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A City of Light, in glowing passages
By Stephen H. Morgan, Globe Staff, 12/14/2003
Paris in Mind
Edited by Jennifer Lee
Vintage Books, 288 pp., $13
With US sales of French wine down by as much as 20 percent this year, according to Agence France-Presse, some Americans are evidently still pursuing their feud over the politics of the Iraq war.
But eventually the Brie and Beaujolais will complete their return to supermarket shelves, and the ''pommes frites'' will all again be french- instead of freedom-fried -- signaling that America has resumed its normal love-hate relationship with France. This compelling paperback can only help in that effort, by serving as a reminder of Americans' long seduction by all things French, especially the fabulous city on the Seine.
Editor Jennifer Lee, who compiled the selections here, was fortunate to have discovered the French capital first as a 12-year-old on a school trip -- ''gallivanting in parks'' and trying ''to pass as older than we were'' -- and then, later, when she was in love, as she tells us in the introduction. Now, with an eye toward ''pleasure and variety,'' she brings together excerpts from three centuries of American writers as diverse as John Adams and Dave Barry. What the 29 authors she has chosen all share is an intense infatuation with the City of Light.
Most readers will find familiar passages here from favorite works, including some that helped form our image of Paris as a romantic venue.
Among these is a luminous excerpt from ''A Moveable Feast,'' in which the mature Ernest Hemingway recounts walking the city as a young writer in the 1920s, high on life but too poor to buy food: ''When you had given up journalism and were writing nothing that anyone in America would buy, explaining at home that you were lunching out with someone, the best place to go was the Luxembourg gardens where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l'Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard. There you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cezanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry.''
Other chapters yield newfound delights. For me, one was a compelling slice of Langston Hughes's autobiography, ''The Big Sea,'' in which he describes arriving in Paris with only $7 in his pocket and following up on a tip about a cheap hotel: ''I went. But it was high for me, almost a dollar a day in American money. . . . Then I ate my first dinner in Paris -- boeuf au gros sel, and a cream cheese with sugar. Even with the damp and slush -- for the snow had turned into a nasty rain -- I began to like Paris a little, and to take it personally.''
Several of the selections highlight historical moments, such as Edith Wharton writing about the city's bells ''calling to each other'' to mark the end of World War I.
A more difficult read, because of its archaic language, is a passage from the autobiography of Thomas Jefferson, in which the future president, serving his young country as ambassador, describes the sights and sounds of Paris during the French Revolution and reflects on his displeasure at the execution of the king.
Barry writes humorously from a tourist's perspective in a pair of newspaper columns. But Mark Twain does it better in excerpts from ''The Innocents Abroad,'' in which he mocks the lack of a decent barber shop, then raves about the restaurants: ''. . . so fearfully and wonderfully Frenchy! All the surroundings were gay and enlivening. Two hundred people sat at little tables on the sidewalk, sipping wine and coffee; the streets were thronged with light vehicles and with joyous pleasure-seekers; there was music in the air, life and action all about us, and a conflagration of gaslight everywhere!''
Even an angry and political James Baldwin ends up loving the city, as he bounces between New York and Paris in the 1950s, railing about the McCarthyism and segregation of the former versus the oppression of Algerians in the latter.
In an essay from ''It All Adds Up,'' Saul Bellow delivers an intellectually challenging rumination on the revival of Paris as a city of culture amid the post-World War II migration -- of which he was part -- of ''eager Francophile travelers, poets, painters, and philosophers'' who were ''vastly outnumbered by the restless young . . . as well as by people no less imaginative, with schemes of getting rich.''
Bellow concludes that Paris is a city of secularists, and that ''God would be perfectly happy in France because he would not be troubled by prayers, observances, blessings, and demands for the interpretation of difficult dietary questions.''
Other selections include a chef on French cuisine, a California mother about Euro Disney, an online writer about the life in Parisian cafes -- but no guidance for the tourist on where to go and what to do.
Just a varied and pleasurable collection of literary delights that could inspire either a trip to the bookstore for the complete versions of some of these passages or a journey to France to experience the art of living as a Parisian.
Stephen H. Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
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