An American Writer in Paris

indexindexAdam Gopnik recently wrote a piece (sub req’d) in the New Yorker about traveling home to Montreal to learn to bake bread with his mother. That piece led to my personal decree that Adam Gopnik might be my spirit animal, or at the very least, that we might be kindred spirits in the way of Anne Shirley and Diana Barry.

Here is what I knew about Adam Gopnik before reading “Bread and Women” in last year’s food issue:

1) Adam Gopnik is a man who writes for the New Yorker.

Here is what I learned about Adam Gopnik, my spirit animal, from “Bread and Women”:

1) Adam Gopnik is from Montreal, and so a fellow Canadian.

2) Adam Gopnik can make béarnaise sauce.

3) Adam Gopnik is the child of delightful French-Canadian hippie academics.

4) Adam Gopnik is married to a cool, intelligent woman who is nonetheless intimidated by his mother.

It is with this biased opinion on the author that I picked up Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon as part of my American Writer in Paris reading series. The obvious flaw in my selection is that Gopnik is not American at all, but Canadian. It is his staff writer credit at the New Yorker that imbues him with a New York worldliness that is necessary to this genre. His book is a collection of essays from the five year period he spent in Paris with his wife and young son while writing the “Paris Journals” for the magazine. Gopnik is in his late fifties now but the essays were written by a younger man who was just entering that new phase of adulthood wherein one is responsible for a tiny new human life that is not one’s own. That said, these are not the writings of a frazzled young parent getting by on a shoestring. His essays show off the best of Paris; lunch at Les Deux Magots, trips to the Musée D’Orsay, and philosophical debates with the intellectual elite. It is Paris as you’ve allowed imagined it, though  Paris as you will likely never see it.

Enter Rosencrans Baldwin to modernize the myth. Baldwin and his wife came via Brooklyn, not Manhattan and though they love Paris just as Gopnik loves Paris, their experience of the city is less fantasy and more bureaucratic headache. From the outset, Baldwin has less privilege than Gopnik, so the reader knows his experience will be different: his wife isn’t able to work in France so they’ll be on a single income, they can’t afford for her to take French lessons or do much of anything so she is lonely and frustrated,  Baldwin’s French is stilted so communication is a problem throughout the book, and he’s working in advertising rather than pursuing art full time. Baldwin doesn’t have the weight of the New Yorker forcing a serious approach. He wrote Paris, I love you but you’re bringing me down on the heels of a well-received debut novel. His critical success  allowed a humor and freedom in the writing of this memoir that covers the period of his life spent writing that debut novel.

The literary expatriate in Paris is a familiar trope: Stein, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and so many others. There are any number of memoirs written over the last 100 years that speak of the Anglophone writing community that exists in Paris and of midnights spent chasing muses down Parisian boulevards. I started with the more modern accounts from Gopnik and Baldwin because they lack much of the dizzy romance of the lost generation. The world has changed; calcified, and Paris too has hardened.

And yet. Knowing that they are not going to Hemingway’s Paris, but to Hollande’s, writers and artists and lost souls of all sorts still dream of Paris and flock to Paris to make their art or find their way. Knowing that it will not be like it is in the old books, we all still want Paris as much as ever.

Not long ago, while working at the job that pays my bills, I was arranging a telephone meeting with a vendor who is based out of Paris. The details of his business are unimportant but be assured, his work is unromantic. While we were emailing back and forth, I used Google Street View to look up the location of his office. This commonsense man with his down-to-earth job, poring over spreadsheets just as I was, was doing so from the Parisian street of your imagination. A narrow white building with wrought iron Juliet balconies, the street lined with cafes, patios full of stylish people. The Google photographer had even captured a young couple streaming by on a moped, the helmetless girl on the back taking a bored pull of her cigarette.

What I mean to say is, my love for Adam Gopnik aside, it was Rosencrans Baldwin’s book that moved me more. The account of an ordinary life in an extraordinary place. His honest humor, his frustration, even his decision to eventually return to the United States, told me more about the city than Gopnik’s more glamorous portrait. I don’t love Paris any less for the flaws that Baldwin pointed out and even though he decided to leave, his account of an American writing in Paris makes the city seem more conquerable for us all.

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