Correspondent’s Course: French Settings


Today’s class is brought to you by Alexander Maksik, whose excellent debut novel, You Deserve Nothing,kept me missing appointments, rendezvous, and reasonable bedtimes for an entire week. With the streets of modern Paris acting as a vivid secondary character in the novel, we though it fitting to ask the author what other works set in France he would put on his imaginary syllabus.

A Moveable Feast was the one that did it. I was seventeen and I’d never read anything that hit me harder. Nothing I’ve read has more elegantly captured a sense of place, a particular time and the ecstatic sadness of that time’s rapid passing. So, it is Hemingway’s unfinished and posthumously published masterpiece that is for me the greatest Paris book. Without it I’d never have gone to live in Paris. I would have fallen in love with some other city, some other life and, for better or for worse, never have written You Deserve Nothing. I know that’s not a very original story, but what can I do? It’s the truth.

The following are some of my other favorite novels set in France, all of them in their way, as formative and important to me as A Moveable Feast.

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert (translation by Lydia Davis)
The novel that taught me most about the importance of sensory detail, Madame Bovary remains as fresh and relevant as when it was written.

A Sport and a Pastime  – James Salter
It was in reading A Sport and a Pastime that I came to understand that a truly erotic story must, finally, be tragic. Salter’s novel is brave and unrelenting and I return to it often.

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
A great novel. It is devastating in its precise exploration of human weakness and the ways in which the beauty of the physical world can temper the pain that weakness causes.

The Last Life – Claire Messud
Messud’s exploration of French colonial history in Algeria and the way it permeates the lives of so many pieds noirs families in contemporary France was a revelation to me. It is an aspect of French life rarely explored in fiction.

Alexander Maksik’s first novel, You Deserve Nothing, was published in 2011 by Europa Editions. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The New York Times, Harvard Review, The New York Times Magazine and Narrative Magazine, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he’s presently the Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellow in fiction at the University of Iowa. He lives in Paris and Iowa City.