Haunting Paris

Haunting Paris

by Mamta Chaudhry

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Overview

Paris, 1989:  Alone in her luminous apartment on Île Saint-Louis, Sylvie discovers a mysterious letter among her late lover Julien’s possessions, launching her into a decades-old search for a child who vanished in the turbulence of the Second World War. She is unaware that she is watched over by Julien’s ghost, his love for her powerful enough to draw him back to this world, though doomed now to remain a silent observer.  Sylvie’s quest leads her deep into the secrets of Julien’s past, shedding new light on the dark days of Nazi-occupied Paris. A timeless story of love and loss, Haunting Paris matches emotional intensity with lyrical storytelling to explore grief, family secrets, and the undeniable power of memory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385544603
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/18/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 465,444
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Mamta Chaudhry’s fiction, poetry, and feature articles have been published in the Miami Review, The Illustrated Weekly of India, The Telegraph, The Statesman, Writer’s Digest, and The Rotarian, among other publications. She lives with her husband in Coral Gables, Florida, and they spend part of each year in India and France. Haunting Paris is her first novel. www.mamtachaudhry.com

Read an Excerpt

They call us revenants, those who return. Restless for this world, we pass each other in mute recognition, for to be silent and solitary is our essential condition. But death doesn’t end our thirst for a human touch, a human voice calling our name.

And so I haunt these familiar quays, this familiar river. Music drifts down from Sylvie’s window and I linger until it comes to an end. The scent of lilacs on the breeze stirs dormant phantoms to life, but music is sorcery more potent; though bound to time’s measure, it exists on a plane beyond time, where there is no past and no future, there is only the present in which the dead revisit this world.

Night after night I wait until the last notes fade away and Sylvie comes to the window at last. I retreat into the shadows as one after another the beautiful mansions along quai d’Anjou spring to light, transforming those in the gloom below into a throng of ghosts. Occasionally a passing figure pauses in a pool of lamplight, to light a cigarette or glance at a watch.

Squandered time! The most enduring of regrets. In the end, a lifetime is not enough, the heart yearns for more. Who can reason with desire?

The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know.

 

Sylvie stirs uneasily in her sleep. Hearing a noise next door, she thinks it must be Julien working late, trying hard not to wake her though he knows she can sleep through anything. The sleep of the just, he says. Chéri, she calls out. Coco barks and she realizes of course it can’t be Julien, it must be the Americans. Though her body wakes into the present, it takes her mind a few moments longer to absorb the shock of knowing that she will never hear Julien’s voice again.

So the Americans are here finally, much later than expected. A good thing she had left the key downstairs with Ana Carvalho; the concierge is agog with curiosity about them. Sylvie herself plans to stop by in the morning, see that they’re properly settled in. Not too early, though, they must be tired after the long flight from Florida, how long did Fabienne say it was, nine hours, ten? It never seemed to bother her friend, but then Fabienne was a force of nature. She had pushed Sylvie to divide the large apartment in two, and before the paint was even dry she had located Sylvie’s first renters, a couple of professors from her college. With Fabienne nothing is moderato, everything always presto, prestissimo.

At one time Sylvie would have panicked at the prospect of dealing with strangers, but now her shyness seems the relic of a vanished self. When she was a child, her parents often acted surprised that they had produced someone with her shrinking temperament, and Fabienne said if schoolgirls had sobriquets like kings, she would be Sylvie la timide. The nickname had stuck to her through school, but when she mentioned it to Julien, he smiled and said that on the contrary, to him she was Sylvie, coeur de lion.

Sighing deeply, Sylvie turns over in bed. Seeing her unconcerned about the intruders, Coco tucks his head down into his paws. Sylvie has a harder time going back to sleep and wishes now she hadn’t thrown away the pills that brought her respite from the sleepless nights when she paced the apartment till dawn. During the nuits blanches of the past winter, she had considered visiting Fabienne in America, had even booked a ticket at her urging. But in the end she had backed out because she couldn’t bear to leave Julien behind. Not so lionhearted after all.

Yes, you are, Julien insists, encouraging even in death.

For so long she had felt as if the brightly lit banquet of life was being carried on behind closed doors, and she was entitled only to crumbs from the feast, not to a place at the table. She had felt it again at the house on rue de Bièvre, when Isabelle had seated her next to Julien. Then one day Isabelle’s husband had risen from that table because of her.

Julien’s love had turned her life into a vista of open doorways, like the grand enfilade at the neighboring Hôtel de Lauzun. Sylvie could not remember what her life had been before him, nor imagine what it would be after. But she no longer has to imagine it, she lives every day with his absence.

Even the smallest thing is a painful reminder that she will never see him again. A few days ago, when she and Ana Carvalho were moving Julien’s desk from his study, they jostled open a secret drawer and a folder fell out to the floor. The concierge was beside herself with excitement about the discovery, but the shock of it hit Sylvie like a blow. She could not explain why she felt there was something fateful about it, though it looked no different from the stacks of such folders with his case notes filed away at Maison Chenizot. But when she opened it, she found a checkbook from an unknown bank and a sealed envelope with the initial M. Without a word, Sylvie quietly replaced the folder in the desk.

Opening the envelope or going through the checkbook feels like a trespass, something forbidden, as if Julien has sealed off part of the life they inhabited together and left her forlorn outside.

 

On their side of the apartment, Will throws open the door to the terrace. Alice is already under the covers, but he stays up for a while to shake off the irritations of travel—a delayed flight, a damaged suitcase—and wonders how Alice remains unruffled by it all.

At least the apartment on Île Saint-Louis has turned out better than he expected, none of the ghastly patterned wallpaper the French seem to love. But Fabienne had assured him it was a bonne adresse, one of the best in Paris, on the very street where Baudelaire created his imaginary paradise, luxe, calme, et volupté. She had also confided her hopes that their being on the premises would draw Sylvie out of her shell; she’s become quite reclusive since Julien’s death last fall.

Will wonders how exactly she expects them to lead a stranger out of her grief. They’ll do what they can, of course, for Fabienne’s sake, if nothing else. Amazing the way she had arranged the trip for them, even scoring some coveted tickets for the bicentennial parade. His misgivings suddenly vanish as he steps out to the terrace and sees the lights of the city spread before him, brightness rising like mist off a river.

 

My curiosity about the Americans is too mild to make me linger in their company. It’s only by coming into Sylvie’s orbit that they have attracted my attention at all. But she is now asleep and I hasten away, lest I trouble her dreams.

As a professional interpreter of dreams, there was one I encountered repeatedly: “All of a sudden I came across an unfamiliar door in my house, and my heart was beating loudly as I pushed it open and discovered a whole new wing, a secret part of the house where I had lived all this time unknowing, unsuspecting.” Though I never had that particular dream myself, it’s what death felt like to me, an unfamiliar door in a familiar house, which I pushed open to find myself forever outside.

In this twilight world between the living and the dead, I walk till the sky lightens from black to cobalt, my favorite hour, the blue hour, when the blur of mystery still clings to things, a mystery that the sun will burn off soon enough to reveal them as plain as day. I am tired, yet it is not fatigue, for the ailments of the body have been shrugged off like a cumbersome garment. But weariness does not belong to the body alone, and it is then, when I am past caring or thinking or feeling, that the buildings around me dissolve into ruined castles on a hill and the haze over the city is like the burning vines in winter, while far off I hear the mournful howl of wolves.

At the sound of footsteps behind me I spin around and find myself ambushed. Familiar faces transformed by hatred spit out the age-old curse: Sale juif! Then a rock strikes me sharply across the temple and blood gushes from my eye. I am shocked by the taste, warm and coppery. But when I raise my hand to touch my face, there is no blood. Yet the pain, I feel it still under the cobalt sky, where for a moment the centuries stay their ceaseless glissade. Then the sun resumes its unrelenting course as I look around to find castles and fires and wolves all fled, and I am alone again, no longer a man but a ghost in a ravishing city where all that remains of what was once my life are some spectral ruins, which I try to piece together like the vanishing fragments of a dream.

 

Though it’s not yet light outside, Sylvie forces herself to get up, to boil water, measure coffee into the press. She closes her eyes, and Julien comes up the stairs with a brioche from the boulangerie. Chérie, he says, and she holds out her arms, but there’s no one there, no warm and steady hand, no aroma of fresh bread. Blinking away tears, she pours the coffee, which she has made too bitter. She swallows it with a grimace, reminding herself to stock up on provisions; she doesn’t want another scolding from Ana Carvalho about how poorly she eats.

She goes downstairs with Coco trotting ahead, his tail wagging excitedly, as if the morning walk is an unexpected treat instead of a daily occurrence. Watering the plants in the courtyard, the concierge calls out, “So your Americans have come, Madame Sylvie.”

Your Americans. Sylvie smiles and shrugs. The Taylors are people she has never seen before, and after this summer will likely never see again. Perhaps there will be a thank-you note, then a Christmas card, then silence.

Sylvie is disappointed that Fabienne herself won’t be coming this summer. At the faculty concert someone told me, “Break a leg,” which I promptly did, she’d wired, but luckily the cello suffered no damage, the insurers say it’s worth a lot more than I am. She wishes Fabienne had never moved to America. Now, more than ever, she feels the need of her friend’s presence, someone who knows her so well that she can offer comfort just by being there, without saying a word.

Returning from her walk, Sylvie goes up to her landing and draws a deep breath. Best to get it over with sooner rather than later. Fabienne had assured her the Taylors were both sympa, but nice or not, Sylvie doesn’t expect to see much of them after this; she has put in a separate entrance so they can come and go as they please. She knocks on their door, and as soon as it opens, Coco trots into the apartment, sniffing the room with a proprietary air. His black eyes glint with interest at the strangers. The first human touch the dog had known was a man trying to drown him, but he does not hold that against people in general, considering them for the most part capable of kindness. He goes right up to Alice and rests his wiry head trustfully against her knee, puzzled at first by the different layout of the room. Madame’s piano is not in its accustomed place, nor Monsieur’s desk. But Coco is philosophical about change. He knows that as long as there is a table, scraps will fall.

Sylvie notices the delicacies she had put out for them—pastries from Gérard Mulot, confitures from Mariage Frères—are untouched. Not fond of sugar, the Americans. Well, she’ll know better next time. After a few pleasantries, Sylvie leaves them to their breakfast and returns to her own side of the apartment. She waits until she hears the Taylors go out, then sits down at the piano, the music on the stand turned to Schubert’s last sonata. The beautiful opening melody ripples like light on water, but then an ominous trill sounds the dark undercurrent of loss. The notes blur before her eyes and Sylvie plays on from memory, tears rolling down her cheeks until Coco can bear it no longer and jumps on the stool to lick her face.

 

Making her way up to Sylvie’s, the concierge encounters the Americans on the landing and stops to size them up in the broad light of day, her curiosity unsatisfied by a brief glimpse the night before. At least the man speaks fluent French, what a relief, she needn’t break her jaw with English.

Everything about the Americans shines, their teeth, their nails, their skin; do they scrub themselves daily with pumice? And naturally they’ve got on tennis shoes, Americans wear them everywhere, even indoors. Ana Carvalho has watched many American programs on television and considers herself an expert on their peculiarities. No wonder they all come to Paris on holiday, what is there for them to do at home, nothing but autoroutes everywhere and wild creatures running loose on the streets. Armadillos. No, that’s Texas, these people are from Florida. Alligators, then, and sharks, which explains why they’re all bristling with guns. Thankfully, there’s nothing like that at the beach in Hossegor, where she goes for her own vacation.

Ana Carvalho hopes their presence won’t dérange Madame Sylvie too much, but on the other hand, a little bother might shake her out of her misery. At least she’s no longer wild with grief; the look in Sylvie’s eyes after Monsieur Julien’s passing had given Ana quite a turn. Many a time she had gone upstairs to make sure Sylvie was all right, to keep her company through the dark watches of the night. Hopefully, that phase is over, but even if she no longer fears the worst, Ana still frets about Sylvie, the way she’s shut herself up in the apartment like an old woman, as if fifty-three is any age at all, a mere girl compared to herself, long past retirement age and still working her fingers to the bone.

Ana enters Sylvie’s apartment and finds her sitting in the dark. Oh là là là là, not again. It’s enough to sink anyone’s spirits, playing lugubrious music all day long. And that little dog listening at her feet, it’s a wonder he hasn’t succumbed to melancholy as well. Give her a gay little tune, something to set one’s feet tapping. “Quand on s’promène (pum pum) au bord de l’eau,” she sings as she puts on a pot of coffee, “comme tout est beau (pum), quel renouveau (pum).” Now that’s a song, and sure enough, Coco is up on his hind legs, didn’t she say he was musical? She’d taught him to dance like that, by holding a biscuit just out of reach. A cowering little mite he was then, but look at him now, ready to take on anything, even the great big Rott down the street.

Reading Group Guide

1. The “haunting” of Haunting Paris of course refers to the ghost of Julien, who partially narrates the novel, but spectral presences of the past hover over much of the novel’s action. Who/what else is haunting the characters in the novel? Who else is haunted?

2. The “present-day” portions of the novel are set in 1989, two hundred years after the French Revolution and fifty years after the Second World War. How is Paris’ vibrant and sometimes violent history present for the characters in 1989? How do they confront history as they move around the city?

3. What struck you about the novel’s depiction of grief? What rang true to your own experiences of grief in your life?

4. How did you understand the role of music in the novel? How has music been a tool for human connection in your own life?

5. Much of the novel takes place on the Ile Saint-Louis in the Seine, where many famous writers and artists once lived. Why do you think the author chose to put Sylvie and Julien’s apartment on this island?

6. Why do you think Sylvie chooses to search for the truth about Julien’s sister? How do you see Sylvie change as she delves further into her quest for knowledge?

7. In Haunting Paris, the lines between life and death can be hazy. For example, do you think Sylvie is truly “living” at the beginning of the novel? Is Julien really dead? How do these concepts shift over the course of the book?

8. The round-up of Jews in Paris is one of the most shocking scenes in the novel. Did you discover other periods of anti-Semitism in this story? Do you think that the promise to “Never Forget” is being kept?

9. Julien admires Sylvie’s courage, while she sees herself as timid and cowering. What act of courage on her part first attracted Julien’s attention? Are there other people in the book who speak up when it would have been easier to remain silent? Have you ever been in a situation where you were the lone voice in the room to speak up? How did that feel?

10. Since Julien is a psychiatrist and a student of Freud—whose book The Interpretation of Dreams was groundbreaking in the field—he obviously hears a lot of patients talking about their dreams, including those that recur. What dreams in the book struck you as particularly meaningful in terms of the light they shed both on the characters and on the story?

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