Review by Nell Irvin Painter in Raleigh News and Observer, 10 December 2000.
Copyright Nell Irvin Painter.
Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon.
New York: Random House, 20 October 2000.
Americans still believe in the magic of Paris--that
somehow living in Paris will, all by itself, change our lives. The air
of Paris, we assume, lends beauty to ordinary people and everyday events,
or at least glosses everything with an elegance missing here in the United
States. In this country, people grub for money, dress badly, work too
hard, neglect public spaces, and generally lose sight of the finer points
of living. American existence, rife with identity politics, violence,
materialism, and everybody yelling at everyone about their rights, just
seems to wear one down in a way unimaginable in Paris. In the mid-1990s,
my husband and I spent a sabbatical year in Paris. We never had to explain
our decision to friends and colleagues, for whom the inherent attraction
of the French capital served as its own rationale. No one ever wonders
why you move to Paris.
The French may have lost their empire. American English
may prevail as the global language. New York fashion may outsell Paris
couture. Even in France, hip-hop and techno music have replaced the
singers of our youth. But the very idea of Paris retains its mystique.
In Paris, life is beautiful, even in these times, or so it seems.
Living in downtown Manhattan, Adam Gopnik and his wife
Martha watched The Umbrellas of Cherborg (1964) and
listened to the records of Charles Trenet (born 1913) over and
over. New York was too loud and frenetic and ugly, too full of violence
and materialism. They envisioned finer lives in France. Their son Lukes
birth in 1994 cinched their decision: with their own little babe in
arms, they regarded New Yorks over-stimulated little automatons
as Lukes future. Such children were not at all the kind of person
they wanted Luke to become. Adam and Martha moved to Paris to preserve
themselves as civilized beings and save their child from American popular
culture. Between 1995 and 2000, Adam Gopnik very nicely explained Paris
to the people who read The New Yorker with a regular Letter
What did the Gopniks find? Strikers in the street in
a splendidly display of solidarity up against the juggernaut of global
capitalism. Politics played out as high drama. Rampant anti-Americanism.
Ordinary people treated like aristocrats, with a guaranteed income whether
or not they work, and universal health care. This last impressed the Gopniks
as it impressed us.
Americans cant believe the French health care system
unless they encounter it personally, as we did. You succumb to an ailment
serious enough to demand the attention of a real doctor. You discover
such a person in an office within a block or so of where you live. You
call the doctor up, and she or he answers the telephone. Your local doctor
tells you when to come by the office and sees you without red tape. She
or he listens to your complaint unhurriedly, prescribes lots of medicine
(French MDs get reimbursed according to how much medicine they prescribe),
and sends you away feeling respected and salved. Even when you go to the
hospital, as the Gopniks had to do with Luke, no one interrogates you
at the door about payment. The state pays. For everyone.
The French welfare state explains much of the current antagonism
against America, which encompasses both (mindless, bloody)
American popular culture and the (heartless) robust market economy.
Still facing relatively high levels of unemployment and a relatively sluggish
economy, French people feel pressured to follow the British into free-market
capitalism, which they despise as libéralisme,
or libéralisme anglo-saxon.
In French eyes, market values alone drive le liberalisme
anglo-saxon. It stomps on human interests and threatens values
many French people hold dear. These same values strike many Americans
as downright socialistic. The welfare system pays the neighborhood MD
less than $50,000 per year. Un-American high taxes support the
beautiful public parks, monuments, and celebrations summed up as the national
patrimony. To my mind, the most striking difference between life in the
United States and in France is the existence of the French notion of national
patrimony as against the degradation of public spaces and public services
in the United States. This distinction also struck Adam Gopnik. But Gopnik
finds it easier than I do to distinguish what is American, on one side,
from what is French, on the other.
Throughout Paris to the Moon, Gopnik contrasts the
French and Americans, as though each nation consisted
of a single national character. Both the French and the
American are middle-class and white. And both live in the synecdoche
of their respective cities: Manhattan below 110th
Street and the inner arrondissements of Paris. When Gopnik sets New
York against Paris, he means his downtown Manhattan
neighborhood as against his Parisian Left Bank. Neither his Paris
nor his New York includes the outer boroughs of the Bronx,
Queens, and Brooklyn or in Paris, the banlieu, where workers, immigrants,
and people of color live in conditions akin to those of the Bronx.
If you look beyond Gopniks little worlds to the outer
boroughs and the banlieu, the two cities look less different, and familiar
American themes come into view. In the banlieu, people engage in identity
politics, violence, materialism, and everybody yells at everyone else
about their rights. No one watches the Umbrellas of Cherborg
or listens to Charles Trenet. Paris to the Moon provides a charming,
elegant, but often narrow view of Paris. Seen as something larger than
the inner ring of neighborhoods, Paris still charms. But it no longer
seems wildly different from New York in the very late twentieth century.
Copyright Nell Irvin Painter. This review appeared in
the Raleigh News & Observer on December 10, 2000.
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