Written by Robert Goddard



 It’s difficult to say where the border is between researching and plotting a novel. The two go hand in hand. That’s particularly the case where a novel is set in the past, because so much recreation goes into the process of shaping the story – what people wore, how they spoke, how they travelled, what they saw and heard around them.

In The Ways of the World, there’s an added dimension: recorded history. We know, often in detail, what took place in Paris during the 1919 peace conference. Many people recorded their experiences of the event. To the novelist, though, that’s not always very helpful. A report now of a conference in Paris would tell you nothing of what it’s like to be in the city and much the same is true of the reports of the negotiations in 1919.

In the end, there’s no substitute for walking the ground and imagining how the characters I’ve created would behave and react in the circumstances I’ve devised for them. There’s also no denying that even Paris, a lovingly preserved city in many ways, has changed an awful lot in close to a hundred years. Photographs are the best portal into the past. They show you things as they truly were, unedited, unsanitized. We can see the peeling adverts on gable ends, the scruffy street urchins, the limp vegetables on market stalls, the dung, the cobbles and the tramlines. We can see the world as it was far more clearly than any historian will ever be able to conjure it up.

The French have a habit of renaming streets and Metro stations, however, which no amount of photographic perusal will get you round. There are no prizes for guessing Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt was called something else (Avenue d’Antin) in 1919, but there are many other less obvious examples just waiting to trip you up. Lloyd George rented a flat in Rue Nitot for the duration of the conference. It’s frequently mentioned in history books. But where exactly was it? Even the Internet’s no help on the subject, but the novelist has to know the answer if he wants to use it as a location. An old street map in the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris supplied the information at last. Rue Nitot is now called Rue de l’Amiral d’Estaing. (I mention this to save others the trouble of tracking it down.) I trust the Admiral deserves his posterity.

The wonderful Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris also allowed me to examine 1919 editions of Didot Bottin, a street directory similar to Kelly’s. In the pages of Bottin you draw close to the living and breathing reality of the city at the time. Who lived where, what trades they pursued, what their names were. Thanks to Bottin, I solved the mystery of where the Japanese delegation stayed during the conference. Not, as historians appear to suppose, the famous Hotel Bristol in Rue Fauborg St-Honoré, which wasn’t actually built until 1925, but another, smaller, altogether less famous Hotel Bristol at 3-5 Place Vendôme (proprietor G Morlock). I’m only sorry Monsieur Morlock couldn’t inveigle his way into the plot. (Hold on, though. There’s time yet. The story is to be continued, after all!)

There was a great deal of squinting at old photographs, maps and directories to be done in the writing of this novel. Set a scene on a tram and you have to check trams actually served the location, where they came from and where they went. Someone out there will know the route of the number 2 tram from Montparnasse to l’Etoile. I have to know it too. And someone out there will know the price of milk in 1919 Paris. Now I do too.

Paris still had its old fortified city walls in 1919. The present-day Périphérique motorway traces its route. There were slaughterhouses, long gone, out by the city wall on the Canal de l’Ourcq. We go there in the book, so I go there in my mind, trying to imprint the malodorous past on the prettified present.

But a novelist has to be impressionistic as well as factually accurate in order to summon up a previous era. When Harold Nicolson met Marcel Proust at a dinner party during the conference and Proust asked him to describe the committee meetings he’d been attending at the French Foreign Ministry on the Quai d’Orsay, Proust stopped him no sooner had he commenced, saying he was going too fast and omitting crucial information. Proust wanted everything: the handshakes, the maps, the rustle of papers, the tea served in an adjoining room, the macaroons served with the tea. ‘Précisez, mon cher, précizer,’ Nicolson records Proust as saying. Even novelists much less precise than Proust (which is probably just about all novelists) would understand what he was getting at. Research is in the end aimed at achieving those simple but elusive things: the mood of a time and the feel of a place.

That’s what it’s all about. Paris, in 1919. Let’s go there, shall we?

Bantam Press (4 July 2013) Hbk £16.99

Article © ROBERT GODDARD June 2013
Photo © Mike Stotter 2012

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Robert Goddard

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