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PARIS IN MIND
Edited by Jennifer Lee
267 pages. Vintage Books. $13.
August 16, 2003
BOOKS OF THE TIMES | 'PARIS IN MIND'
(pages A15, A20)
With Writers to Thank, We'll Always Have Paris
By FRANK J. PRIAL
an apartment in Paris 20 years ago, I trudged through the Marais and the
Latin Quarter with a real estate agent who insisted she would quickly find
just the place for me. She didn't — everything was wildly expensive and
pitifully small — until it dawned on me: she thought this was where
Americans wanted to be.
"I don't have to live near Americans," I told her. She looked
skeptical but, next morning, she showed me three delightful places in much
less trendy neighborhoods. By aperitif time we'd settled on one. I am
Parisians have a certain idea about Americans. It's not hard to
understand why. We have a certain idea about Paris. We flock to the same
hotels, push into the same restaurants, shop in the same stores and
boutiques. We buy the same trinkets, trot en masse through the Louvre,
call the waiter "garçon" and come away convinced we know Paris.
"There is only one Paris," we say thereafter.
In fact there are two. Tourist Paris is real enough, but the other
Paris is important, too: the Paris of the imagination, the Paris of the
heart. You can't get to that Paris on the Métro; you must find it in
books. Providentially, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of books
about Paris in print, an astonishing number of them by, about and
essentially for Americans. Anyone can stroll the rue de Varenne, but
through a book one can be there in November 1919 when Edith Wharton, who
lived there, was summoned to her balcony by the bells of Ste.-Clotilde, a
"Through the deep expectant hush," she wrote, "we heard,
one after another, the bells of Paris calling to each other."
And then: "At first, as it seemed, softly, questioningly, almost
incredulously; then with a gathering rush of sound and speed,
precipitately, exultantly, till all their voices met and mingled in a
crash of triumph. We had fared so long on the thin diet of hope deferred
that for a moment or two our hearts wavered and doubted. Then, like the
bells, they swelled to bursting, and we knew the war was over." Only
in a book can we spend a moment in the Latin Quarter in the 1930's with A.
J. Liebling, one of the finest chroniclers of the American experience in
Paris. "From my first appearance in the quarter," he wrote,
"my French was no worse than that of a White Russian or a Czech, and
I rose rapidly and successively through the grades of being mistaken for a
Hungarian, German Swiss, Alsatian and Belgian from the Flemish-speaking
These two excerpts are from longer ones — almost 30 of them —
plucked from novels, memoirs, letters and columns, and newly collected in
a modest volume called "Paris in Mind." Among the contributors:
old standards like Janet Flanner, Ernest Hemingway and Langston Hughes;
old, old standards like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and
talented younger people like Patric Kuh and David Sedaris.
The American experience in Paris is well-trodden territory and the
editor, Jennifer Lee, had her work cut out for her looking for fresh and
vibrant, if not quite new, material. Some selections don't work. A single
paragraph from E. B. White is ungenerous; Art Buchwald's interview with
Vernon Duke about his song "April in Paris" is inane, and M. F.
K. Fisher's observation that "Paris was too full of people we
knew" isn't much better.
Dave Barry is, well, Dave Barry. When a waiter calls him Mr. Smarty
Pants in French, he thoughtfully gives us the original: "M. Pantalons
Intelligents." David Sedaris is wildly happy to discover that Paris
may be the best place in the world to see reruns of old American films. He
watches six a week. "I think of the great city teeming on the other
side of that curtain," he writes, "and then the lights go down
and I love Paris."
Patric Kuh, chef and writer, recalls the tense, brutal atmosphere of a
brasserie kitchen. Janet Flanner recounts the oddly compelling story of a
Parisian serial killer.
Not everyone is happy in "Paris in Mind." Anaïs Nin is
crushed under the weight of the literary establishment. To Irwin Shaw,
Paris in winter is "for those who are unhappy and are looking for a
city to be unhappy in." John Adams is disgusted by Benjamin
Franklin's easy ways with Parisian women, Mark Twain gets conned by a tour
guide, and Langston Hughes arrives in town broke. "I had no idea
where I would sleep that night, or where to go about finding a cheap
hotel," he writes. "So I began to look around for someone I
could talk to. To tell the truth, I began to look for a colored person on
the streets of Paris."
James Baldwin, bitter about the United States, is quickly disillusioned
by Paris and the arrogance of the French. On some level, they must have
appreciated his critique — they made him a Commander of the Legion of
Honor. Ada Smith, the nightclub owner known as Bricktop, recalls Paris
night life in the 1920's when she sang at a club called le Grand Duc
(where the 24-year-old Langston Hughes was working in the kitchen).
Bricktop befriended an American teenager named Josephine Baker who became
the toast of Paris, often singing a song that could be a musical theme for
this attractive book:
J'ai deux amours,
Mon pays et Paris.
I have two loves,
My own country
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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