Tuesday Paris Reading Rec: PARIS WAS YESTERDAY, Janet Flanner (Gênet)

One of the theses of my novel (I know, a novel shouldn't have theses, but attendez, s'il vous plaît), is that for American kids of a certain era -- the 1970s -- The Red Balloon was fundamental to their Paris mythmaking. The not-quite-a-children's film saturated schools in those years; I remember seeing it constantly, and I had the companion book, too.

But for discerning adults in that era, and decades before, the chief Paris conjurer was Janet Flanner, who, under the pseudonym Gênet, wrote The New Yorker's "Letter from Paris" biweekly for almost 50 years, starting in 1925. The only instruction she ever had from Harold Ross (the legendary New Yorker founder, and the source of her faintly ridiculous and punny pen name) was that "he wanted to know what the French thought was going on in France, not what I thought was going on." 

But what she thought invariably came through, and her acerbic, deadpan style somehow manage to give her pieces a timelines quality. The New Yorker is dangling one outside its paywall, this week--"An American in Paris"--and it's well worth a read, if only for its opening lines:

The late Miss Jean De Koven was an average American tourist in Paris but for two exceptions. She never set foot in the Opéra, and she was murdered.

But don't stop there. Indeed, it's worth getting the whole book that this piece is collected in: Paris Was Yesterday. Though she'd published anthologies of her work prior to this one, it's in this volume you can see some of her earliest work, and as a distinct bonus, read the book's introduction which ran separately in the New Yorker in 1971 and was one of the most popular pieces she ever published here. Surveying American expatriates in the 1920s, she writes, "Each of us aspired to become a famous writer as soon as possible." She then goes on to enumerate many who did--few, if any, current authors are able to refer to TS Eliot as "Tom"--and still more who did not. 


As I've noted in other blog posts, the default mode for the Paris memoir is nostalgia bordering on lament. Flanner's no exception, but it's somehow sweeter here. And bleaker. And so it goes writing about Paris, I suppose. "Paris then seemed immutably French. The quasi-American atmosphere which we had tentatiely established arount Saint-Germain had not yet infrinted onto the rest of hte city. In the early twenties, when I was there, Paris was still yesterday."

(For more about Janet Flanner, consult, as I did, Barbara Wineapple's wonderfully detailed biography, Gênet.)