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.
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.
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.
I read this book as part of the Shadow Giller Prize 2012. I will include links to reviews by other jury members as and when they are published. Thanks to Mrs KevinfromCanada for hand-delivering this copy to me.