Monday, March 24, 2008


I spent the March Break in Paris and found myself reaching for books about that fair city from the bookshelves at Shakespeare and Company, in the Latin Quarter, facing the Seine.

PARIS TO THE MOON (2005) is New Yorker writer Adam Gopnick's personal essays about living with his wife Martha and their young son Luke in Paris in the 1990s. They are eclectic and charming, both the essays and the people and you learn quickly what matters to a five-year-old--evidently swimming at the Ritz where there are mermaid mosaics he can dive down and kiss is one thing.

THE FLANEUR: A STROLL THROUGH THE PARADOXES OF PARIS (2001) by Edmund White has a distinctly gay perspective of life in Paris in the 70s and 80s. I learned invaluable expressions like "poules de luxe" (high class hookers) and "le non dit" (the great unsaid) from White as well as an appreciation for flirting and how it is an essential part of everyone's day, gay or straight. White is a gossipper and I learned that Collette apparently asked her dentist to replace all of her teeth with jade, and that Josephine Baker claimed "the rear end exists. I see no reason to be ashamed of it. It's true there are some rear ends that are so stupid, so pretentious, so insignificant that they're good only for sitting on." I didn't know that Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes worked as a dishwasher in Montmartre where he wrote a poem about Baker and sold it to VANITY FAIR.

PARIS, FRANCE, Gertrude Stein's personal recollections about her life at the centre of an exclusive coterie of artists in the 1920s was the most difficult of these books to read because her style is choppy and affected. An amusing anecdote involves Picasso who encouraged her to purchase a completely different dog from her black standard poodle who died because he claimed it wouldn't be fair to the new dog. Her French friends had another opinion along the lines of "le roi est mort; vive le roi." She followed the French and bought another poodle and gave him exactly the same name.

Hemingway's memoir A MOVEABLE FEAST which records episodes from 1921-1926 was published posthumously in the 60s. It is an interesting balance to Stein's book since it involves the same characters including Fitzgerald and Joyce at the same time. Hemingway's prose is terse and strong and clean. I discovered that he and Fitzgerald and Pound curried funds together from their wealthy friends to raise enough money to spring Thomas Eliot from his life of drudgery in the bank in London--the great TS Eliot who became the modern poet to define a generation with "The Waste Land" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" What impressed me most about Hemingway was his self discipline. He "always worked until [he] had something done and [he] always stopped when [he] knew what was going to happen next."

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