All walks of literary life

27th September 1996 at 01:00
You've read the book, seen the play, now visit the writer's home, says Kevin Berry. Four days walking the literary pavements of Paris and I managed to avoid any of Hemingway's old haunts - an achievement worthy of congratulations from the French minister of culture. The macho American writer casts an irritating shadow over the Latin quarter and it is difficult to find an organised walking tour covering French writers in any detail.

Oriel and Peter Caine's tours offer a walk around the old village of Passy which includes entry into Balzac's house. Their English-commentated tours are a little way off the beaten track and are pleasingly thorough. Detecting my English accent, the lady in the Tourist Office on the Champs Elysees did not hesitate to recommend them.

But any walks are set at the collective pace of the groups, which can be like a spring-heeled deer or even faster. Two houses I came across offered enough of interest to make half a day spent at them well worth the planning. Both had English guide books for sale, but all labelling and signs were in French and only French was spoken.

Victor Hugo's house is a short walk from the Bastille metro station, in a corner of the peaceful and select Place des Vosges, which is often described as the most perfectly preserved square in the city. Hugo's house offers free admission to students, and to teachers if they can offer proof of their occupation.

The atmosphere is not unlike Haworth Parsonage, quiet and respectful and the guides are helpful and responsive without being pedantic. Hugo rented an L-shaped block of rooms looking out on to a courtyard. He had plans for a magnificent mansion in the country but died before work could begin.

One room is devoted to the first pictures of the characters from Les Miserables, drawn by Brion and Bayard, including the familiar urchin Cosette with mop in hand. Les Mis was a magazine serial to begin with and the first book illustrations are on display too.

Another room has Gustav Brion's drawings of the characters from Notre Dame de Paris. Jean Hugo, the writer's great-grandson, planned a film entitled L'Homme qui Rit about Victor Hugo. It was never made but there is an absorbing display of the characters from Hugo's books as they would have appeared in the film.

Victor Hugo's many portraits show him as respectable and wealthy. Honore de Balzac looks as if he enjoyed all the pleasures that life had to offer and did not worry about consequences or cost, someone to add fizz and notoriety to a New Year party. A poet friend once described him as "un bon gros porc" and Balzac was flattered.

At La Maison Balzac I was told that the man's debts were so great that he adopted a false name. His house was hidden from the road and only accessible through the house of his landlord. Visitors had to remember the password: "La saison des prones est arrivee!" Balzac's house, as with Victor Hugo's in a fashionable district, is a short walk from the Passy metro station. Its windows are screened against the sun and there is a small, secluded garden.

The tranquil air of the house encourages leisurely but purposeful study. Many themed activities are held throughout the year to provide background. Young people are made welcome for morning projects. They have free entry and the library is open every afternoon.

To give a flavour of the rich detail of Balzac's writing, one room has family trees of all the 2,000 characters in his master work La Comedie humaine. Another room builds vivid impressions of Balzac's Paris.

Spending half a day pottering slowly round each house gives a fuller picture of life at the time and a more detailed picture of the writer. Balzac's magnificent gold and turquoise-studded walking cane and his absolutely corking pair of braces, the sepia-toned photographs from Victor Hugo's years of exile in the Channel Islands, Hugo's own watercolours in the frames he made, the picture of his mistress as an old woman - hardly the stuff of fleeting glimpses.

Oriel and Peter Caine, tel: 00331 48 09 21 40. Victor Hugo, tel: 00331 42 72 10 16. Maison Balzac, tel: 00331 42 24 56 38. Three weeks' notice needed for school visits

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