Friday, July 14, 2006

Happy Bastille Day

What better opportunity to applaud Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon than Bastille Day, the French national holiday commemorating the Fête de la Fédération, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789?

Gopnik accomplishes that rare feat of understanding and explaining another culture so well that not only do unfamiliar outsiders come away smarter but the natives agree that the observer has got them right. (If you think that's easy, see, for example, the intelligent and well-intentioned Bernard-Henri Lévy's recent attempt at capturing America.)

From the publisher of Paris to the Moon:

Paris. The name alone conjures images of chestnut-lined boulevards, sidewalk cafés, breathtaking façades around every corner--in short, an exquisite romanticism that has captured the American imagination for as long as there have been Americans.

In 1995, Adam Gopnik, his wife, and their infant son left the familiar comforts and hassles of New York City for the urbane glamour of the City of Light. Gopnik is a longtime New Yorker writer, and the magazine has sent its writers to Paris for decades--but his was above all a personal pilgrimage to the place that had for so long been the undisputed capital of everything cultural and beautiful. It was also the opportunity to raise a child who would know what it was to romp in the Luxembourg Gardens, to enjoy a croque monsieur in a Left Bank café--a child (and perhaps a father, too) who would have a grasp of that Parisian sense of style we Americans find so elusive.

So, in the grand tradition of the American abroad, Gopnik walked the paths of the Tuileries, enjoyed philosophical discussions at his local bistro, wrote as violet twilight fell on the arrondissements. Of course, as readers of Gopnik's beloved and award-winning "Paris Journals" in The New Yorker know, there was also the matter of raising a child and carrying on with day-to-day, not-so-fabled life. Evenings with French intellectuals preceded middle-of-the-night baby feedings; afternoons were filled with trips to the Musée d'Orsay and pinball games; weekday leftovers were eaten while three-star chefs debated a "culinary crisis."

As Gopnik describes in this funny and tender book, the dual processes of navigating a foreign city and becoming a parent are not completely dissimilar journeys--both hold new routines, new languages, a new set of rules by which everyday life is lived. With singular wit and insight, Gopnik weaves the magical with the mundane in a wholly delightful, often hilarious look at what it was to be an American family man in Paris at the end of the twentieth century. "We went to Paris for a sentimental reeducation--I did anyway--even though the sentiments we were instructed in were not the ones we were expecting to learn, which I believe is why they call it an education."

Alain de Botton reviewed Paris to the Moon for the New York Times; click here to read the review.

Click here to read the first chapter.

And spare a thought today for Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort (1741-1794), one of the first to enter the stormed Bastille. When the tide turned against the revolutionaries, Julian Barnes writes,
Chamfort was denounced, imprisoned, released, and threatened with fresh arrest; deciding to take the philosopher's way out, he put a pistol to his head. All he succeeded in doing was to smash his nose and put out his right eye. Then he took a razor--or in some accounts a knife--and hacked at his throat, wrists and ankles, before collapsing in a pool of blood which streamed under the door. Amazingly, he survived, and characteristically complained that poverty had yet again undone him: "Seneca was rich, he had everything he needed, including a warm bath to do it in, and the best of surroundings, whereas I'm just a poor devil who can't afford any of that ... Still, at least I've got a bullet in my head, that's the main thing." It was and it wasn't; indeed, he seemed on the way to recovery when the maladroitness of a doctor did for him.
--Marshal Zeringue