It captures tone, though, and tone is much of what mesmerizes in this charming novel. Can melancholy and whimsy be thought of together? I'd say they meet here, intriguingly.
The book also manages meetings at other surprising borders. It seesaws, for example, between a film director's or cinematographer's distanced view and filmic techniques of cutting from one scene to an apparently disparate other. But the narrator (omniscient, but very careful in doling out knowledge) draws us in close, also, to watch a portrait or a landscape or an interior being sketched, detail by detail.
For me, the novel also manages to suggest a wholeness to its cameo, superficially flat, characters. Their eccentricities might seem to limit their verisimilitude and yet. . . The impoverished homeless painter, the jazz musician who, too poor to afford a real instrument, busks daily on his improvised keyboard of painted wood. . . Quirky characters who could easily have wandered over from the pages of Fred Vargas' wonderful mystery novels (also set in Paris).
I do wonder how much of the novel's tone has to do with Paris' folding together of history and architecture and art and personalities, its culinary and literary predilections, and above all, its love affair with books. The novel is, after all, very much about the art of story-telling, two of its central protagonists nurturing that art in response to their disappointment at their own dyslexia and illiteracy. The narrator, of course, in swinging between modes, between scenes inviting us closer and those holding us at distance, insists that we attend to a story-teller's power. We rush ahead, in the gaps s/he unfolds, to imagine the story's direction, its next step, even its ending -- creating our own temporary versions even as father and son non-reading protagonists collaboratively build stories from illustrations in the newspaper, canvasses in the Louvre.
The final threshold the novel plays at, I think, is the one demarcated by the first World War. I've always marveled at how Vargas' novels managed to be of the late 20th century, yet also to reflect a sense of Paris that is timeless -- or would it be better to say a Paris that holds all times together. Vargas does this, I think, by stripping out any unnecessary details of technology, clothing, transportation. There are enough in her pages to definitively situate the time for a reader, but also enough pages wherein other Parises can coexist alongside.
Similarly, the first several pages of The Emperor of Paris sketch a city whose streets and landmarks I can recognize but without being able to clearly narrow the time much beyond The Past, rather close, somehow, to Once Upon a Time. Above all, it's a book-ish city; books and stories are the elements that pull together the several apparently random strands until the weave becomes increasingly clear. Right until the end, though, we're not quite sure how, or even whether, the main characters will meet. And at the ending, a new story begins. . . .
If C.S. Richardson will be telling it, I will attend. . . As it is, I'm as keen now to read his earlier book The End of the Alphabet as I am to recommend The Emperor of Paris.
Have you read either?