Nell Irvin Painter


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 Luke’s birth in 1994 cinched their decision: with their own little babe in arms, they regarded New York’s over-stimulated little automatons as Luke’s 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 from Paris.”

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 can’t 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 Gopnik’s 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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