Carla Bruni. Photo: Getty
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Antonia Quirke on radio: Carla Bruni's last tango in Paris

Oh, Paris. So nostalgic, so mythical. “Do they say that in English – mythical? Ah, yes! So mythical!”

Carla Bruni's Postcards from Paris
BBC Radio 2

“’Allo, this is Carla Bruni, with my third and final postcard from Paris to you!” Another fascinating hour listening to music by Claude Nougaro and Charles Aznavour while wandering the City of Light in the company of the former first lady of France (4 June, 10pm).

Bruni – model, actress and nouvelle chanson performer – is a woman entirely swept away by the big picture. Oh, Paris. So nostalgic, so mythical. “Do they say that in English – mythical? Ah, yes! So mythical!” If you were ever to throw caution to the wind and visit Paris yourself, then Carla strongly suggests forgetting the guidebook and just strolling through the parks.

All of them are nostalgic and romantic. There’s the Jardin des Tuileries, for example, “which is square and green”. And all the museums, too, which are “so beaudiful. But best to walk with a boyfriend because this is definitely romantic.” When Carla walks these streets herself, she can’t help but think about Hemingway and Joyce and the great Irish poet Yeets. Quel homme. “The memories, the history . . .”

Mysteriously, the theatres in Paris can be big but they can also be small. “For lots of people,” marvels Carla, “and for a little amount of people, too. We have all the opportunities for theatre in Paris!” Bruni sighs.

Her voice is gorgeously musical – frequently low and woozy, always full of a velvety fire. Occasionally she slows, allowing the listener to drink it all in, or even scribble things down, as though this were an informal kind of salon for some of the most interesting people in Parisian public life – artists, scientists, and so on. Simple rustic food, rough bread and cheese and sophisticated musings about British punk (“The Clash could never have been Swiss”). Anything to get people away from the chambre de TV and wandering the green and square parks of Paris!

Most of all, Carla thinks she would like to visit Scotland. Who knows? Maybe one day, thinks the listener, after she is released from the isolation unit. “It must be so nice. The castles. I don’t know how much time you need to go from south to north or east to west but I’m sure it’s possible, non? I’d love to do it with the kids, or with my man. So nice. So romantic!”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear