Book review: Paris Requiem, By Lisa Appignanesi

A curious American abroad leads this haunting mystery of fin de siècle passion and prejudice

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This richly atmospheric piece of Jamesian fiction revolves around the perpetually fascinating image of the American in Europe, the Old World and the New. Innocence and suspicion, mystery and exploitation, interweave into a complex narrative. It's part-thriller, because the Harvard academic James Norton is in Paris to find his untrustworthy brother who has become entangled with the lovely but dangerous Olympe, who has mysterious connections with the poor and outcast.

Get money off this title at the Independent book shop

The city itself is in turmoil beneath the serene elegance of the Haussmann boulevards, for this is 1899 and the Dreyfus case is the great scandal of the day. When Olympe's body is found in the Seine, Norton's family, including his invalid sister Elinor, become embroiled in a scandal of their own. Chief Inspector Durand begins a serious investigation, aided by Norton's brisk American determination to carry through his search.

Norton's' journey through Parisian society takes him into the elegant world of the belle époque as well as to the lunatic asylum where Dr Charcot practised his notorious methods of hypnotism. The book is a multi-coloured spectrum of Parisian society, always with the sense that something horribly rotten is lurking beneath the polished surface. Sharply detailed snapshots bring Paris to life: the vineyards still in Montmartre, the appalling treatment of suspected prostitutes, who could be hauled in for medical examination at the whim of the police.

But Appignanesi's theme has profound resonances. The Dreyfus case is not merely a convenient historical marker, for the beautiful Olympe was Jewish and the position of all Jews in this whirling city is revealed as extraordinarily precarious.

They were subject to the scientific prejudices of the day, embodied here in Professor Vaillant at the asylum, for whom Jews have "a general predisposition to hereditary neurologic disorders of all kinds", including neurasthenia, described as "the American disease". For Vaillant, Jews and Americans suffer from an urge to wander which must have an anatomical source. As the appalled Norton discovers, the hospital laboratory is full of chilling specimens claimed to prove the truth of his assumptions.

A huge amount of solid historical research must have gone into the making of this novel. But it is lightly worn, never intruding on the reader's consciousness in the compelling portrait of a city at a momentous point in the history, not merely of Dreyfus's Paris, but of the roots of intellectual anti-Semitism.