Paris dans la littérature

Paris dans la littérature

Interview with the professors
  • Booksellers along the Seine River (photo: Sergii Rudiuk)Booksellers along the Seine River (photo: Sergii Rudiuk)

The class “Paris dans la littérature”, taught in French, is an optional elective class offered during the University Programme’s July session.  Open to students in both the French language and social sciences track, the class draws on literary sources to examine the historical, cultural and social forces that have shaped Paris through the centuries.

Download the course overview for “Paris dans la littérature” (FR, PDF, 190 Ko).

The course is taught by two professors, Christophe Reffait and Matthieu Vernet, who also teach in the Summer School’s French language Track.

Christophe Reffait teaches French Level B2 in the July session of the French Language Track at the Summer School.  He is a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure of Fontenay-Saint- Cloud and the École supérieure des sciences économiques et commerciales (ESSEC). He is currently leading research on Economics and Literature in the 19th Century, on Zola, on Jules Verne, and teaches both at the University of Amiens and at Sciences Po (2nd Year).

Matthieu Vernet teaches French Level C2 in the July session of the French Language Track at the Summer School.  Previously a fellow at the Fondation Thiers, he is a researcher at the Antoine Compagnon Chair in Modern and Contemporary French Literature at the Collège de France. He defended a doctoral dissertation entitled "Baudelaire: Remembered and Forgotten in the work of Proust" at the University Paris-Sorbonne. A specialist in 19th and 20th century French literature, Matthieu Vernet is the publishing director of Acta fabula, a peer-reviewed online journal, and teaches a course at Sciences Po on the notion of memory and forgetting in contemporary western society.


You have both taught at the Summer School for several years.  What are you most looking forward to about this summer?

Vernet: The first day and meeting the students.  Since I started teaching at the Summer School, this always a fun and exciting moment.  The students, who come from all over the world, are enthusiastic and happy to spend part of their summer in Paris.  It’s an important moment of exchange when everyone says: this month is going to be exciting.

Reffait: I enjoy the moment a few days after the start of class when the class gets in the habit of eating lunch together as a group in the garden or on the banks of the Seine.

What is the most important thing that students in your class "Paris dans la littérature" will learn?

Reffait: I hope that we will go beyond “postcard Paris” to examine the various cultural, political, economic and social factors that have contributed to explaining the very shape of the city.  By the end of the course, students will have gained a sense of familiarity with Paris that allows them to appreciate the richness and depth of its history.  For example, they will know how the boundaries of Paris evolved and how they were described by authors in the 19th century, they will know when certain avenues were constructed or how to explain the homogeneity of Parisian architecture, etc.

Vernet: They will learn to see Paris, as well as literature, as something complex and multilayered that is both constructed over time and is of its time.  This mix of timelessness and immediacy seem to me to be the richest and most important element of literature.  Furthermore, Paris is a remarkable observation point, as the city – like Rome – is full of traces of past lives that only reveal themselves when the layers of its history are examined and brought to light.

What advice would you give to a student who is coming to Paris for a summer in order to improve their French?  And what tips would you give them for exploring the city?

Vernet: Contrary to the stereotype, Parisians are much more talkative and curious than they seem.  I recommend that students go exploring in the neighborhoods of Paris, that they get off the beaten tourist track and become “flâneurs” like Baudelaire, Hemingway or Walter Benjamin.  They can get to know the private side of the city by opening doors, asking questions, or even just sitting on a bench and watching.

Reffait: I think that improving their French and exploring Paris go together, and both require students to set very simple and specific goals.  For example, eat lunch standing up at a café counter and listen to the clients’ conversation; go shopping at the bakery, the butcher shop, and the fish shop rather than at the supermarket; go to a bookstore and ask them to recommend a contemporary novel; go to an antique store in Sciences Po’s neighbourhood and ask for information about a unique object; get a length of fabric cut at the Saint-Pierre fabric market, buy a ticket to the theatre, and so on.  These everyday situations require significant linguistic abilities.  They also require students to spend some time alone in the city, without their Summer School friends, in order to immerse themselves and force themselves to speak French.

What is your favourite book that takes place in Paris?

Vernet: In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust.  It’s a long and challenging book, but it’s one of the most important books in literature worldwide.  It isn’t a book about Paris, but it takes place in Paris during the Belle Époque, at a moment of great change, before and after World War I.  Proust describes the changes in what was at the time the great capital worldwide.  These changes appear in the streets, in social interactions, in technical progress, but also in man’s changing relationship with himself.  It’s a life-changing novel.

Reffait: I’m not sure if I have a favourite “Parisian” book. Sentimental Education (1869) by Flaubert, perhaps.  What interests me are the glimpses of Paris we get through literature, starting with Le Roman Bourgeois by Furetière in 1666 up through the novels of Modiano or Echenoz today.  Any old detective novel, like those by Emile Gaboriau in the 19th century, are treasure troves of information about everyday Parisian life, even though they don’t necessarily have the detailed descriptions of Zola’s novels.  In fact, it seems to me like the question should be the other way around: Paris is made up of favourite books.  A sketch of Parisian rooftops by Verlaine, a stroll through the streets by characters of Flaubert or Zola, a woman’s shadow by André Breton: these are the things that create Paris.

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