The Parisian

Review of The Parisian by Isabella Hammad. The Irish Times, 27 April 2019, p. 21.

There is a charming scene of tender transgression in The Parisian, where Midhat Kamal, a young Palestinian, is encouraged by his grandmother to preview the unveiled features of a prospective spouse through a keyhole. Shadowing the protagonist’s perspective, the omniscient narrator likens this act of low-key voyeurism to “peering down a microscope at the secret structure of a cell”. Try as he may, Midhat cannot but perceive the ancestral customs of his homeland through the prism of the “rational mind” he acquired in France. This collision between western modernity and oriental traditionalism — literary realism and age-old storytelling — lies at the heart of Isabella Hammad’s often breathtaking debut.

Running to more than 550 pages, its sheer heft seems endowed with a performative quality, as though enacting the totalising worldview of religion and its surrogate secular version, the all-encompassing 19th-century novel. Recurring anxieties over the atomisation of knowledge — mirroring the dislocation of the Ottoman empire — indicate that the book’s epic sweep may be, in part, a compensatory mechanism.

The novel opens, symbolically, with Midhat aboard a ship, en route from Alexandria to Marseille. His ultimate destination is Montpellier, where his family are sending him to study medicine. Frédéric Molineu, his genial host, is an anthropologist, whose wife — living up to her aptronym, Ariane Passan — committed suicide. Midhat and Jeannette, Frédéric’s daughter, fall in love, delighting “in the agony of resisted desire, which being resisted was sustained, and in this mutual abnegation they colluded like thieves”.

Their chaste idyll is cut short when Midhat discovers that Frédéric has been secretly using him as the subject of a Pygmalion-style experiment. The academic was seeking to determine whether the Arabs’ (alleged) deviation from the “line of progress” might be corrected. As a result, the humiliated lovesick hero repairs to Paris, where he studies history and women. After a brief, debauched stopover in Cairo, his sentimental education is rudely interrupted, back in Nablus, when his father enjoins him to choose a career and wife on threat of disinheritance. Midhat complies, entering the family textile business and marrying Fatima, the young woman glimpsed at through a keyhole.

At this juncture The Parisian ceases to be a Bildungsroman, as though the lone individual — whom Walter Benjamin identified as the birthplace of the novel — were being subsumed back into a collective world of tradition, superstition and patriarchal authority. After a five-year absence, Midhat is struck by how difficult it is to reinvent oneself in such a close-knit community. People are “pinned down” by childhood traits that soon ossify into stock characters flat enough to “be picked out from a rooftop and fitted into stories”. Stories akin to the traditional tales — “saturated with time and retelling” — that bind the community together, but cannot be rewritten, as a rawi, playing fast and loose with chronology, discovers to his cost.

Midhat’s switch from medicine — the career path of choice in many 19th-century novels — to history signals a gradual foregrounding of geopolitics. If the first part of the book unfolds against the distant backdrop of the first World War, the second and third focus on the coming of age of Arab nationalism in the wake of the Balfour Declaration. Yet, even here, the two main plot devices — the unexpected contents of a will and discovery of an old, unread letter — come straight out of Victorian fiction. The “line of progress” becomes increasingly blurred, like the overlapping of Arab and Frankish time in the twilight years of the Ottoman empire or Midhat’s various versions of himself, which are compared to “conflicting maps of the same place”. A telling parallel is drawn between religious fanatics and western scholars, obsessing over a “speck of dust” in the vague hope that their single-minded pursuit might eventually “contribute to some entirety”.

Still in her 20s, London-born Isabella Hammad establishes herself here as a literary force to be reckoned with. The Parisian is, in many ways, an extraordinary achievement, but is it really “realism in the tradition of Flaubert”, as Zadie Smith claims in her blurb, or rather a beautifully executed pastiche? (Has Smith forgotten her own Two Paths for the Novel?) At times Hammad gestures towards realism’s imperialist ambitions — its colonisation of as-yet-unnamed realms of experience — but her own work retains little, if anything, of that spirit of experimentation. For all its brilliance, The Parisian belongs to a genre that was already outdated when the events it describes were set.

 

Youth, Politics, Romance and Illness

Max Liu on We’ll Never Have Paris in the Financial Times, 1 June 2019

. . . There is something for most tastes among the 82 contributions, edited by Andrew Gallix. From Nicholas Royle’s mini-thriller “Music for French Films” to the experimentalism of Joanna Walsh’s “The Hanged Man”, there are pieces about youth, politics, illness and romance. Some of the writers, from the UK, US and beyond, live or have lived in Paris. Almost all of them explore the myth of bohemian Paris — “an anglophone construct”, according to Gallix. . . . Readers might come to this book for its celebrated contributors — the novelists Will Self and Tom McCarthy among them — but they should stay for the efforts of its lesser-known lights. . . . Repeater has sensibly published this near 600-page volume as a paperback original that would fit comfortably in your bag as you amble along the boulevards. . . . Paris eludes our attempts to define it, but the range of styles and voices in this book suggests it will always capture writers’ imaginations.

Paris of the Mind

Natasha Lehrer has written an amazing, full-page review of We’ll Never Have Paris for the Times Literary Supplement, 31 May 2019, p. 12

. . . In a fine introduction, the book’s editor Andrew Gallix claims Paris as a product of the anglophone imagination, ‘the locus of an art-life merger. . . It is the place that you have to go to to become, be recognised as, and lead the life of a writer”. . . . Gallix claims that the city is a “sort of neutral meeting ground for writers and readers from across the Anglosphere”, which, though possibly true, is not necessarily or always an entirely good thing for the writing that comes out of it. (Gallix’s own short story, featuring a cruelly plausible intellectual called Sostène Zanzibar, is one of the best pieces in the book — funny, allusive, clever and terribly French). . . .

Standing Room Only

Jordison, Sam. Galley Beggar Press Newsletter, 23 May 2019

Sam Jordison at The Haggerston (pub) before the launch of We’ll Never Have Paris at Burley Fisher Books on 22 May 2019

Meanwhile, a quick dispatch from the literary elsewhere. Last night I helped launch We’ll Never Have Paris at the wonderful Burley Fisher, in That London.

I’m very proud that there are quite a few Galley Beggar writers in it, alongside a very healthy percentage of the writers who are Doing Good Stuff. There are 79 contributors to this collection — and more to the point, it’s fantastic. I had a blast being the MC at the launch. The readings were just great. I was proud to be there. Here’s the view from the stage. Standing room only:

Taken by Sam Jordison

Andrew Gallix, the editor, is one of the pillars of our world. Only Andrew would have had so many fantastic writers so eager to contribute to a project like this one. It’s a fine idea for a book. To write about Paris, but the Paris that doesn’t exist, the Anglophone vision of Paris, the dream of Paris… Anyway, you’ll see how well it works when you dive into its hundreds of pages and see how varied the contributions are. And it’s not just this book, it’s all the fantastic things Andrew — and 3:AM — have done over the years. Among our generation of writers and publishers, there are very few who haven’t been encouraged, helped and published by him. Chances are that he’ll have helped you if you’re a writer or publisher who isn’t quite at home in the big world, who has crazy romantic dreams about Art and Posterity and who instantly understands the 3:AM tagline: whatever it is, we’re against it. Quietly — rarely putting himself in the foreground — but unstoppably, he has moved things forward. In other words, please buy his book — and enjoy it too. Because the other thing Andrew and 3:AM have always been good at is making it fun.