Where Some Very Famous Writers Are Buried

People can of course feel close to authors when reading their work. We get a sense of how they think, what they like and dislike, and so on. Then there’s getting REALLY close to authors — as in visiting their graves. That’s what I was able to do while in France the past couple of weeks.

A major highlight of the trip was visiting the Pantheon, the striking 18th-century neoclassical Paris structure housing the remains of many prominent French citizens in basement crypts. After walking down stone spiral steps, one first spots the coffin of Voltaire behind a statue of the writer of Candide and other memorable works.

But down a hallway was a room I most wanted to see. As I stepped inside, there were the tombs of Victor Hugo on the left, Emile Zola on the right, and Alexandre Dumas straight ahead. Wow — the 19th-century authors of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Germinal and The Drinking Den, and The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers within several feet of each other!

(For those of you who are my Facebook friends, I’m posting some Pantheon photos on FB tomorrow. I took the picture that appears with this column as I walked toward the building.)

The Pantheon highlight for my daughter was the crypt of a non-novelist: Marie Curie. Maria and her schoolmates recently learned about the famous chemist/physicist.

One can also feel close to late authors by visiting their homes. I’ve been fortunate to see the houses of Charles Dickens (in London), Herman Melville (Pittsfield, Mass.), Mark Twain (Hartford, Conn.), Harriet Beecher Stowe (next door to Twain’s mansion), and others.

What have been your experiences visiting the tombs or homes of famous authors? Also, your favorite French authors and/or your favorite books at least partly set in France?

Next week, a longer column in my usual style!

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about an endless superintendent search and more — is here.

Surprise, Surprise! How Authors Keep Us On Our Toes

There are various ways fiction writers can play with reader expectations as they try to make their work more interesting.

Obviously, one approach is to create an ironic and/or surprise conclusion a la O. Henry — who was a master of that in tales such as “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Last Leaf.” Readers will certainly want to keep reading a writer who offers story-line stunners.

Other short stories with major jolts at the end include “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, “Proof Positive” by Graham Greene, “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” by Edgar Allan Poe, to name just a few.

Another way to intrigue readers is to mix in poetry, letters, lists, newspaper clippings, author drawings, and/or other content amid traditional text. That’s the case with A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, various novels by writer/doodler Kurt Vonnegut, and so on. (In Goethe’s day, novels with letters were fairly common.)

As I wrote in a past post, some authors also shake things up by including small amounts of whimsical humor in what are mostly dead-serious novels — such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Erich Maria Remarque’s The Black Obelisk, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. This can surprise readers as well as give them a little breather that helps them better appreciate the rest of the great-but-depressing prose.

Yet another way of using unpredictability to draw readers in is to juxtapose a sad or partly sad plot line with an idyllic setting — say, Paris. Much of the French capital is of course beautiful and romantic, yet I can think of few very upbeat works set in “The City of Light.”

Instead, I think of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (with the struggling Jean Valjean) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (with the unhappy Quasimodo). Or Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece (with frustrated painter Claude Lantier) and The Ladies’ Delight (which has a love story but mainly depicts the “Walmartization” of a 19th-century Paris neighborhood).

Or Balzac’s Cesar Birotteau (with its affluent title character duped into losing so much money he may or may not be able to repay his debts), Colette’s The Vagabond (about the often-tough life of vaudeville performer Renee Nere), and J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert (whose Lalla protagonist has some success in Paris but misses her native Morocco).

Non-French authors also depict Paris as a place with the potential for heartache. For instance, Henry James chronicles Christopher Newman’s difficult effort to marry a French woman in The American, Edith Wharton sets up the possibility of a happy or unhappy Paris ending in the mostly New York-set The Age of Innocence, and James Baldwin depicts a visiting American struggling with his gay identity (among other things) in Giovanni’s Room.

Without divulging too much about plot lines ( 🙂 ), can you name additional literary works that play with reader expectations in the ways I mentioned in this post? Also, in what other ways do authors shake up readers, and which literary works exemplify those other ways? And, heck, if you don’t want to deal with those two questions, I’d be happy to hear the titles of other novels set in Paris!

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else. Also, please feel free to read through comments and reply to anyone you want; I love not only being in conversations, but also reading conversations in which I’m not involved!)

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.