GRACE NOTES - MAY 2024

Is there a city that stokes the literary imagination more than Paris? Poets, artists, and writers - natives and expats alike have drawn inspiration from the city’s unique charms. Classic writers such as Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, and George Sand and international transplants such as James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde, and and Gertrude Stein have all called Paris home, their work buoyed by the city’s rich culture, art, and history. Paris’s reputation for embracing artistic freedom and experimentation in both art and life is a lure for many writers. Elaine Dundy was one of those writers.

 

Dundy was the daughter of wealthy parents who, in her early 20’s took her generous allowance and moved to Paris to discover the city and herself. She unsuccessfully sought work as an actor, but came away with enough rich life experience to inspire her semi-autobiographical novel, The Dud Avocado.

Published in 1958, this charming book depicts a young woman at the precipice of adulthood, wringing all she can out of life. Sally Jay Gorce lives on the edge in all meanings of the phrase - financially, emotionally, sexually, and artistically. As she tells one of her lovers, she packs light in case she needs to make a quick getaway. Pushing against the restraints of 1950’s womanhood, she flits from café to bar to party, and experiences love, sex, and betrayal. Through it all, her indomitable spirit remains intact. This is, after all, the Paris of the Beat Generation and An American in Paris, when the city was a bohemian mecca, exploding with artistic possibility. 

When we first meet her, she is reconnecting with Larry, an American film director with whom she fancies herself to be in love, all the while hoping that he can give a boost to her nascent acting career. She is the mistress of Teddy, a brooding Italian diplomat who is using her as much as she is using him. It becomes clear early on that Larry is not everything that he seems. His crimes against Sally and other women unfold in infuriating detail through the course of the novel.

Each relationship that she has with a man (and there are many) comes with its own baggage. After a night with Teddy which ends with him slapping her and nearly raping her, she observes “…it was not easy to be a Woman in these stirring times. I said it then and I say it now: It just isn’t our century.”

Even her relationship with Jim, an artist and one of the most stable, steady men she pairs up with, is fraught. When she contemplates moving in with him she muses, “There’d always seem to me something so dirty-sweatered and dirndl-skirted about living with a man you’re not married to.” Her restlessness gets the better of her on more than one occasion. Her attempts at domesticity with Jim have her itching for a less constrained life. When Jim suggest staying in for the night, she thinks, “Spring was ravishing around town, bursting and budding and blooming. It was one of those nights when the air is blood-temperature, and it’s impossible to tell where you leave off and it begins.” After a failed attempt at reading, she moans, “Read! I didn’t want to read. It was just a substitute for living.”

In the second section of the novel, Sally, out of sheer boredom, travels to Biarritz with Larry, his current girlfriend Missy, and a bland Canadian named Bax. It is during this trip that Sally begins to suspect that Larry has nefarious intentions toward her and other women. He has assured Bax that Sally will be a fun companion for him, but Sally is distracted by jealousy brought on by Larry and Missy’s canoodling. Dundy writes this section as diary entries, giving an even sharper edge to Sally’s razor wit, honing in on her growing frustrations with men.

The trip ends miserably, with all parties tired, jaded, and suspicious of each other. Sally returns to Paris, but her disillusionment has taken the gleam off of the city. Fear not for our intrepid heroine - the third section of the novel is a whirlwind of major life changes. She meets Max, a photographer who turns out to be her soulmate. It all leads up to a perky, happily-ever-after ending, but The Dud Avocado is no formulaic romance novel. The book is more character-driven than plot-driven; the story moves more in waves than in a predictable arc. Dundy’s writing is sentence-level brilliant, evoking the feverish exhilaration of a young woman at the brink of all of life’s possibilities. In Sally Jay Gorce, she has created a character who is resilient, flawed, funny, and unforgettable.

 

Can’t get enough of the City of Light? N’ais pas peur! Here are more Paris-based reads -

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

American expats in 1950’s Paris navigate the complications of relationships and shifting morality. Written in Baldwin’s sinewy prose, this book is a towering classic in both LGBTQ and Black canons.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

This lovely story of a lonely middle-aged woman and a depressed teenaged girl whose lives are brought together by a new tenant in their apartment building is a miraculous blend of heart and intelligence.

Inseparable by Simone De Beauvoir (translated by Sarah Smith)

This slim novel is a fictionalization of the real-life friendship between De Beauvoir and her friend Zaza, who met as schoolmates in Paris. Her depiction of two young women grappling with the weighty issues of love, God, and mortality is graceful yet passionately charged. There is great tenderness in this sylphlike sketch. 

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Dickens’ classic story of the French Revolution stands the test of time. Full of drama, hope, and humanity, it pairs well with Les Miserables (see below).

No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus by Lauren Elkin

Elkin spent 2014 observing and documenting the changes in Paris life while riding the bus from her apartment in the 5th arrondissment to her job in the 7th. The blandness of her daily life crashed up against the Charlie Hebdo attacks, an ectopic pregnancy, and other life-changing events. A unique look at a city in flux.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

This monumental work traces the injustices wrought against the poor in Revolutionary Paris. A classic tale of good and evil, wealth and poverty, crime and punishment told through the eyes of Hugo’s unforgettable characters.

Satori in Paris by Jack Kerouac

Kerouac’s penultimate book, published in 1966, is an autofiction of his wanders through Paris and northern France in search of his heritage. He is older and (somewhat) wiser than the Sal Paradise of On the Road, but the vagabond spirit remains intact.

Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer

Mercer’s memoir of his time living as one of the literary vagabonds who inhabit Shakespeare & Co. is a warm, charming (but never cloying) love letter to Paris, to bookselling, and to the legendary bookseller George Whitman.

The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson

A woman looks back at her life in Paris in the 1980’s, when she was an aspiring writer, yearning for the city to make her the poet she longs to be. An extraordinary work, dense and gleaming as a ruby.

Paris: A Literary Anthology, edited by Zachary Seager

This little gem is packed with essays, poetry, and short stories by authors and poets who lived in and have fallen in love with Paris. From Apollinaire to Twain to Collette, it is a trove of classic writing inspired by the City of Light.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

The inimitable Stein writes irreverently of her life in Paris with Toklas, her companion of 40 years. The prose is glowing, witty, and wildly quirky.

 

So many great new releases to look forward to in June! Here are some previews - 

A Cage Went in Search of a Bird: Ten Kafkaesque Stories

A powerhouse roster of A-list authors weigh in in this wonderfully weird collection. Tommy Orange, Helen Oyeyemi, Elif Batuman, Charlie Kaufman and others contribute stories that will rearrange your brain cells. Yiyun Li’s mini-drama featuring a cast of punctuation marks is wry, funny commentary on form. Orange’s account of a virus that causes unspeakable pain is deep pathos delivered with an unflappable voice. Kaufman’s surreal journey through an author’s brain is a study of obsession and memory. Strange, haunting, and oddly affecting, these are stories to be relished and reread.

If Today Were Tomorrow: Poems by Humberto Ak’abal, translated from the Spanish by Michael Bazzett

This bilingual collection by the late Guatemalan K’iche’ Maya poet is a rapturous, often witty ode to nature in all of its infinite variety. Ak’abal’s writing is sometimes as sparse as haiku, yet every word is rooted deep into the earth. From the mighty power of trees and rivers all the way down to the most delicate birdsong, his observations show a poet with an acute attention to detail. Bazzett’s translation has an elegant economy, allowing Ak’abal’s fresh, rain-washed words to glow.

Last Date in El Zapotal by Mateo García Elizondo, translated by Robin Myers

A junkie leaves the big city with just enough drugs to assure his death. He checks into a fleabag rooming house in the backwater of El Zapotal to end it all. While contemplating his mortality, he reminisces about his past - his girlfriend Valerie, who died after he introduced her to heroin, his beloved dog, his family. He clings to these memories like a life raft, all the while rationing his stash to make sure he has enough to finish the job. He wanders the town and the countryside like a specter, surrounded by hunger and squalor, balancing on the very thin, very blurred line between life and death. The prose is exquisite - poetic and hallucinatory, fading in and out of what is real and what is imagined like a cold fog.

Mouth: Stories by Puloma Ghosh

Vampire figure skaters, ghost girlfriends, autopsies, and sexy werewolves - if body horror is your jam, Ghosh is here to provide. These stories are deliciously ghastly yet weirdly romantic. The characters are well-drawn with (mostly) clear motivations. Ghosh’s explorations of the slipperiness of human relationships and of reality itself will put the reader off-balance all while daring them not to look away. Fans of Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado will find much to like here.

Fire Exit by Morgan Talty

Charles has watched his daughter grow up from a distance He is white, she is half Penobscot, and she doesn’t know that he is her father. He has a view of her home on the reservation from his place across the river that divides them. Though physically close, the distance feels like light years to Charles. His time is consumed by his mother, who is sinking deeper into dementia each day, his well-meaning alcoholic friend Bobby, and his surly next-door neighbor. He is swept along by forces beyond his control and by choices made in his past. Talty’s writing is unadorned, allowing nuance, wit, and empathy to shine through. Fire Exit is an absorbing story of family legacy, community, and connection. This debut novel is a worthy follow-up to his 2022 short story collection Night of the Living Rez.

 

Enjoy this poem by Rose Alcalá from her visceral new collection You:Poems Coffee House Press, 2024) - 

You, the Body & the Book

You lived with the body. There was no room for the book. You lived with the book, and the body broke a window trying to get in. You let the body stay the night on the couch and cleaned the cuts on its hands. The book said, I’m not jealous, but soon it begged for attention. At the poetry reading they both showed up and it was an impossible choice. In bed it was either the book or the body. At times zaftig, at times skinny. Neither of them looked better in the morning, You wiped their smudges after they got drunk and cried. Other books looked on smugly, cool and contained. They were all epiphany and apostrophe. The book made the body do impossible things, but only the body could bear another body and that was the question on the table. For a while you had very little to say to the book and worried the body as all you had.

 

For further reading - 

Click here to listen to an episode of Backlisted (one of my favorite podcasts!) about Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado.

Click here for a playlist of music in homage to Proust's Paris Salons.

Click here to read Danielle Dumaine's tribute to the women of the Beat Generation.

 

Until next month, au revoir!

 

 

 

 

 

Books: 
The Dud Avocado By Elaine Dundy, Terry Teachout (Introduction by) Cover Image
By Elaine Dundy, Terry Teachout (Introduction by)
$17.95
ISBN: 9781590172322
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: NYRB Classics - June 5th, 2007

Giovanni's Room (Vintage International) By James Baldwin Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9780345806567
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - September 12th, 2013

The Elegance of the Hedgehog By Muriel Barbery, Alison Anderson (Translator) Cover Image
By Muriel Barbery, Alison Anderson (Translator)
$17.00
ISBN: 9781933372600
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Europa Editions - September 2nd, 2008

Inseparable: A Novel By Simone de Beauvoir, Sandra Smith (Translated by), Margaret Atwood (Introduction by) Cover Image
By Simone de Beauvoir, Sandra Smith (Translated by), Margaret Atwood (Introduction by)
$16.99
ISBN: 9780063075054
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Ecco - September 13th, 2022

A Tale of Two Cities By Charles Dickens, Richard Maxwell (Editor), Richard Maxwell (Introduction by), Richard Maxwell (Notes by) Cover Image
By Charles Dickens, Richard Maxwell (Editor), Richard Maxwell (Introduction by), Richard Maxwell (Notes by)
$8.00
ISBN: 9780141439600
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Classics - May 27th, 2003

No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents) By Lauren Elkin Cover Image
$14.95
ISBN: 9781635901535
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Semiotext(e) - September 14th, 2021

Les Miserables By Victor Hugo, Lee Fahnestock (Translated by), Norman MacAfee (Translated by), Lee Fahnestock (Introduction by), Chris Bohjalian (Afterword by) Cover Image
By Victor Hugo, Lee Fahnestock (Translated by), Norman MacAfee (Translated by), Lee Fahnestock (Introduction by), Chris Bohjalian (Afterword by)
$11.99
ISBN: 9780451419439
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Signet - October 1st, 2013

Satori in Paris (Kerouac) By Jack Kerouac Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9780802161383
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Grove Press - October 17th, 2023

Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. By Jeremy Mercer Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9780312347406
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Picador - September 19th, 2006

The Baudelaire Fractal By Lisa Robertson Cover Image
$17.95
ISBN: 9781552453902
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Coach House Books - February 4th, 2020

Paris: A Literary Anthology By Zachary Seager Cover Image
$14.99
Email or call for price.
ISBN: 9781035023615
Published: Macmillan Collector's Library - April 16th, 2024

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas By Gertrude Stein Cover Image
$16.95
ISBN: 9780679724636
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - March 17th, 1990

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A Cage Went in Search of a Bird: Ten Kafkaesque Stories By Tommy Orange (Contributions by), Ali Smith (Contributions by), Naomi Alderman (Contributions by), Elif Batuman (Contributions by), Helen Oyeyemi (Contributions by) Cover Image
By Tommy Orange (Contributions by), Ali Smith (Contributions by), Naomi Alderman (Contributions by), Elif Batuman (Contributions by), Helen Oyeyemi (Contributions by)
$16.95
ISBN: 9781646222636
Availability: Coming Soon - Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Catapult - June 4th, 2024

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If Today Were Tomorrow: Poems By Humberto Ak'abal, Michael Bazzett (Translator) Cover Image
$20.00
ISBN: 9781571311610
Availability: Coming Soon - Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Milkweed Editions - June 25th, 2024

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Last Date in El Zapotal By Mateo García Elizondo, Robin Myers (Translator) Cover Image
$16.95
ISBN: 9781913867843
Availability: Coming Soon - Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Charco Press - June 25th, 2024

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Mouth: Stories By Puloma Ghosh Cover Image
$26.00
ISBN: 9781662602474
Availability: Coming Soon - Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Astra House - June 11th, 2024

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Fire Exit: A Novel By Morgan Talty Cover Image
$28.95
ISBN: 9781959030553
Availability: Coming Soon - Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Tin House Books - June 4th, 2024

You By Rosa Alcalá Cover Image
$17.95
ISBN: 9781566897013
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Coffee House Press - April 9th, 2024