“I always want things to be at least slightly funny, even if they are really, really sad”. An interview with Emma Beddington, author of We’ll Always Have Paris.

Emma Beddington’s memoir, We’ll Always Have Paris, published earlier this month, is a memoir of a life spent, as the book’s subtitle says, trying and failing to be French. An early encounter with a library copy of French Elle promised glamorous, intellectual delights not otherwise available to a North Yorkshire teenager and prompted an enduring francophilia, leading, inevitably, to a move to Paris. At its heart, We’ll Always Have Paris is a journey of self-discovery: if, try as you might, you can’t be French, how do you find out who you really are, and what you really want to be?

Emma is also the author of the  immensely successful blog, Belgian Waffling, and a contributor to The Telegraph, The Guardian, Red and ELLE. I sat down with her to ask her about writing her book.

H: How are you feeling now that We’ll Always Have Paris has been properly released into the wild?

E: I feel terrified and excited and like I want to run away to a remote cave, which I think must be pretty standard, especially with memoir. I have started getting texts from friends as they read through it which is very odd – good odd, but odd.

H: What kinds of things are people saying?

E: My friend Frances who is also married to a Frenchman was laughing about me saying my husband’s Proustian madeleine was tinned ravioli and saying her husband’s was coquilettes pasta (little shells) and knacki sausages which are these gross things you get in french hypermarkets that are made out of hooves and lips. Someone else was texting about early crushes – mine : Gary Speed, the man from the electricians and France, hers: the drummer from curiosity killed the cat.

H: One of the many joys of the book is the contrast between our expectations of what ‘being french’ means and the harsh reality – we think it’s all the glamour of À bout de souffle and how neatly tying a little scarf will turn you into Juliette Greco but it’s actually tinned ravioli and knacki sausages

E: I moved to provincial France in 1994 and it was NOTHING like nouvelle vague cinema. I remember watching French sitcoms (also terrible) and being mesmerised by the terrible clothes; boxy jackets with big shoulder pads, ill-advised vest tops

H: Your lovely book is subtitled Trying and Failing to be French – are you still an incorrigible francophile, or has French Elle no longer any allure?

E: I’m a ‘francophile avertie’ now – I know my own folly. I still can’t resist it, but I know it’s not the answer, really, not for me. Also, provincial France – that British Provence/Normandy/Côte d’Azur dream – holds no appeal to me. It’s Paris and nothing but. I want to be in St Germain or the Marais with a nicely groomed dog and an amazing wardrobe. Yes STILL, like I did when I was 16. Sigh, there is no hope.  Continue reading

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Alex Preston at The Books That Built Me

I write this sitting, not in the kitchen sink, but in 9F of a British Airways flight back from a business trip to Italy, trying to not to let the passengers either side of me see that the last pages of Alex Preston’s ‘In Love and War’ are making me cry.

Quite by chance, an appointment with Salvatore Ferragamo took me down the Via Tornabuoni in Florence, where so much of the first part of the book is set, I walked past St Gaetano, ‘ugliest church in Florence’ and longed to have the time to pop into Procacci, where raffish Gerald promises to take Esmond, In Love and War’s protagonist, for ‘milk rolls and jam‘. There’s something magical about a literary itinerary, particularly an unintended one: it gives you a sense of complicity with the text, of seeing what it has seen.
In Love and War is the moving, exactingly researched, exquisitely written story of Esmond Lowndes, son of a leading light in Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Caught in flagrante, he is sent down from Cambridge and despatched to Florence to set up a commercial wireless station for the British Union of Facists, to raise money from advertising and to promote the relationship between Italian and British Black Shirts. His first days in Florence, living at the British Institute on Via Tornabuoni, are idyllic, all very Brideshead-in-Italy, but when a party to celebrate the coronation of George VI is violently broken up by fascists, the brutal realities of Mussolini’s Italy start to make themselves felt. As war comes, Esmond is drawn into the resistance, and falls for Ada, his aide de camp at Radio Firenze; their love becomes a courageous counterpoint to the terrifying weight of war.

I don’t want to talk too much about plot, it’s there, and it’s gripping and marvellous and has all the right kind of narrative arc and drive and so on. It’s more than plot that marks this book out as the work of a stunningly accomplished writer: In Love and War is about ideas and ideologies and how both are compromised by the realities of love and war. It’s also a novel that’s deeply engaged in the business of writing: all of its characters with the exception of Esmond and Ada are real people, which brings its own challenges, and it uses letters, telegrams, and transcripts of recordings alongside more conventional narrative techniques as an original and effective story-telling devices.

Preston has been compared to Hollinghurst and to Forster, and I think, with In Love and War, the comparisons are justified. He is a writer whose literary skill builds with each book he publishes, and we have yet to see the best.

In Love and War is published by Faber, price £7.99

 

THE BOOKS THAT BUILT ALEX PRESTON

Tim to the Lighthouse, Edward Ardizzoni

Riders, Jilly Cooper

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, Evelyn Waugh

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

HHhH, Laurent Binet

The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst

 

Guests drank delicious Champagne Bollinger and took home with them a copy of In Love and War, a six month subscription to Tatler, and a bar of Prestat’s Classic Earl Grey with a twist of lemon in their Teatime Frolics range, which I chose because someone told me Alex is related to the original Earl Grey…