16 May 2006

Adam Gopnik Sez: Lost Generation Not Lost Enough

I was lucky enough to hear New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik speak last night through the Brown Friends of the Library. Gopnik talked about the American ideal of Paris in writing from Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson until... well, himself, in his book PARIS TO THE MOON about his 1995 to 2000 residence there.

Gopnik's point was that Americans see Paris as a type of idyll, in the same way they see New York, and have gone there either to be good bourgeois and study at the Sorbonne and rub shoulders with the literati, or to drink and smoke and have lots of sex and be good bohemians. (Right now in New York he does neither, although he acknowledges that most people he meets still think he lives in Paris because he lives in "the Paris of their minds.") Franklin and Jefferson were both in Paris on diplomatic missions, but Jefferson studied it like he studied his farms, while Franklin concluded "[the French] must have some way of changing the air here that we are not acquainted with."

His talk gave me a whole raft of new authors to read about the city, which I have been lucky enough to visit once. Nathaniel Parker Willis, who Gopnik said is largely forgotten today, wrote about "restaurant Paris"; Art Buchwald of the New York Herald Tribune chronicled the city in the 1940s. Henry James had an unrequited romance with the city, because he tried to live there and never really felt accepted. "No American has known Paris better" than Edith Wharton. But the Lost Generation, most often invoked in the same breath as Paris, lived a much more insulated life among fellow expats than earlier chroniclers of the city -- hence him saying they weren't lost enough. And having tackled THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS, I confess I did wonder where the French were and why Stein and Toklas moved in such a small circle. In any case, he really whetted my appetite to read more about the City of Light (besides my abortive attempt earlier this semester at HAUSSMANN, OR THE DISTINCTION). Suggestions?

In other news, it appears that Starbucks is going to start selling books soon. Oh, help us all.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

I read PARIS TO THE MOON, though about three years ago now. To be honest, my most salient memory of it was his comparison of President Clinton to Barney the purple dinosaur.

Since you ask for suggestions, I will submit Victor Hugo, but of course, that was a very long time ago.