Clémentine Beauvais discusses the inspiration for her YA verse novel, In Paris With You, and her decision to retell the story of Eugene Onegin, setting it in her native city, Paris.
‘In Paris With You was born out of an obsession. I remember calling my (French) editor and telling him, ‘I know what my next novel is about. It’s a contemporary rewriting, in verse, of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and the opera of the same name by Tchaikovsky.’
His reaction was: ‘That sounds like the worst idea in the world. What even is Eugene Onegin?’
Eugene Onegin is the story of a bored dandy, Eugene, with whom a young girl, Tatiana, falls passionately in love; she writes him a letter – he rejects her – there’s a duel with his best friend, and (no spoilers); many years later, they meet again, and (no spoilers). This masterpiece of Russian literature (perhaps the most influential for Russians) resonated with me; the intensity of it, the sarcastic narrator, the happy despairs and perverse joys of commitment. I wanted to do something with it, but what? The thought was in my head for many years.
One day, I finally realised it needed to take place in Paris.
Paris is my native city, and any native city is very boring when you’re a teenager. You navigate it according to a kebab-H&M-Starbucks mindmap. As a child, then a tween, I didn’t like Paris – I constantly complained to my parents that it was grey, that I wanted to live in the countryside.
But I remember the moment when it changed; when Paris was transfigured by teenage love. Any city is suddenly romantic when you’re in love. But with Paris, you get that extra layer: like Venice, it’s a place that lovers before you, and artists, and writers, have already made romantic. When you’re not in love, it all seems mawkish and trite. When you are in love, though, it’s like you’re living love in the very place for which it was designed.
Thus, being in love in Paris means experiencing the most banal feeling in the world, in the most banal place in the world for it.
That’s why it’s extremely interesting.
Because it is also, somehow, the most intense experience of life – of singular life, of your life, in this moment now and in this place here.
Sure, your kisses are the same as a million other people’s, your walks take you to the same places, you react like Pavlov’s dog to the Eiffel Tower sparkling every hour. You know you’re living your love with plagiarised aesthetics, ready-made codes, borrowed words, mimicked attitudes; you’re re-living other people’s loves.
You know that. But you certainly don’t feel it. You feel like you’re discovering everything – again, and again, and again . . .
So, love – such a tired topic. What is there still to write about? And Paris – such a tired place for love. What new things can happen there? And what? It’s a rewriting? You mean nothing’s new, nothing, in this story at all . . . ?
I liked that idea, that challenge: writing yet another love, yet another Paris love, and on top of that, it’s a rewriting of another literary love, that’s been already adapted into an opera (and a film). I had to fully accept – and celebrate – that fact: we’re always writing love on the top of a huge pile of already-written, already-lived, already-lost loves. And yet – and that’s the miracle – we’re still finding ways of writing it again, and again, and again . . .
In Paris With You is in part about, I think, that weird premise: love is both yours and everyone’s. Its spaces are both commonly shared and utterly private, it is both infinite when you live it, yet inexorably obsolescent. After a few rounds of it, you get the idea – even within your own lifespan, you see how it works, how it barges in, transforms everything, settles, and leaves. You begin to predict that it will die – you know it will – but you certainly can’t feel it while you’re living it. In my story, both Eugene and Tatiana, at different stages, make that assumption.
There are other things in the book, of course – betrayal! Friendship! Impressionism! Vegetarian sandwiches! A cat! – but I was asked to write a blog post on Paris in relation to the novel, and it’s the motif of love came out, naturally.
I should probably tell you that it’s in verse, and that it was translated by the absolutely excellent Sam Taylor. Translation is another rewriting, of course, so this book comes to you ‘twice-written’, as Kate Briggs says. But since it’s about love, it comes to you, also, a million-times-written. I hope you find it as universal, and as unique, as your own experience of love.
In Paris With You by Clémentine Beauvais, translated by Sam Taylor, is out now in paperback.