New Yorker staff writer and author of the recently published Paris To The Moon, Adam Gopnik lived in Paris with his family from 1995 to 2000 and wrote the magazine’s “Paris Journals,” prompting the French newspaper Le Monde to regard him as a “witty and Voltairean commentator on French life.” His work has won awards from the National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism to the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. While some of the essays in Paris To The Moon come from his New Yorker filings, there is also much new material from Gopnik’s very engaging and original take on being an American in Paris and more. Adam Gopnik has returned to New York, where he now resides with his wife, Martha Parker, and their children, Luke and Ollivia.
Robert Birnbaum: What was the end-of-the-millennium in Paris like?
Adam Gopnik: It was a very successful thing. It just was beautiful and successful, and I think everyone admired it…with what panache it was celebrated. So it was a big deal, but it wasn’t a heavyweight deal.
RB: It wasn’t a spectacle?
AG: Yeah, it was a spectacle. We had this amazing fireworks show at the Eiffel Tower. I was comparing it to the millennial celebration in London, particularly. And that was very hyped, and then all of the elements of it — the Ferris wheel they had built didn’t work — and the Millennium Dome, though a very beautiful building, was a failure. So in the long-range competition between Paris and London, we won the millennium.
RB: Is it the case that you don’t much care for the British?
AG: No, no, not at all. We thought of moving to London, in fact, after Paris. No, we love it. I guess I have inherited some of the French prejudice against them. I am a patriotic Parisian. If you are a patriotic Parisian, you root against London, as when you are a patriotic Bostonian, you root against New York a little bit.
RB: Towards the end of the book, your wife, Martha, makes the distinction between a beautiful existence and a full life.
AG: In Paris we had–not just we had, but one has–a genuinely beautiful existence. That is to say, all of the little details of life — or nearly all — are pleasing. Some that aren’t…one gets exasperated with the bureaucracy…So every detail of one’s daily life — from the place you go to get breakfast to how you shop for Brussel Spouts, is pleasing to the eye, pleasing to the soul, in some sense. But we didn’t have a full life in the sense that we weren’t fully connected. It wasn’t home. It wasn’t the place were we had — where on a banal level — where the people we were closest to lived. But on a deeper level it wasn’t where our life took place. In my years in Paris — if you are a writer in English — your primary nationality is the English language, and Paris is not the capitol of that country.
RB: You wrote that you breathe in your first language and you swim in your second.
AG: I think we felt that. So all of that deep sense of connection, of being plugged into things, was something that we missed in Paris, finally. In that sense our life wasn’t as full, though our existence was much more beautiful than any that was available to us in New York. Or any that we found in New York.
RB: If you tie this to a linguistic condition, then would you have had a fuller life in London?
AG: No, I don’t think so. I think it goes deeper than that. One of the lessons that I think we learned — one of the morals of the book, in a sense — is that home is home. It’s not that there is no place like it. Or rather the way to say it is, “There is no place like it.” Which is not to say that there is no place better. There are lots of places better, but there is no place like it. I was telling someone this morning that a eureka moment for me was when I was taking a bath with our son Luke and I started singing to him that Sam and Dave song, “Land of a Thousand Dances.” You know, “Na — na na na — , na …” and he said, “Daddy, what is that?” I said, “Oh, it’s ‘Land of A Thousand Dances'” “What is ‘Land of A Thousand Dances?'” “It’s a song.” “Why its called, ‘Land of a Thousand Dances?'”…In that little five syllable chant was encoded a hundred associations, facts about life. Everything about Stax records to going on vacations. And that full life was not one that one could have in Paris. He would have it in Paris, growing up in Paris.
RB: Where is home for your [six year old] son?
AG: New York. Somewhat to my shock and even a little bit to my sadness. He loves being in New York and doesn’t seem to miss Paris at all. Even though Paris was the only place he’d ever lived. To a degree that I didn’t quite acknowledge he had a sense of himself as an outsider. He once said to us — at one point he had some sort of altercation with a kid. I said I would go talk to him. And he said, “Oh don’t bother, Daddy, I know the way these French kids think.”
RB: You grew up in Philadelphia, lived in Montreal, but you still talk about New York City as your home?
AG: Yeah, we moved there 20 years ago. So it feels like home in that way.
RB: What has it been like since you have been back?
AG: Difficult. Not unhappy. It’s wonderful being back. And I’m trying to write about New York now. When you have young children, the children are the world. So things stay very much the same. One of the reasons we had a less full life was because of the children, because having small children will do that. When I was in Paris, I missed New York a lot. Now that I’m in New York, I miss Paris a lot. That’s a function of forever yearning for the other place. Also, to some degree — I don’t want to make too much of this — I got radicalized in Paris even though we had a very beautiful existence and that was the essence of it. Things that I had always taken for granted in America, forgive me this is sounds like the same fairly weary stuff — violence, incarceration, capital punishment, free-for-all medical care — you may deplore them, curse them, but they seem to you to be part of the normal realm of existence in America. Well, they are not. They’re the exception. They are the very strange exception to the general role of prosperous societies at the end of the twentieth century, the beginning of the third millennium. So I was genuinely shocked, the debasement of American discourse — for lack of a better word — is startling to me.
RB: Even though you had been watching CNN while living in Paris?
AG: CNN Europe is a different thing. It’s like a headline service. I’m talking about the local news and American television. For the first time the United States has a proletariat, permanently depressed underclass. Maybe I was just inexperienced or something. I don’t know what it is. I genuinely find it shocking to turn on American television and see how sordid…
RB: Reality television?
AG: All those things, Temptation Island, XFL. I know it’s ever been thus… I remain very patriotic about the United States, and being in France made me feel that way more strongly. The other thing — I can say this as an observation not as a polemic because I saw the other side — in France, legitimacy lies on the Left. The things you have to say, the taboos you have to avoid, the shibboleths you have to pay homage to are all on the Left. Sometimes that can be quite wild. Because, for instance, the French Communist Party is not fully de-Stalinized and is still is treated with a good deal of respect. That can be very exasperating at times. The French Left still doesn’t want to take responsibility for their long flirtation with Stalinism and on and on. But it’s shocking to come back here to America and see that legitimacy lies exclusively on the Right. That is to say pretty much all of the media is owned and controlled by large corporations, and some corporations have extremely radical Right-wing agendas which they are perfectly happy to push. Again, this is an extremely banal observation, but it came as a shock to me.
RB: You did make much of the free health care in Paris when your son came up with salmonella poisoning and nobody asked you about insurance as a prerequisite for treating him. Even resident aliens don’t pay?
AG: Yeah, well we pay French taxes. The point is that nobody asks that when you come in. The assumption is that everybody gets free medical care on the point of delivery not that you check first to see if you can pay for it.
AG: It’s true in Canada, in Great Britain.
RB: Your book is doing well, in its eighth printing. So while you point out the debasement of American culture, a charming, intelligent, funny book is doing well. Why is that?
AG: (laughs) I thought about that myself whenever I start one of these screeds to my spouse. My wife says, “If it’s such an awful society, then go and explain why they made your book a bestseller.” I can give you the self-serving hypothesis or the accurate hypothesis.
RB: Let’s go for both.
AG: The self-serving hypothesis is that there is still a real audience of people who listen to NPR and read The New Yorker and so on, an audience who responds to a certain type of writing. That’s the self-serving hypothesis. The accurate hypothesis is I think that — not through any conscious plan, but just as a happy serendipitous thing — that the idea of elsewhere, precisely for the reasons we are talking about because American culture seems so troubled in so many ways to people, the idea of elsewhere is particularly appealing. I have a good friend who said, when the book got on the bestseller list, “It’s A Year in Provence meets Tuesdays with Morrie.” It’s an exotic setting plus little life lessons. I was watching one of those shout shows on television where everyone shouts at everybody else about things. And they were all talking about what a brilliant job George W. Bush had done, what a commanding presidential…and I’m not even that highly politicized — I am perfectly willing to believe that there is something to be said for a conservative point of view — I can even imagine voting for John Mc Cain. But you have a here a man who is so transparently…
RB: Brilliant would not be a word that I would associate with President Bush.
AG: Yes, exactly, and so you feel, like Solzhenitsyn said, “Live not by the lie.” And you feel like there are so many organized lies in American life that it’s painful. But there are organized lies in French life, too. It’s just that I am newly sensitive to the lies of American life. When I get in this black mood about coming home I also remind myself of the other side of American life, that we can pat ourselves on the back for, innovation, love of newness, even the resurgence of American cooking. These things are real, too. My friend Wilfred Sheed said, “This is a very big country. Everything fits into it and it’s always a mistake to get hysterical about anything in America because it will just sort of fade off into the prairie at some point and there will be another possibility as well.”
RB: What a happy thought.
AG: I remember the particular context in which he said it to me. It was right after the Oklahoma bombing, and I wrote a somewhat hysterical comment for The New Yorker about it. He was right in a sense…obviously that was a horrific thing but that it’s a mistake to have a counter-hysteria about American life. It’s a very big country, lots goes on. That it hangs together at all as a country is miraculous. It does change…well, my book. It sounds hypocritical if I chide my own nativity which has bought my hardcover.
RB: Any sense of the Francophobia in this country?
AG: There is obviously both. There is a Francophiliac streak or people wouldn’t enjoy the book. And not so much Francophobic, as Franco-ignorant.
RB: Well, there are those jokes about a country that offers so many cheeses. And honors Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke.
AG: This is a bit of a myth. They honor Jerry Lewis because they honor every American film star of that vintage. They honor him considerably less than Robert Mitchum or Charles Laughton or many other people. There is a strong Franco-phobic streak in Washington. They see the French as being the people who are reflexively anti-American. Which is not entirely false. There is an idealized notion of France and Paris which is the alternative place. The urge to idealize France is probably stronger than to deprecate it.
RB: You are not doing that. I was struck by your observation, “The unsentimental efficiency of French civilization of which the French cafe is the highest embodiment is so brisk that it disarms Nostalgia. History keeps wiping the table off and asking you, a little impatiently, what you’ll have now.”
AG: Did I write that? I honestly didn’t remember that. I was trying to say that one of the things that is wonderful in Paris is that even a place like the Cafe de Flore does not become a tourist trap because it remains part of the contemporaneity of French life. That’s one of the great joys in France is that the division we make between the visitable past and the living present, you don’t make that much. You can have a usable past in France. That’s something we don’t have to the same degree here. There’s an enormous available past in France. You don’t have to make a choice between nostalgia and…the feeling of just how shallowly rooted the American past is is something you learn when you live abroad. I have a friend who when I left for Paris wrote to me and said that he could never understand the appeal of this. “..it’s a narrow centuries old happiness…it’s confining and stifling.”
RB: ‘This’ meaning the need to go to Paris?
AG: I understood that. I could see that. I hope one of the morals of the book is to address that question. How do you love the past? How do you love continuity without simply becoming a nostalgist? For me, that was trying to do in that moment in the book at the Millennium. When Luke and I were watching the Eiffel tower [fireworks]. As long as human consciousness is recreated, then the world is made new all the time. The Eiffel tower is as old as Luke is, in that sense as he just stands there and watches it now. One of the things I’m struggling with in the book, exploring, not resolving in any way, is how do you passionately love the past and still be of your time?
RB: When you use the word ‘shallow’ about America’s sense of history, I think that may be generous. It would seem to be regularly trivialized…
AG: I was stunned by that when Saving Private Ryan opened in France. The Americans did all the fighting. Not only were there no French people involved in the war, but no Canadians, no Brits. One of the things about Omaha Beach is that it was a horrible fuck up. It was the one fuck up on D-Day. The Canadians took their beaches. In a relatively untroubled way the British took theirs. The Americans just fucked up. Yet, we represent that fuck up as the only event and as in itself heroic.
RB: You coined the law of inverse natural appeal?
AG: Yes, at the Cafe de Flore. It’s always true. If you have ever been at Elaine’s in New York. Still is where celebrities go, writers and so on. It’s got the worst food, the ugliest decor and the most unhospitable people. New York is filled with beautiful restaurants with wonderful food, and charming servers, right? But if you went there what would be the accomplishment, right? So you go to a place with terrible food and horrible decor and then it can only be your presence that’s gracing that is lending it significance.
RB: You talk a lot about the French habit of abstraction. You find this to be key to their culture…
AG: Absolutely, I think it is the biggest…I wrote a lecture and I said that the three biggest differences between France and America were: attitudes towards youth and age, attitudes as your role as producer and consumer, and finally the weight you give empirical evidence in everyday argument and conversation. And I do think that’s the biggest one. It’s thrilling and exhilarating in lots of ways. One of the good things about it is that everyone is always searching for the real significance, the philosophical significance of an event. It means you have a much more reflective turn of mind. It’s a society that values philosophers over lawyers. I like that about it very much. It also means that people can live in absolute isolation from reality. It’s very hard to produce counter-evidence for an argument in France. You just make up another argument. I give the example in the book of fact-checking. No one I ever spoke to in Paris could understand what the point was of having a fact checker call to check the facts. The lovely thing about it is the tendency to always look for a way around it all.
RB: Where does this characteristic come from?
AG: Education. People will say that it’s the Cartesian tradition. The difference between Descartes and Locke in the 17th century…the difference between rationalism and empiricism. We rented Apollo 13 when we were in France. I thought of the time when Ed Harris says, “Gentlemen, let’s work the problem. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” It wouldn’t happen in France.
RB: Tell me about the way the book was put together.
AG: Sixty percent was published in The New Yorker and almost all those pieces are intact…tiny changes. They only represent about half of what I wrote about France while I was in France. I made a rule of writing two third-person pieces for every first piece that I wrote. Very few of the third-person pieces were right for this book. I was conscious as I began writing them that some would be for the book and some would not.
RB: Why did you make that rule?
AG: This is sort of a preoccupation of mine. Readers — I seem to have been proven entirely wrong by the success of this book — would welcome you, allow you to write in the first person, to write your own preoccupations if they were sure that you were doing it with a reason. It wasn’t something you reflexively did every time out. There are some writers who are simply incapable of taking any tone but their own. I thought if you could demonstrate that you were perfectly well in control of a much more distanced and impersonal view of things than when you begin a piece, “I’ve been trying to get some exercise…” or however that piece begins about the gym then the reader would know, “Oh, he must have something to tell me…” You use the first person when there’s a story. You begin in mental state A and end in mental state B. A third-person piece isn’t like that. Somebody else begins in mental or physical state A and ends mental or physical state B. That was my theory, that readers wouldn’t tolerate first-person pieces. I turned out to be completely wrong about that. Also, of all forms of literature, I like best the personal essay. I like the personal comic essay. Thurber, Trillin, Montaigne. The line between invention and schtick is more delicate in that form than any other. The line between when you are actually speaking from the heart and making people laugh and touching them and when you are doing schtick — essentially doing stand-up of a literary kind. It falls over very quickly into that so you have to have to be really careful.
RB: I find that Trillin does cross that line. But I thought Killings was great…
AG: He’s one of the writers that’s influenced me the most. I read US Journal when I was ten or so. I felt that because he could do the straight reporting that you were always ready, when he wanted to talk to you in the first person, to hear what he had to say. He was kind of a model in that way. I’m trying to write a new thing, New York Journal and I was determined to do the whole thing for the next five years as a series of impersonal vignettes of New York life. I’m going to break that rule [laughs] next week. I think I have a funny story to tell, so I’m going to go ahead and tell it. Rules for writing are unreal and arbitrary in that way.
RB: That doesn’t seem to be a rule for writing but more a guideline or focusing principle…
AG: I did the Paris thing, with a certain tone. But I have to give it up. New York demands something else. You can’t over-rationalize writing. It’s like saying, “I’m a short man with a bald spot and now I’m coming back and they’ve seen the short man with the bald spot so now I’ll become a tall thin elegant man with a full heads of hair.” That’s not one of the options that is open to you…
RB: I had a talk with essayist Ted Hoagland; he offered the opinion that in the next few decades that the personal essay would flourish, both for readers and writers.
AG: I think it’s already been true to some degree. I’ve been reading the Diaries of Kenneth Tynan. He said that he the thought that the strong forms of our time, the forms that would be remembered were all personal essay, memoir, diary. I can’t think of two writers more unlike than myself and Dave Eggers. But Eggers’ book is not really a novel. Part of its strength is you “believe” — with however many quotation marks around it — you believe that it is a true story. There is a play between truth and artifice in it. That is what we respond to. It’s a treacherous form because the line between entertainment and egomania is particularly fine and difficult. Essayists generally — and certainly me particularly — tend to be more like performers than novelists. Novelists are like architects or builders. They are willing to sit in a room for five or six years and build something and they at some level don’t give a damn what the public thinks. They want to make a cathedral for themselves to live in and then they open the doors. If you come in to worship that’s fine. And if you don’t that’s fine, too. Essayists aren’t like that. At least this one isn’t. You have to have a bit of the ham in you. You like to do the thing and feel that the people are reacting.
RB: It’s more social? More engaged.
AG: More performative.
RB: Which means you are conscious of an audience.
AG: That’s right. Obviously essays have always had a deep connection to journalism. Dr. Johnson was a miscellaneous journalist. Hazlitt was. The essay is one of those forms…it has to be alloyed by something else. When you want to write a literary essay, you find a book to review.
RB: How long have you been at The New Yorker?
AG: 15 years.
RB: That’s through three editorial regimes?
AG: Four, I was there at the end of Shawn’s. I published for Shawn’s magazine from the outside.
RB: Why this ongoing publication of books about life at The New Yorker, unlike any other literary entity? What’s so compelling about it?
AG: There is a good reason and a bad reason. I wrote an introduction to a new edition of Thurber’s book My Years With Ross, one of the first books about The New Yorker back in 1960. The bad reason is that it seems like either a very churchy club or a very clubby church. That’s the unattractive part. The good reason, I like to think, is because the magazine for good or ill has been a place that has been hospitable to a particular kind of American writing, a particular kind of American voice. And I try in that introduction to itemize, to catalogue some of things I think in particular about that kind of American voice. There is a particular American tradition that probably starts with Twain’s Life on The Mississippi, a particular American tone. It doesn’t belong to The New Yorker, it doesn’t belong to any magazine as a brand. It exists outside The New Yorker. Some of the best New Yorker writers, some of the great masters of a particular, casual and yet contemplative vernacular have not written for The New Yorker. My hero, Randall Jarrell, for instance. I could name many other writers. It’s not a brand that The New Yorker owns, but it is a voice that The New Yorker has helped keep in existence. There is a good reason to be fascinated because it represents a particular line or tradition in American writing, and if it [The New Yorker] disappeared tomorrow, it would be very hard to re-assemble all of it in one place.
RB: Why have and are the critiques of The New Yorker so nasty?
AG: I been away for a while, so I haven’t dealt with much of that. The Tina Brown years were a real change in the magazine. The DNA of a magazine generally, tends to be fairly strong; a magazine is what it is not so much because of the people who run it but because of the readers who read it. It has to be one thing or another. What’s remarkable about The New Yorker is not how different it is but how much alike it is and the similarities come from the attentions of the readers. I really do believe that.
RB: The magazine does seem revitalized.
AG: The last ten years have seen an enormous revitalization. To return to my own petty little garden, I think that the fact that people read these pieces and then wanted to have them in a book is a good sign for the magazine. For a while the rule was that a collection of New Yorker pieces wouldn’t work anymore as a book.
RB: Are your ambitions small ambitions? Do you have a big book in mind? A novel?
AG: I’m madly ambitious, but I don’t mind working on a small canvas. At some point as a writer you learn it’s not what you want to do, it’s what you are capable of doing, what you do well. I think the four-to-five-thousand-word essay is the thing that I’m…
RB: What about when you dream?
AG: Dream of doing other things? I have finished a long adventure story for children, or not for children. A long adventure story set in Paris called The King in The Window. That will be very different than this. I wish I could say that I was a humble and modest writer. In fact, I am a very ambitious writer, but I do believe ambition at this moment finds reasonable release in, if not fragmentary if not constrained work which slowly over time becomes a coral reef of sensibility. One of the writers that I admire the most of my generation is Nicholson Baker, among fiction writers. Baker works out of tiny observed details, out of a very small canvas. But unambitious is the last thing that he is.
RB: What in addition to writing do you do?
AG: I teach. I lecture. There was a bad moment in my life just before we left for Paris when I was trying and failing miserably to be a pundit of a kind. I wrote about the crisis of the press and all those kinds of terrible thing. And I appeared on a couple of those panels. That’s one of the things that impelled me to go to Paris. That’s living death for a writer when you become a person on panels. I like to give lectures and I love the hammy side of it, too, but I never want be somebody who gives opinions on general subjects.
RB: What are some of the books you read?
AG: I hesitate because I’d leave something out…though who would care? (laughs). Trollope. Trollope’s political novels seem to me to be the most wonderful in the language. Updike is, too, evidently, and embarrassingly a model for what I do. I never find a dead line in his work. There is not a piece of it that is not alive on the page. I read and reread Bill James, the baseball analyst. A wonderful writer, one of one of the really wonderful American forensic writers. I have a liking for the form I do. I like Henry James’ letters more than I like his novels. A terrible admission to make but to be truthful I do. I think they are amazing. And I like James’ two volumes of autobiography. Those are my two favorite American books. I like Virginia Woolf’s essays which strike me as the high point of literary writing of that kind. So it’s not simply an expression of my limitations abut also an expression of my prejudices.
RB: Do you need to have a lot of information coming in to you?
AG: Uh huh! I’m an addicted reader. My wife teases me because I read in the shower, when I’m shaving. I read incessantly. I need to be reading a lot. A lot of what I write — I hope it’s not too bookish — comes from other books. When I was younger I was too allusive a writer. Not in a self-conscious way, but it was the natural way things came to me. One of the things I have been struggling to do is not to need that much allusion. I’m trying all the time to be a much simpler writer. And that’s a hard thing to do. When I was writing the Thurber introduction, I had this moment of revelation when I realized that Thurber writes almost uniformly with one or two syllable words.
RB: There’s lot’s to say about this book… a final thought?
AG: I tried to give the book a certain structure — not so much the structure of a story unfolding — but of a set of emotions developing. The moral of the book is meant to be fairly clear. Which is that you have to take civilizations and people whole. You cannot make them be what you want them to be. The struggle between civilization and culture, in France is meant to be resolved at the end by saying, “You can’t have the civilization without the culture. You can’t have the little shops without the big buildings. That’s the nature of existence. You take things whole.” The reason French life gives you so many positive libidinal yes’s is because there are so many damning no’s around it, too. Through all the vignettes that’s the moral of the story, the theme of the pudding. I worry that it’s easy to miss in this kaleidoscope of French moments. I meant it to have another moral. This is the thing about the birth of my daughter. As long as you still have new consciousnesses in the world then old things never get old. As long as there are new people to see them, they remain new. I wanted the book to have these two governing notions or feelings at the end of it. It’s not meant to be a travel book to make you go to Paris. It’s about the experience of a different place. It’s really about…
AG: Yeah. It’s about me. It’s also about difference. What would it be like to live differently.
RB: You seemed to have handled the challenges of Paris so gracefully. I would have been pulling my hair out.
AG: I was pulling my hair out, I must say that the urbane and organized person on the page is a persona very different from the…
RB: Something to aspire to…
AG: Yes, the reason to write. So that the annoyed, bad-tempered, morose person at four in the morning is exorcised.
RB: Thank you.
Copyright 2001 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing