One of our recommended books is Crossings by Alex Landragin


A Novel

Alex Landragin’s Crossings is an unforgettable and explosive genre-bending debut—a novel in three parts, designed to be read in two different directions, spanning a hundred and fifty years and seven lifetimes.

On the brink of the Nazi occupation of Paris, a German-Jewish bookbinder stumbles across a manuscript called Crossings. It has three narratives, each as unlikely as the next. And the narratives can be read one of two ways: either straight through or according to an alternate chapter sequence.

The first story in Crossings is a never-before-seen ghost story by the poet Charles Baudelaire,

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Alex Landragin’s Crossings is an unforgettable and explosive genre-bending debut—a novel in three parts, designed to be read in two different directions, spanning a hundred and fifty years and seven lifetimes.

On the brink of the Nazi occupation of Paris, a German-Jewish bookbinder stumbles across a manuscript called Crossings. It has three narratives, each as unlikely as the next. And the narratives can be read one of two ways: either straight through or according to an alternate chapter sequence.

The first story in Crossings is a never-before-seen ghost story by the poet Charles Baudelaire, penned for an illiterate girl. Next is a noir romance about an exiled man, modeled on Walter Benjamin, whose recurring nightmares are cured when he falls in love with a storyteller who draws him into a dangerous intrigue of rare manuscripts, police corruption, and literary societies. Finally, there are the fantastical memoirs of a woman-turned-monarch whose singular life has spanned seven generations.

With each new chapter, the stunning connections between these seemingly disparate people grow clearer and more extraordinary. Crossings is an unforgettable adventure full of love, longing and empathy.

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  • St. Martin's Press
  • Hardcover
  • July 2021
  • 384 Pages
  • 9781250259042

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About Alex Landragin

Alex Landragin is the author of CrossingsALEX LANDRAGIN is a French-Armenian-Australian writer. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, he has also resided in Paris, Marseille, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Charlottesville. He has previously worked as a librarian, an indigenous community worker and an author of Lonely Planet travel guides in Australia, Europe and Africa. Alex holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne and occasionally performs early jazz piano under the moniker Tenderloin Stomp.

Author Website


“A sparkling debut. Landragin’s seductive literary romp shines as a celebration of the act of storytelling.” —Publishers Weekly

“Romance, mystery, history, and magical invention dance across centuries in an impressive debut novel.” Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“Deft writing seduces the reader in a complex tale of pursuit, denial, and retribution moving from past to future. Highly recommended.” Library Journal (Starred Review)

Discussion Questions

  1. Right from the opening line, appropriation is a major theme in Crossings. How does the novel explore this theme? And to what end?
  2. The conceit of the crossing allows the reader to inhabit the bodies of characters of a variety of cultures, sexualities, genders, classes, and races. What does the novel have to say about identity?
  3. Discuss how Crossings challenges the reader’s ability to distinguish the real from the fake, and why this might be important.
  4. Crossings traverses 150 years and seven lifetimes in under four hundred pages. Discuss how language, form, and genre are used to drive the narrative forward across this timeframe.
  5. “I am Alula. I am the one who remembers. You are Koahu. You are the one who forgets.” Memory and forgetting are major themes. Discuss how past and present relate in the novel. Crossings is preoccupied with history. What kind of history is the book interested in, and why?
  6. Alula believes Koahu forgets his previous lives when he crosses, except in his dreams. And yet if he cannot remember his previous selves, what claim does he have to being the person she says he is? How does the novel suggest identity might be possible without memory?
  7. If Alula decides on the spur of the moment to cross with Joubert as a desperate act of love, what does she learn about love as a result of her decision?
  8. What role do morality and ethics play in Crossings? Is there a moral to the novel?
  9. What is the nature of the relationship between Balthazar and Artopoulos? And is Artopoulos’s final judgment of Balthazar—“You are evil!”—justified?
  10. The narrator of “City of Ghosts” claims to fall in love with Madeleine even though he disbelieves everything she believes. Is it truly possible to fall in love with someone whose belief system is so different to one’s own that one questions their capacity to reason?
  11. Crossings is, in fact, two books, with two beginnings, middles, and ends. They’re quite different from each other, but they consist of exactly the same words. What is the effect of this structure? Which is the better book? Could a third sequence be envisaged?
  12. Crossings may be a fantasy concept, but what corollaries does it have in our real lives? What religion or other belief system does crossing most resemble?


The Education of a Monster

A Disgraceful Episode

AS I WRITE THESE words, it occurs to me that I have never known a tale to be so beyond belief as that which I am about to relate to you, dear girl. Yet nothing I have written has ever been so true. Paradox, all is paradox. Perhaps I have taken leave of my senses once and for all. You see, as a youth, I contracted the pox, no doubt from Jeanne Duval. This scourge is known, in old age, to drive its victims to madness, so that they know not the difference between the real and the unreal. I live in the permanent shadow of my impending lunacy. But as you will learn, it is not the only way in which Jeanne haunts me still. Indeed, if I am writing to you at all, it is because of Jeanne.

We are not strangers, you and I. I am the gentleman you met this afternoon in the Church of Saint-Loup, accompanied by Madame Édmonde. Your name is Mathilde. You are a sullen, bovine sixteen-year-old girl. Despite the assurances of the nuns who discharged you into Madame Édmonde’s care, you can barely read. Admittedly, you recognize the letters of the alphabet, but that can hardly be called reading. You can scribble your name, but that can hardly be called writing. Still, I trust that Madame Édmonde knows what she is doing. I have no choice.

As you know, I am a poet. I am forty-three years old, though I appear much older, due to many years of deprivation. Success, at least of the worldly variety, has hitherto eluded me, despite the excellence of my verse. In April last year, in poor health and low spirits, I left Paris, where I had lived almost all my life, determined to see out the rest of my days in Brussels as an exile. I had somehow convinced myself that I had better prospects here. I was following in the footsteps of my publisher and dear friend Auguste Poulet-Malassis, who had left Paris hoping to make some money by publishing pornography—the Belgian censor is less prudish than his French counterpart—and smuggling it into France. I arrived filled with an élan I had not known since my youth.

Upon my arrival, I rented a room in an old, decrepit hotel called the Grand Miroir on the sole basis that I liked its strange and poetic name. It had little else to recommend it. I asked for the cheapest room. It was on the uppermost floor, up three flights of a tortuously winding staircase. There was a small bed with a mattress of old damp straw, a tattered divan, a rickety writing desk, a stove that emitted more smoke than heat, and a chest of drawers. I was, at least, able to observe through a solitary window the clouds drifting across the sky, above the cityscape of rooftops and chimneys. It was one of my few remaining consolations. As long as I have a glimpse of sky, I can tolerate almost any hardship.

I had hoped my self-imposed exile would bring an end to the daily humiliations of my Parisian existence. In fact, my prospects in Brussels were no better than anywhere else. I was soon beset by the same trials and tribulations that had dogged me before: cold, damp, penury, sickness, and calumny. I have been unable to keep up with my expenses and the only reason the proprietors, Monsieur and Madame Lepage, have allowed me to remain is the hope that, should I die, they might be paid their due out of my estate—with interest, of course. They not only hope for my death, they are counting on its imminence.

* * *

The evening on which this tale begins, early last month—that month being March of 1865—I had just dined at Madame Hugo’s. Madame Hugo has always been unfailingly kind to me despite my occasional fits of distemper. Like me, her husband is in exile, but he lives in comfort in Guernsey with his mistress, playing the part of the national hero.

His wife shares a large bourgeois house on Rue de l’Astronomie with her son and his family. A little colony of Parisians has formed in Brussels lately, despite its backwardness. We have taken flight from Napoleon’s grand-nephew and his overzealous prelates. As Auguste was also invited to dine at Madame Hugo’s, he met me at the hotel and we walked there together, as we had many times before, arm in arm in case one of us should trip on the paving stones—the streets here are in a lamentable condition. As we walked, complaining about Belgium as we habitually did, I felt the wetness of the paving stones ooze into my shoes through holes that had opened up in the soles, which for lack of money I had not had repaired. As we neared the Hugo residence, Auguste urged me to guard against my usual outbursts of slander and to preserve my honor, and his too, which was linked to mine by friendship.

The maid, Odette, opened the door and ushered us in to the light and warmth. A consoling odor of roasted meats pervaded the house. There were eight of us in attendance that evening. Other than Auguste and myself, Madame Hugo, her son and his wife, there was a trio of young ladies whose names I instantly forgot. I kissed my hostess’s hand with an exaggerated bow. Wine was served in the drawing room—bad wine, of course, in tiny glasses. When we took our seats, I lowered my head and devoted my attention to the soup—an excellent consommé. All around me I heard a literary conversation begin, which I studiously avoided joining. I was concerned solely with the spooning of the soup into my mouth. I did not touch the bread, knowing it would be moist, soft, and burned, as is all bread in this country.

As much as I tried to keep my mind on this simple task, however, it strayed near and far according to its own desires. I heard one of the three ladies ask me my opinion of Belgium. Auguste interrupted and attempted to steer the conversation in another direction, but another of the three demoiselles repeated the question not a minute later, by chance at the very moment there was no more consommé left in my bowl.

This time I could not resist the temptation. I paused to gather my thoughts as the maid removed my soup plate and replaced it immediately (as is the custom here) with a plate of the ubiquitous parboiled beef. Auguste’s face was crumpled in a supplicating expression. I ignored it. “Where do I begin?” I began, wiping my mouth with my napkin and studying the faces of the three ladies before me. “For one thing, in this country, people’s faces are ill formed and pale. Their jaws are strangely built and display a menacing imbecility. At every level, people are lazy and slow. Happiness here is an accident of imitation. Almost everyone wears a pince-nez or is a hunchback. The physiognomy of the inhabitants is shapeless and flabby. The typical Belgian is part monkey and part mollusc. He is thoughtless and heavy, easy to oppress but impossible to crush. He hates to laugh but will do so to make you think he’s understood you. Beauty is despised, as is the life of the mind. Non-conformism is a heinous crime. Dancing consists of jumping up and down in silence. No one speaks Latin or Greek, poetry and literature are loathed, and people study only to become engineers and bankers. The landscapes are like the women: fat, buxom, humid, and somber. Life is insipid. Cigars, vegetables, flowers, fruits, cooking, eyes, hair—everything is bland, sad, tasteless, and drowsy. The dogs are the only creatures who are truly alive.”

Other than some uneasy laughter emanating from one end of the table, my provocations elicited only silence.

“As for Brussels,” I continued, “there is nothing sadder than a city without a river. Every city, every country, has its own odor. Paris smells of sour cabbage, Cape Town of sheep. There are tropical islands that smell of sandalwood, musk, or coconut oil. Russia smells of leather, Lyon of charcoal. The Orient, in general, smells of musk and carrion. By contrast, Brussels smells of black soap. The hotel rooms, the beds, the towels, the footpaths—everything smells of black soap. The buildings have balconies but one never sees anyone on them. The only sign of life is shopkeepers cleaning their shopfronts, which seems to be a national obsession, even when it is pouring with rain.”

“Charles, please,” I heard Auguste mumble.

“The difference between Paris and Brussels is that in Paris one is permitted to visit a brothel but not to read about it. In Brussels, it is precisely the contrary. It’s a small town, teeming with jealousy and slander. As a result of indolence and impotence, the people take inordinate interest in the affairs of others—and pleasure in their misfortunes. The streets, though lifeless, are somehow noisier than Parisian streets, on account of the irregular paving, the poorly constructed buildings, the narrowness of the public thoroughfares, the savage and immoderate local accent, the prevailing rudeness, the constant whistling and the barking of dogs. The shops have no window displays. Dawdling, so dear to people endowed with imagination, is impossible—there’s nothing to see, and the paths are unnavigable. Everything but the rent is expensive. Wine is a curiosity, drunk not for the taste but out of vanity and conformity, to ape the French. As for the food, everything is parboiled, never roasted, and smothered in rancid butter. The vegetables are execrable. The Belgian cook’s idea of seasoning is limited to salt.”

I paused. My diatribe was garnering some nervous chuckles and an occasional tut-tutting from Madame Hugo. The three ladies in front of me seemed unsure of how they should react—whether this was a performance intended to amuse or injure. Once again I heard a distant plea from Auguste: “Charles, please stop this nonsense.” But when in this sort of mood, I cannot help myself.

“There are no women in this country. No women and no love—no gallantry among the males and no modesty among the females. The women are physically comparable to sheep, pale and yellow-haired, with enormous, tallow legs—not to mention the horrors of their ankles. They appear unable to smile, due no doubt to some congenital muscular recalcitrance and the structure of their teeth and jaws—”


A Conversation with Alex Landragin


Could you tell us a little bit about your background, and when you decided that you wanted to lead a literary life?

I was born in the heart of France’s Champagne region into a family that has been making champagne in the same grand cru village for centuries. The other, maternal, side of the family is Armenian, from a family that has been migrating for centuries. My mother grew up in Odessa. When I was a child, my parents moved to Australia, then later to America. I still often wish French was my literary language. I declared I wanted to be a writer to my family when I was ten years old, but I didn’t really start this calling seriously until I was sixteen, and then only as an act of parental rebellion. I’ve thought of myself as a writer ever since.

Is there a book that most influenced your life? Or inspired you to become a writer?

Above all, I’m a writer and reader of the literature of exile. When I was sixteen, it was Camus’s The Stranger, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Later, Nabokov, Perec, Sebald, and Bernhard. In my midthirties, I found myself living for a time in the central Australian desert, working with an indigenous community. On a trip to New York, I visited McNally Jackson Books and bought Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. Back home, I read it over two euphoric weeks. It reminded me that there is nothing more important (but paradoxically also nothing more futile) than literature. It inspired me to go back to writing full time.

How did you become a writer? Would you care to share any writing tips?

It’s hard to give tips because luck is essential. Soon after I left university, I broke into the travel guide publishing boom with a stroke of luck. I spent most of my thirties writing for Lonely Planet. I authored travel guides in Europe, Australia and Africa. Throughout this time, I wrote and read widely, I kept diaries and notebooks, I blogged and wrote copious poems, songs, stories, novellas, almost all of which were worthless. I played keyboard in obscure indie bands and piano-accordion in an even obscurer klezmer band. I was always on the move. All that time, even when I wasn’t writing, I was practicing to be a writer. I didn’t stumble upon my subject matter until late, and then only by accident.

What was the inspiration for this novel?

When I was in my first year of university, I took a class in creative writing. One morning the teacher, a poet, told us about a story he’d just read. It was about an island whose inhabitants could move from one body to another. One day, a European ship stops at the island, and by the time the ship sails away it’s impossible to say who’s gone and who’s stayed behind. I was blown away by this brief summary of an unknown story. I was convinced it was the story I was born to write. But someone else had thought of it, so by all rights I couldn’t do anything with it. I got on with my life, convinced that my story had been rightfully claimed by someone else. At a party several years later, someone read my palm. He said I’d only find success by going back to something that had happened in my late teens. Fast forward two decades. Still a writer in search of my subject matter and with my fortieth birthday nearing, I started writing a blog, intending to write and publish a story every weekday for a year. This period was marked by two personal tragedies, a suicide close to me and a motorcycle accident. I kept writing the blog throughout this period. It became my lifeline. By story 151, I was so short of ideas, I revisited that story from my university days, writing my own version of it, adding a note at the end explaining that the idea wasn’t original. The next day, I realized that the end of that story, when the ship sails away from the island, is the beginning of a much bigger and more interesting story—a novel. Other than the dual reading sequences, which came much later, everything fell into place quickly: the beginning, the middle, the end, the title, two possible sequels. I decided there and then to write that novel, in what is now the baroness sequence. Finally I had my subject matter. I ended the blog prematurely and set out on what would become the greatest adventure of my life, one that would last six years and take me on a quest from Melbourne to Paris to London to Charlottesville to New Orleans and finally to Los Angeles. Incidentally, I once had the chance to ask the teacher-poet about that story he’d told us about years earlier. He told me that he had no recollection of it at all. It had completely slipped his mind. But its presence is felt in the novel from the opening line: “I didn’t write this book. I stole it.”

Can you tell us about what research, if any, you did before writing this novel? Do you have firsthand experience with its subject? Did you base any of the characters on people from your own life? What is the most interesting or surprising thing you learned as you set out to tell your story?

In Timbuktu, site of an ancient, recently pillaged library, there is a proverb: “Every book has a thousand authors.” It is truer of Crossings than most. Crossings is a historical novel set over 150 years in settings that range from a Pacific island to a merchant sailing ship to a Louisiana plantation to Paris. Some of the settings recur at different moments of their histories, and some of the characters are based on real people. Of the six years it took to write the book, I spent almost an entire year getting lost in the labyrinths of Paris’s libraries, old and new. I explored other great nineteenth-century collections in London, Charlottesville, and New Orleans. I toted my own backpack-sized book collection from city to city, including Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil and Benjamin’s Illuminations and Arcades Project.

Are you currently working on another book? And if so, can you tell us what it’s about?

From the very beginning, Crossings was always intended to be a trilogy, albeit one that would break all the rules of trilogies. But I’ve also got other interesting ideas in gestation.


How a chance discovery in a Parisian cemetery brought fiction and reality together


It was a cool, gray spring day in Paris. I was standing in the Montparnasse Cemetery in front of the grave of the Romantic poet Charles Baudelaire, still a shrine to his many fans, who leave offerings of flowers, poems, and Metro tickets. I had pieces of a novel, which I’d already titled Crossings, laid out in my head, and Baudelaire—or Charles as I’d come to call him—played a crucial part in it. But I didn’t know how to bring the pieces together. I’d come here hoping to find the solution.

Crossings is an amalgam of two stories that were bouncing around in my head a few years before this. One was the story of the final days of the German writer Walter Benjamin, who died escaping Nazi persecution at the beginning of 1940, carrying an unpublished work that subsequently disappeared. The second was a fictional tale I’d been told by a teacher more than two decades earlier about an island whose inhabitants can swap bodies. When a European ship that has chanced upon the island sails away, it’s unclear who has left and who has stayed behind. That simple tale haunted me for decades as the story I wished I had written. One blessed morning I had the insight that I could write a novel about what happened next—the story of the islanders who’d “stowed away” in the bodies of European sailors. I also realized that if I combined the two stories, I could create an intricate and compelling hybrid story, using the conceit of “crossing” to explore some of Walter Benjamin’s key concepts.

But how was I going to fit these two stories together? The obvious answer was Charles Baudelaire and his lover and muse, the beautiful and enigmatic Jeanne Duval, who was a woman of color of unknown origins. I knew Walter Benjamin had been fascinated by Baudelaire and the mid-nineteenth century almost to the point of obsession. So I had three pieces of a puzzle spread out across time and space that needed a thread to combine them. Having never written a historical novel, I knew there would be no shortcuts writing this one. To find it I needed to move to Paris.

Cut to that spring day in front of Charles’s grave. Standing there, I felt closer to the troubled poet than I did reading his poems and biographies. But I was no closer to finding the elusive thread that would knit together the disparate pieces of
my yet-to-be-written novel. I began exploring the cemetery. I knew the far southeast patch of the graveyard was historically reserved for Jewish families, and because Walter Benjamin himself was Jewish I thought it might be instructive to see it for myself. I was about halfway there, not far beyond the grave of one of my idols, Serge Gainsbourg, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something that brought me to a sudden, stunned stop. I was standing before a plinth of gray-and-pink mottled marble with an unusual inscription. It was not a family crypt, as most of the plots are in that cemetery, but an institutional one. The institution’s name was La Société Baudelaire. Under these gilded words were the names of several people who’d been associated with it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their family names were unrelated. These were people bound not by blood but by love of poetry. My kind of people. My heart started beating faster—was this the thread I’d been looking for?

That night, in front of my laptop, I searched for Société Baudelaire. I discovered a website that appeared to have been designed soon after the birth of the internet. It described a literary society with origins in the nineteenth century, when joining societies, clubs, and salons was considered the height of sophistication. It had since fallen on leaner times, but the Société Baudelaire had once been frequented by larger-than-life personalities like fashion designer Coco Chanel.

I knew there and then that I had found what I had gone to the cemetery to seek out. Of course, there was still a lot of work to do, countless hours to spend in the gigantic bunker that is the Bibliothèque nationale de France, as well as half a dozen other libraries in Paris, London, Charlottesville, and New Orleans. But from that moment in the cemetery, it felt like I wasn’t writing a novel so much as following a pre-existing trail of breadcrumbs. I inserted many of my fluke discoveries into the novel unchanged. I even gave Coco Chanel a glamorously villainous cameo. Finally, I had my thread.