When I told my two-year-old granddaughter that we were going to Paris for our summer vacation, she immediately said, "I want to see the Eiffel Tower and Madeline's house!" Everyone has his or her own vision of Paris, and for Irwin Shaw, Paris was a city to be unhappy in. In "Paris in Winter," he describes a gray, melancholy, sad city where for weeks on end the sun is only a pale rumor. But only let the sun shine for a little while and, "While the sun shines, you think like a Parisian and know why it is so difficult to get him to live anywhere else. He is at the center of the world here."
As Oscar Wilde once remarked, "When good Americans die, they go to heaven; if they've been very good, they go to Paris."
Hopefully, you won't have to wait until you're dead to sample the delights of the City of Lights, and if you've never been, this anthology should prepare you to see Paris through the different perspectives of 29 Americans such as Edith Wharton and Anais Nin, some of whom visited and some of whom elected to live there.
The relationship between the U.S. and France goes way back, to a common antipathy of the British and mutual help and support during the War of Independence, and the first and second world wars. As Lee says, we've held a political, cultural, economic and artistic dialog for more than three centuries.
The city of haute couture and haute cuisine has welcomed many generations of Americans, the most famous being Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin who, like successive generations of Americans, enjoyed the good food and the glittering company.
For the members of the Lost Generation, the term applied by Gertrude Stein (who lived in Paris most of her adult life) to the young men and women who came to Europe to seek the meaning of life after the horrors of World War I, Paris was a refuge, a city in which they could "find themselves" and develop their talents.
Among them were F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, whose "A Moveable Feast" is one of the better-known pieces of writing about Paris. The excerpt in this book, "Hunger Was Good Discipline," chronicles a time when Hemingway was broke and hungry and trying to avoid the sight and smells of food, admittedly a difficult thing to do in Paris, where every street is home to at least one café and one boulangerie/patisserie. The tantalizing smell of fresh bread and the sight of all the scrumptious éclairs and mille-feuilles in the window must have been pure torture. The first thing Hemingway did when he did get some money was to go and have lunch at the Brasserie Lipp.
Food naturally figures prominently in many of the writings, and Naomi Barry writes about "haute chocolaterie." She believes that the Parisian passion for high quality chocolate is "just one more proof of Gallic greatness." A far cry from our Hershey's Kisses, Parisian chocolate is dark, unsweetened and intense. A favorite afternoon snack, or gouter, for children is chocolate on fresh baguette. Her descriptions of the different chocolates are guaranteed to make your mouth water. The Swiss and the Belgians pride themselves on their high quality chocolates, but any real chocolate aficionado knows that French chocolate is the best.
Deborah Baldwin, a staff editor at The New York Times, compares New York City to Paris, and our Big Apple does not compare favorably. The French government spends far more money on the upkeep of its capital city, including the eradication of three main bugaboos: noise, graffiti and dog poop. You won't find potholes on Paris streets; apparently "public property is treated with the same lavish attention as a wealthy person's private residence." Unlike our own capital, in Paris the murder rate is low, and the public schools' performance is high. Apart from spending lots of money, Baldwin thinks that the difference is cultural. "When the landscape is wanting, Americans pick up and move to greener pastures. Parisians, however, inhabit a city that was once hemmed in by stone walls. The city looks inward, and it invests downtown."
Mark Twain wrote in "Innocents Abroad," "We shall travel many thousands of miles after we leave here and visit many great cities, but we shall find none so enchanting as this."
All these excerpts give us an idea of the literary work of the various authors, and might encourage you to read, or reread, the works of Edith Wharton, Anais Nin, Henry James or Ernest Hemingway. There are many different styles and many different viewpoints, like Nin's reaction to French literary tradition, which she found stifling. T.S. Eliot, on the other hand, admired it because of its "overarching sense of history."
The excerpt from Jefferson's "Autobiography" ends with these words: "In what country on earth would you rather live? Certainly in my own, where are all my friends, my relations, and the earliest and sweetest affections and recollections of my life. Which would be your second choice? France." I have no quarrel with that.
The editor had two goals in mind when she chose the pieces: pleasure and variety, and I think she achieved her goals. Not all of the authors praise Paris unconditionally, but all fell under the charm of the city. The book is divided into sections entitled, "Love, Food, The Art of Living, and Tourism." You may, or may not, agree with the opinions expressed in these pieces, but they are all interesting, entertaining, and witty.
("Paris in Mind," edited by Jennifer Lee, Vintage Books, $13.00, 261 pages.)