June 12, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Christine Sneed's Paris, He Saidis an impressive novel of relationships and ambition, strikingly set in the French capital.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Sneed judiciously dramatizes gender expectations, the 'erotic imagination,' the struggles of women artists, and the divide between outward appearance and inner realities. An alluring, provocative novel about the coalescence of the self and the art of living."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Paris, He Said is a novel set mostly in contemporary Paris, and its focal character is a thirty-year-old woman named Jayne Marks who has artistic talent but very little money or free time to pursue a painting career. She also is prey to a failure of confidence and neglects her early promise during the eight years that follow her college graduation. She’s been living at subsistence level in New York City for six of those eight years, and when she meets a wealthy gallery owner from France, Laurent Moller, Jayne says yes without much premeditation after he invites her to move to Paris with him. He installs Jayne in his large and comfortable eighth arrondissement apartment, gives her a part-time job in his rue du Louvre gallery. She now has the means to make art as much as she would like to, but despite what sound like ideal circumstances, the emotional realities of her situation become oppressive.
The novel is divided into three sections: Summer, Jayne; Fall and Winter, Laurent; Spring, Jayne. Jayne’s POV, then Laurent’s, then Jayne’s again. After reading this novel, my mother said, “There’s a lot of sex in this book, Chris. I demurred. “No, not really,” I said. “But I guess there is a lot of talking and thinking about sex.” She didn’t really see the difference. Laurent does reflect on his private life at great length in his section; he is an unapologetic, lifelong admirer of women. Jayne is one of many pretty women he has been infatuated with over the last forty years, and as the novel progresses, she realizes that the leap she has taken with him – leaving behind her safe, albeit cash-strapped life in New York – has been more of a risk than she was initially willing to believe it would be.
First section, Jayne, Summer
1) “What Light” –Wilco (Sky Blue Sky, album)
Paris, He Said main character, Jayne Marks, is a painter who isn’t yet at the stage where her work is making its way into the world beyond her front door, but as the novel progresses, these circumstances begin to change.
Jeff Tweedy & Co sing about the nature of creative work and how (if I’m interpreting this correctly) once it’s out in the world, the painting/song/movie/photograph ceases to belong fully to its creator. This is such a catchy, upbeat song, despite being about an aspect of an artist’s life that can be ridiculously frustrating.
2) “The Glamorous Life” –Sheila E. (The Glamorous Life, album)
Jayne is offered the chance to move to Paris to live with a wealthy patron of the arts, Laurent Moller, and without thinking at length about the possible complications – both emotional and professional – she accepts his invitation. For sure she is going off to live a glamorous life, at least in a superficial sense.
I was in junior high when this song was released, already a would-be Prince groupie. Sheila E. seemed to me in my sheltered Midwestern adolescence the epitome of foxiness – the exact sort of brainy and beautiful woman the diminutive genius from Minneapolis would dig.
3) “Possession” –Sarah McLachlan (Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, album)
This song from the tour de force 1994 album that put Sarah McLachlan on the world map continues to haunt me, twenty-two years after I first listened to it. It’s emblematic of what Jayne believes she wants at the novel’s start, i.e. to be possessed, to be ravished, both intellectually and sexually.
The tone of “Possession” is more melancholic than the novel’s, but there are moments when Jayne is reflecting on the trade-offs she’s experienced since leaving New York that I think are tonally similar to this extraordinary song.
4) “I Won’t Share You” –The Smiths (Strangeways Here We Come, album)
Before Jayne leaves New York and moves to Paris to live with Laurent, she realizes uneasily that he wants her to agree to a “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy for their Parisian domestic arrangements. He claims that he won’t be running around on her behind her back, but she isn’t supposed to ask where he is when they’re not together, and he promises not to pester her with questions about her whereabouts either. She’s not at all sure if she likes this.
As Morrissey sings (I first heard this song on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack), Jayne too would like to say, “I won’t share you,” but knows that this would likely be a deal-breaker, i.e. her ticket to Paris would be withdrawn.
Second section, Laurent, Fall and Winter
5) “Je ne regrette rien” –Edith Piaf
In Laurent’s section, which is told from his (first-person) point of view, I wanted to give him the chance to explain some of his amorous choices and questionable (by our often-puritanical American standards) conduct to readers. He doesn’t give a lot of specific answers; instead, he justifies his decisions and explains that he has been a lifelong admirer of women, without apology.
Similar to the fabled, and ultimately doomed, Sparrow, he seems to regret nothing and revels in his ability to live without regrets.
6) “I’m a Man” –Bo Diddley (The Millennium Collection: The Best of Blues Rock Songbook, album)
There’s defiance and a kind of “Take me or leave me” ethos that I hear in this song. Laurent is comfortable with who he is – this is due in part to his wealth, but also to the sexually permissive culture he is a product of.
The French, from what I’ve observed, love American blues and jazz music. I can picture Laurent singing along to this great blues song in mangled English when he’s driving his car through the congested, manic Parisian streets (something he rarely does, preferring cabs and his own two legs as primary modes of transportation.)
7) “C’est la vie” –Robbie Neville (The Best of Robbie Neville, album)
Laurent seems to take everything in stride; I really wanted him to appear unflappable and a likeable but determined pursuer of pleasure.
This Robbie Neville song is probably not widely known, but in the late 80s, when I was finishing high school, I bought the album on vinyl and listened to it over and over. Neville’s voice is so mellow. I was immediately seduced. I think Laurent, if he could sing in flawless English, would probably sing like this British pop musician.
8) “The Finer Things” –Steve Winwood (Back in the High Life, album)
Laurent is a sybarite and although Jayne also enjoys some of the finer things in life too (fine art, good food, beautiful clothes), she doesn’t have the aptitude for the kind of pleasure-seeking that Laurent does.
I don’t think Winwood is singing so much about pleasure-seeking here as he is testing out a carpe diem attitude. This album was one of my favorites in high school (along with Peter Gabriel’s So and Sting’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles), and I still binge-listen to it when I come across it in the collection of CDs I can’t bear to give or throw away (I have it on vinyl too). It doesn’t feel to me that Winwood knows how good he is; it’s as if he’s having a lot of fun and hopes the album’s eight songs will cohere, when it’s all done. It’s a masterpiece.
Third section, Jayne, Spring
9) “Quelqu’un m’a dit” –Carla Bruni (Quelqu’un m’a dit, album)
Colin Fuller, Jayne’s left-behind boyfriend in New York returns to the story in late August, a few months after Jayne moved to France. Her feelings for him have been gaining affect as the novel progresses, and when Colin comes to Paris for a business trip, she knows that she hasn’t really moved on yet from their relationship.
I find the charm and lightness of Bruni’s voice and the simplicity of this melody beguiling. She’s singing about something potentially thorny – she believes that the person to whom the song is addressed still has feelings for her. I wonder if he (or she) ever admits to what Bruni is suggesting. In Jayne’s case, I’ll let you guess.
10) “Hold on” –Sarah McLachlan (Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, album)
Jayne gets one of her fondest wishes near the end of the novel – a group show at Laurent’s Parisian gallery. The other two artists are a fictional character named Chantal Schmidt; the third is Susan Kraut, Jayne’s mentor. Susan is also a real person; she’s a painter and long-time painting and drawing instructor at the School of the Institute of Chicago.
McLachlan asks “Are we in heaven here or are we in hell…at the crossroads I am standing…” This is the moment where Jayne confronts her future as an artist and ostensible public figure and leaves behind her anonymous past.
11) “Path of Thorns (Terms)” –Sarah McLachlan (Solace, album)
After the gallery show, Jayne has to reckon with her professional ambitions and her romantic attachments. There’s Colin, who is close to her age, adoring and available, and there’s Laurent, who also adores her in his manner, but he is not as emotionally available as Colin and never has been.
This early Sarah McLachlan song is one of her best. She has such a pure but nuanced voice. There’s a clarity to her sound too – I wish Jayne could have the same kind of clarity in a non-musical sense.
12) “Get It Wrong, Get It Right” –Feist (Metals, album)
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that there are some things Jayne feels she’s gotten right by the end of the novel, but there are others she hasn’t, though she’s attempting to make peace with her choices.
This is the final song on Feist’s follow-up to the enormously successful Reminder album, and I think of “Get It Wrong, Get It Right” as a coda. The final chapter in Paris, He Said serves as a coda too.
Christine Sneed and Paris, He Said links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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