Fire and water: The story of a city slipping under
PUBLISHED: 19:00 07 May 2019 | UPDATED: 11:47 08 May 2019
Almost by chance, CHARLIE CONNELLY finds himself engrossed in a timely novel set in a Paris beset by rising floods.
Most of the books featured in these pages I buy myself. I hear about them, I buy them, I write about them. I'm also sent review copies of forthcoming books and if the right book lands on the mat at the right time I'll pick it up and have a read. But more often than not these don't quite hit The New European mark and soon become lost in the teetering piles of books that surround my desk.
When the postman handed me The Rain Watcher by Tatiana de Rosnay the other week it went on the pile of possibles-that-I'll-probably-never-get-around-to and I didn't think much more about it. Then, a couple of days after the Notre Dame fire, I passed the bookcase on which I'd dumped The Rain Watcher among a pile of other recently received books when something made me stop and pick it up.
I looked at the cover and there it was in shadowy sepia, almost a ghost of an image but the unmistakable silhouette of the twin bell towers and spindly steeple of Notre Dame, the same steeple I'd just watched tumble in to the nave in some of the most dramatic news footage of the year.
I'd never felt a particular affinity to Notre Dame but we all have our memories of Paris and after the Eiffel Tower it's the city's most recognisable landmark. The cathedral has overlooked many of our Paris experiences even when we haven't engaged with it directly, hence the outpouring of dismay when it became clear just how bad the fire was.
Seeing the towers and steeple even in the background of a book cover resonated with me somewhere and before I knew it I'd sat down with The Rain Watcher and begun to read.
It's quite a conceit for a novelist to attempt to capture a city, confining its history, people, architecture and atmosphere inside a few hundred pages. Cities are all things to all people, especially one as well-known and frequently visited as Paris, and each street, building and room have their own stories. At times of disaster, such as when an ancient landmark goes up in flames, all those stories come together and are all connected, from the faces of the people kneeling and singing in the streets in the glow of the flames to those watching at home on television, phones clamped to ears while eyes flick between the television screen and the pall of smoke they can see rising over the rooftops outside the window.
Every Parisian will have their story of that day as the disaster became an anchor of connection, a shared experience and a common reference for all citizens from the banlieues to Montmartre.
Tatiana de Rosnay knows Paris better than most and the city provides the backdrop to many of her dozen novels. The daughter of a leading French scientist and the granddaughter of an English diplomat who was briefly secretary-general of the United Nations, de Rosnay has lived in Paris, the USA and in England so has the advantage of both intimacy and distance that she shares with The Rain Watcher's protagonist Linden Malegarde.
What sets this novel apart from other works of fiction using Paris as their canvas is how de Rosnay slowly submerges the city beneath a rising Seine as the novel progresses and all those stories from all those people in all those buildings become entwined through disaster.
The Malegarde family have gathered in the French capital to celebrate the 70th birthday of their patriarch Paul, a world-renowned arborist and the darling of conservationists worldwide for the Midas touch he has with ailing trees. The Paris in which the family gathers is on a high flood alert: days of constant rain have combined with rising sea levels to swell the Seine to a level not seen in many years, with television pundits predicting a repeat of the catastrophic inundation of 1910.
As the rain continues to fall and the Seine begins to burst its banks, the family celebration doesn't go quite as planned. It's not too much of a spoiler to reveal that Paul has a stroke during his birthday meal and ends up in intensive care, an event that exacerbates the already changing dynamics among the family: Linden, the famous photographer now based in San Francisco with his husband, his sister Tilia, a UK-based artist married to the hard-drinking bully Colin, and their American mother Lauren. Tilia's teenage daughter Mistral arrives as a voice of reason among the chaos of brittle relationships and past traumas that rise among the family like the waters of the Seine themselves.
De Rosnay packs plenty into this novel: intra-familial relationships, climate change - from the preservation of trees to rising sea levels - the complacency of modern bureaucracy, homophobia, addiction, infidelity, guilt, secrets, even the cultural reverberations radiating from the death of David Bowie.
Despite this there's still room to draw the main characters with impressive nuance and depth. The writing is rich and detailed - some paragraphs go on for several pages - but it's a mixture that works thanks in no small part to the Paris that de Rosnay evokes.
The symbolism of the rising floodwaters isn't exactly a subtle device but in de Rosnay's hands it's never heavy-handed. The air of impending menace is always there: the statue of the Zouave, a Crimean War infantryman that stands on a pier at the Pont de l'Alma, has been used by Parisians to gauge the level of the Seine since it was placed there during the 1850s. At the height of the great flood of 1910 the water reached his shoulders and as the novel progresses we are updated on how far up his body the water has crept. Despite the rising tide an air of normality continues in the city, bars and restaurants stay open even though many Parisians have either left or are trapped in their apartments and the authorities have asked tourists to leave the city. The water is coming up through basements, drains are popping and raw sewage turns the putrid water a vibrant yellowy-brown.
Even as entire arrondissements are flooded there is a sense that everything will be OK, that this is Paris, one of the world's great cities. It's not going to be brought to its knees by a few extra gallons of water. Paris has had its terror attacks, its riots, its revolutions, even the burning of its cathedral now, but they are man-made calamities.
The thought of a major city enduring a trauma that doesn't have a person or group of people behind it just seems ridiculous in the modern age, where someone is always to blame. One of the most frustrating aspects of Brexit is the assumption of so many in favour of leaving the EU that everything will be fine and nothing will change. We've become so used to peace and stability that too many people regard it as the natural state of things. The Rain Watcher is a timely confirmation that the opposite is true.
We're reminded of the hurricane force winds that hit Paris in 1999, when Paul was called in to see if he could help save any of the 7,000 trees uprooted by the storm at Versailles alone: Linden's photograph of his father's tender grief at the scale of the devastation is the one that launches his career.
There are allusions to the numerous occasions the Seine has burst its banks in recent years, most recently in January last year, making the flood at the heart of this book all the more plausible as the waters rise, bringing with them effluent and goodness knows what else.
"The most worrying aspect of the flooding was the slow but sure accumulation in the underground sewer system," writes de Rosnay. "Most of the trouble was coming from deep down, up through Parisian cellars, basements and parking lots due to the high saturation of the water table and the persistent rain."
The city bureaucracy's response is effective but slow. Whole districts are cut off, public transport ceases, long queues snake away from cafes and restaurants of people wanting to charge their phones, there are infestations of rats displaced from the sewers and gangs of looters are out in boats, shrouded by power-cut darkness.
A comatose Paul has to be moved by boat to a hospital away from the flooding as relatives of other patients shriek in protest that their own loved one is unfairly neglected. The flood creates a dystopian Paris in the most plausible way: there's no sudden deluge, no cataclysmic wave, the rain just keeps falling and the Seine keeps rising at a rate that's as pedestrian as it is ruthless.
The Malegarde family drama plays out against this growing aquatic catastrophe and the two threads are skilfully handled. Old arguments surface, shocking secrets emerge, matters unspoken are given voice, traumas are relived and revealed. The ending of the novel feels abrupt but the circumstances dictate that, demanding a sense of disorientation and partial fraying of loose threads.
She didn't intend it as such but Tatiana de Rosnay has written a novel for the times in the most emphatic sense. Published last month it's been plunged straight into a world in which Extinction Rebellion is bringing cities to a halt in the name of climate change awareness and the embers of the Notre Dame fire have only just stopped smoking.
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Literary fiction really doesn't get as topical as this (the cathedral only receives a passing mention, incidentally, but in the current context it's a poignant one, noting how it looks "shrunken and altered" among the flood waters, "literally squatting on the river like a wounded creature"). Crucially that topicality is skilfully nuanced and doesn't come at the expense of character: the Malegardes and their circle are so well-drawn you almost have to stop yourself trawling Google Images for Linden's photography.
Paris has suffered its fair share of calamity over the centuries and certainly in recent years. This fictional catastrophe happens to be published to coincide with a very real one, with fire and water seeming an appropriately contrasting duo right now. Indeed, if The Rain Watcher has a single message among its many narratives it's articulated through a city official on a motor boat patrolling the dark, silent, flooded streets.
"It's like no-one gauged how calamitous the situation could get, like no-one really wanted to see," writes de Rosnay. "Even in his workplace, at city hall, many of his colleagues were convinced the Seine was under control, that there was no danger, that due to modern technology they could act in time. Until the last minute they refused to accept the dreadful reality."
A message for our times indeed.
The Rain Watcher by Tatiana de Rosnay is published by World Editions, price £11.99
Five great books about Paris
Lauren Elkin (Vintage, £9.99)
American-born Elkin has lived in Paris for many years and the city is at the forefront of this wide-ranging, original and beautifully-written celebration of women, creativity and the simple art of urban walking. Part memoir, part essay collection, part celebration of some of the great women who have taken inspiration from the city streets, this book was widely praised on its release in 2016 and promises to remain highly relevant for a long time to come.
ZAZIE IN THE METRO
Raymond Queneau (Penguin Classics, £7.99)
Impish, foul-mouthed Zazie arrives in Paris from the country to stay with Gabriel, her drag queen uncle. All Zazie really wants to do is ride the metro, a transport system that seems like it must be from outer space to the newly-arrived bumpkin. Finding it closed because of a strike, Zazie is forced to look elsewhere for sources of amusement, triggering a comic adventure whose stylishly colloquial prose meshes with its Parisian locations.
PARISIANS: AN ADVENTURE HISTORY OF PARIS
Graham Robb (Picador, £10.99)
Francophile Robb has carved out an impressive niche with a series of quirky historical narratives, many focused on France. Parisians goes beneath the well-ordered street plan of central Paris to reveal the chaos and carnage that produced it thanks to the generally mutinous nature of Parisians themselves (even the term Parisian, Robb tells us, is synonymous across France with 'agitator'). A thoroughly absorbing collection of true stories that ensures you'll never see Paris the same way again.
THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG
Muriel Barbery, trans. Alison Anderson (Gallic Books, £9.99)
This wonderfully eccentric novel is set in a grand Paris Left Bank apartment block and centres on Renée, the reliable and discreet concierge who is far from the one-dimensional image she presents at the front desk. Paloma, meanwhile, a 12-year-old girl so disillusioned by the cosy, bourgeois existence ahead of her, is planning to kill herself on her 13th birthday. The death of another resident changes both their worlds in ways they could never have imagined.
A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY
Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, £10.99).
Twice a Booker prizewinner for her remarkable Anne Boleyn novels, Mantel's tale of Paris during the French Revolution brings alive the city and its people in a way only she can. She tells the stories of three key figures of the Revolution, Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins from their earliest days to the tumultuous events of 1789 so vividly it's as close as any writer has come to transporting the reader back to the sweat, filth, blood and smoke of the barricades themselves.