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News > Style > Columnists > Book Report
City of Lit
By Jonathan Yardley
Thursday, August 7, 2003; Page C02
PARIS IN MIND: Three Centuries of Americans Writing About Paris
Edited by Jennifer Lee
Vintage. 267 pp. Paperback, $13
Another book about Paris? One shudders at the thought, and immediately recalls the wry lyrics of Dave Frishberg, who wrote -- in a song called, of course, "Another Song About Paris" -- about how it is possible to have too much of what was once a good thing: "Another song about Paris, is there room for one more? / Is there really a note or a word we all haven't heard before? / Is there one thing about Paris left to sing, left to say? / Though they still may be gay on the Rue de la Paix near the Champs Elysees, / In that sidewalk cafe where Maurice Chevalier sipped his cafe au lait, / I'm afraid that today it's become 'how you say' more or less a cliche."
Frishberg was right. The airwaves have been drenched for years with soppy songs about Paris, most having to do with spring and love and bridges over the Seine, and the bookshelves have been crammed with gushy volumes about Paris, most having to do with quaint shopkeepers and cute mademoiselles and bookstalls along the Seine. So, ho hum, here comes Jennifer Lee with the umpteen-millionth book about Paris; yet, here's the good news, indeed the quite amazing news: Jennifer Lee somehow has managed to put together a collection of 2 1/2 dozen pieces about Paris that is not -- repeat, not -- just another book about Paris.
"Paris in Mind" is terrific in just about every respect. Rather than yet another assembly-line product -- Here-I-am-in-Paris- and-isn't-it-picturesque-and- aren't-I-great? -- it is a real book about what some Americans have brought to Paris, what they have found there, what they have taken away from it. Lee says that she "followed two goals for this collection: pleasure and variety," and that "a selected piece had to be a pleasure to read or offer a perspective, or examine a topic, that testified to the breadth of American interests and experiences in Paris." This she has accomplished to an impressive degree, reminding us that Paris is a lot more complex and elusive than you'd be led to expect by the watercolorists in Montmartre or the boulevardiers on the Champs.
To begin at the end, she closes with an excerpt from James Baldwin's splendid early work "No Name in the Street," which is less a piece about Paris than it is about a young black American fleeing hostility and prejudice in his native land in the 1950s and meeting a notably complex reception in Paris. He writes about the discrimination and brutality directed against Algerians in France at the time, and finds himself more connected to them than to the French. He describes indiscriminate police violence against them and other foreigners, and writes:
"I was not as demoralized by all of this as I would certainly have been if I had ever made the error of considering Paris the most civilized of cities and the French as the least primitive of peoples. . . . Still, my flight had been dictated by my hope that I could find myself in a place where I would be treated more humanely than my society had treated me at home, where my risks would be more personal, and my fate less austerely sealed. And Paris had done this for me: by leaving me completely alone. . . . If I could make it, I could make it; so much the better. And if I couldn't, I couldn't -- so much the worse. I didn't want any help, and the French certainly didn't give me any -- they let me do it myself; and for that reason, even knowing what I know, and unromantic as I am, there will always be a kind of love story between myself and that odd, unpredictable collection of bourgeois chauvinists who call themselves la France."
That passage is just about perfect; certainly it strikes a perfect balance between candor and affection, fidelity to history and fidelity to oneself. Baldwin knew that Paris over the centuries had been repeatedly at the mercy of the mob and that the brutality visited upon the Algerians and others was merely a variation on an old theme, yet he also knew that Paris had liberated him in important ways. That he was able to get this across in only a few sentences is vivid evidence of the brilliance of which he was capable, and a reminder that those early essays and nonfiction works of his are among the real monuments of 20th-century American literature.
Nothing else in this collection quite reaches those heights, but there is a lot of very fine stuff. Irwin Shaw, who lived in Paris for much of his adult life and self-evidently loved it, is represented by an excerpt from his celebratory book "Paris! Paris!" that is in fact anything but celebratory. "Paris in the winter," he writes, "is for connoisseurs of melancholy. . . . in the wintertime Paris is a beautiful woman who has come back two weeks before from a holiday in the sun and who has lost her tan and is now in that unhealthy yellow state that makes the aftermath of vacations look like the onset of jaundice."
Dave Barry contributes two wonderfully funny pieces in which he describes a tourist's pleasures such as visiting "L'Arc de Triomphe (literally, 'The Lark of Triumph') and the Hunchback of Notre Dame Cathedral" where "you, the tourist, are encouraged to climb . . . via a dark and scary medieval stone staircase containing at least 5,789 steps and the skeletons of previous tourists." T.S. Eliot complains, accurately, that for writers "the chief danger about Paris is that it is such a strong stimulus, and like most stimulants incites to rushing about and produces a pleasant illusion of great mental activity rather than the solid results of hard work."
All of which isn't to suggest that these pieces take a willfully contrarian view of Paris but that they try to see it honestly. M.F.K. Fisher isn't being sentimental, merely honest, when she says that Paris "should always be seen, the first time, with the eyes of childhood or of love." John Adams writes to his beloved Abigail about "the Delights of France . . . the Politeness, the Elegance, the Softness, the Delicacy," then swallows his pride and admits: "In short stern and hauty Republican as I am, I cannot help loving these People, for their earnest Desire, and Assiduity to please." Mark Twain visits the city for the first time:
"In a little while we were speeding through the streets of Paris and delightfully recognizing certain names and places with which books had long ago made us familiar. It was like meeting an old friend when we read 'Rue de Rivoli' on the street corner; we knew the genuine vast palace of the Louvre as well as we knew its picture; when we passed by the Column of July we needed no one to tell us what it was or to remind us that on its site once stood the grim Bastile, that grave of human hopes and happiness, that dismal prison house within whose dungeons so many young faces put on the wrinkles of age, so many proud spirits grew humble, so many brave hearts broke."
That is Paris: the Louvre and the guillotine. Thanks to Jennifer Lee for reminding us of this eternal truth, one far more gritty and far more real -- and thus far more human -- than all the self-serving twaddle dished out by the professional exiles and professional tourists. Indeed, the only truth missing from this collection is the one argued in Frishberg's lyrics. Perhaps room can be found for them in a later edition.
©2003 The Washington Post Company
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