Intellectual romp in Paris
By BILL DURYEA
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000
Reading Adam Gopnik's essays from Paris when they first appeared in the New Yorker, I was smitten by his cultural insights (so much like my own, but funny), his bilinguality (a gift we share except that he really speaks French) and his literateness (a perfect mirror of my own if only I had done the reading in college).
When he wrote about his fear American culture (read, Barney) would infect his young son, I felt the same welling paternal instinct. When he wrote about the difficulties of doing actual exercise at a Paris health club, I smiled knowingly. When he dismantled a century of hidebound French cuisine, I applauded his daring.
As I dipped into Paris to the Moon, a collection of five years worth of his essays, I luxuriated again in the filmy bath water of self-congratulation. Then I chanced upon an essay by Chris Lehmann, the editor of Newsday's Sunday Currents section, who last year skewered Gopnik for his "disconcertingly tiny worldview," tagging him as "the Seinfeld of public intellectuals."
Lehmann's chief complaint was that the New Yorker, the very magazine that once carried world-class reportage by Hannah Arendt ("Eichmann in Jerusalem") and Jonathan Schell ("The Fate of the Earth") had permitted Gopnik a few thousand words to sort out why one Parisian cafe is more popular than another.
Suddenly, I felt dirty again.
How shallow of me for liking such a trifle. How elitist and smug. And yet I couldn't shake my initial delight. I realized I needed to craft an appreciation of Gopnik that was more catholic than Catholic. Because I suspect other Gopnik fans might be feeling the same internal conflict, this I do in their names also.
Those who dislike Gopnik seem to hate both his intellectualism (he tosses off references to linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and social anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss like a pitching machine) and his mundane thinking (no grocery trip is too inconsequential if it is transacted in French). The critics seem to hate the way the former is made to serve the latter, as if Queen Elizabeth were sent to mop floors for a family in Queens.
Yes, Gopnik can be pretentious at times. "A Tale of Two Cafes," the piece Lehmann chews on hardest, includes this line up top: "When we got to the Flore and looked around, upstairs and down, we couldn't find an empty table -- that kind of Saturday -- so we went outside and thought about where to go." That kind of Saturday. It's not my kind of Saturday, but then I don't live on the Left Bank.
Here's my defense: Don't get bogged down in the conceit and name-dropping with which Gopnik begins the piece. There's a bigger -- not earth-shaking, but bigger -- point about the nature of taste. Take it for what it is: a little gossip, a little history and a little philosophy.
Paris to the Moon is in some ways its own defense.
Gopnik didn't spend his whole time ambling along the Boulevard Saint-Germain. In Papon's Paper Trail, Gopnik dissected the war crimes trial of Maurice Papon, the man who had signed the paperwork that shuttled thousands of French Jews to their deaths in the Nazi concentration camps. This subject is no trifle and neither is Gopnik's understanding of the trial's subtext: the French national deference for "l'etat, the state itself."
"The idea of l'etat," Gopnik writes, "has a significance that is incomprehensible to Americans, for whom it means, at best, the post office. L'Etat suggests more than the mere sum of civil service. It has the authority that the Constitution has in America, that the monarchy had until recently in Britain. The state is the one guarantor of permanence in a country where neither the left nor the right can quite accept the legitimacy of the other side."
And so when Papon was found guilty, Gopnik summed it up this way: "The men with the stamps and the filing cabinets now couldn't plead procedure any more than soldiers could plead orders; the appareil of the state would have to understand that their fiches represented people, whether they were Jews or Algerian demonstrators or refugees yet to come."
For all his robust intellectual gifts, Gopnik at times writes as though he has an eating disorder -- gorging on dependent clauses or starving himself of modifiers or pronouns in the next. Weirdly, this dysfunction can seem like showing off.
Thankfully, Gopnik spends most of his ink between these two extremes. That is when he is most droll and most charming. And that is why I still remember his description of trying to get in shape in a city that does not as a rule sweat before breakfast. After weeks of delayed openings at a soon-to-open "New York-style" gym, during which time the owners placate Gopnik with chocolate truffles, he finally climbs aboard one of the stationary bicycles:
"By now there were other people at the gym, though the man on the bicycle next to me was going at a speed barely fast enough to sustain life, while the woman beside him, who was on a treadmill, was walking at the right speed for window-shopping on the Boulevard Saint-Germain on an especially sunny day when your heart is filled with love and your pockets are filled with money; it was as though she had set the machine at "Saunter.' "
Smile if you want, you have my blessing.
- Bill Duryea is a Times staff writer.
PARIS TO THE MOON
By Adam Gopnik
Random House, $24.95.
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