisian-based book-collecting baker would have some appeal. But CS Richardson’s The Emperor of Paris, which has been longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, was a bit like a cake that fails to rise: flat and disappointing. And forgive me for spinning out the baking analogy even further, but the ingredients in this novel just didn’t work — for this reader at least — despite being packed with flavour.

Fable-like tale

Spanning a 50-year period between the turn of the 19th century and the Second World War, and covering everything from war to fine art, book-selling and story-telling, the tale largely revolves around the impossibly thin and illiterate baker Emile Notre-Dame; his rotund and religious Italian wife, Immacolata; and their son, Octavio.

In prose that it is wistful and fable-like, Richardson tells the family’s history running the popular BOULA GERIE NOTRE-DAME (“the N having long since vanished”) in a narrow flatiron building  (known as the “cake-slice”) in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.

In the untitled prologue, we discover that the bakery has burned down and that, somewhat unusually, it contained a vast collection of books —  there are “shards of red leathers and frayed blue cloths, the curled and blackened edges of marble papers” floating in the air. We are left with that picture in our mind’s eye, but must read almost an entire novel — interspersed with “callbacks” as reminders of the fire — to find out how the bakery came to be transformed into one man’s personal library.

Visual quality

There’s no doubt that Richardson, who is also an award-winning book designer, has a vivid imagination. He paints beautiful and evocative pictures, a bit like scenes from a film, on almost every page. This is a  good example:

Near the Métro the young woman pauses for a moment to watch as a man, perhaps her own age, appears from nowhere and greets a lady friend. He hesitates, then leans in to kiss her cheeks. She seems unsure in a pair of new shoes; she nervously fingers her hair. The man’s face gleams with sweat. Tugging at the short legs of his trousers, he offers her a bouquet of drooping flowers. She smiles as she accepts them. The young woman looks away and walks on.

But, for me, this type of writing wears thin, probably because it is comprised purely of functional descriptions — all tell and not much show. It also makes it near on impossible to identify with any of the characters, who seem as interesting as cardboard cutouts (no matter how beautifully described they might be), because you just can’t get inside their heads.  (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which is written in a similar style — chances are, if you liked that book, you’ll like Richardson’s as well.)

And the narrative thread — which is essentially a series of vignettes based on love between people and love of food, literature, art and storytelling — lacked sustained momentum.

Maybe because I came to this book on the back of three brilliant five-star novels — two of which are yet to be reviewed — this one really didn’t work for me. However, if you enjoy faux-naïf tales then it’s likely that The Emperor of Paris will appeal.

Finally, people who appreciate books as objects in themselves will love this hardcover edition: underneath the matt embossed dustjacket lies gorgeous endpapers and handsome red-leather binding. The book pages also have deckled edges, something you rarely see in hardcover books produced in the UK.

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15 thoughts on “‘The Emperor of Paris’ by CS Richardson

  1. Interesting! There are a few Canadian books that have come out in the past few weeks (some Giller, mostly not) that I want, and I’ve been umming and ahing which ones to get and which to leave. The description of this one really appeals, but the first few pages that you can read on Amazon… I dunno, something about them has been putting me off, and I think you have nailed the sense I was getting that here is something very beautiful but quite slight. Maybe I’ll leave this one for now and order Christine Pountney’s “Sweet Jesus” or Miranda Hill’s “Sleeping Funny” instead.
    Both from my own Giller reading (four of them so far) and from your and Kevin’s reviews, I’m still waiting for an exceptional title to emerge. ‘Inside’ comes closest for me so far, but even then I’ve read better Canadian books this year that didn’t make the longlist. I’m also getting the sense that there isn’t much breadth to this year’s list – ‘Inside’, ‘Our Daily Bread’, ‘Y’, ‘One Good Hustle'(which I’ve read the first couple of chapters of), possibly ‘Everybody has Everything'(though I’ve not read that yet)… they all seem to be a similar kind of story.

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  2. Oh what a shame. The whole premise of books and cooking and Paris would have had me wanting to read it as it did you as I too love all three of those things. It is so annoying when a book doesn’t live up to what it sells itself to be, or what the blurb leads you to believe.

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  3. It’s a pity that this one didn’t deliver more than just pretty word pictures… But it’s all surface and not much substance and hence it didn’t work for me.
    I have only read two Giller longlisters so far, so you’re way up on me, and I have to say that ‘Everybody has Everything’ is really rather brilliant. I expected something mawkish and preachy, but it was so good I’m not sure how to go about reviewing it. In fact, I read it before the Richardson, but it was easier to review this one first.

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  4. Sadly, I think the blurb on this one is totally wrong, too. It says it’s a romance between Octavio and a disfigured woman who works in the Louvre, but that’s not really what it’s about. Most of this story is about Octavio’s parents; Octavio’s own narrative doesn’t take off until more than halfway through it. I’m thinking the blurb writer couldn’t figure out what this story was about either, and kind of went for the easy option. It reminds me of when I first began subbing — I was told if I couldn’t think of a headline it was probably because the story wasn’t strong enough, that it needed more work and that it should probably go back to the reporter to strengthen/tighten up. I suspect it’s the same for the poor editors who have to write blurbs for books that don’t really have a strong, cohesive story. It makes it very hard to summarise a story that is all over the place, as it were.

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  5. I enjoyed the author’s focus on mood and setting. Passages like this really worked for me: “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.”
    And, yet, I didn’t fall in love with it either (except for the most bookish bits). Still, I immediately thought of two friends who would, I think, absolutely adore it.
    I haven’t read his first novel, but I’ve heard several extreme opinions about it too, some readers completely sinking in and others stuck on the surface.

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  6. Funny, isn’t it, how despite the focus on mood and setting (which you enjoyed), and the beautiful writing (I like the quote you chose), I just couldn’t get into this book? I felt very detached from the characters. It was all surface and not much depth, and yet I know many people love this book. Maybe you just need to be in the right frame of mind to read it?

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  7. I think it could be that simple, but I guess we’d have to reread under different circumstances to know for sure. And of course there are so many (extremely appealing) books competing for that reading time…

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