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  • Paris to the Moon
  • Written by Adam Gopnik
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  • Paris to the Moon
  • Written by Adam Gopnik
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9781588361387
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On Sale: December 18, 2001
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-138-7
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Paris. The name alone conjures images of chestnut-lined boulevards, sidewalk cafés, breathtaking façades around every corner--in short, an exquisite romanticism that has captured the American imagination for as long as there have been Americans.

In 1995, Adam Gopnik, his wife, and their infant son left the familiar comforts and hassles of New York City for the urbane glamour of the City of Light. Gopnik is a longtime New Yorker writer, and the magazine has sent its writers to Paris for decades--but his was above all a personal pilgrimage to the place that had for so long been the undisputed capital of everything cultural and beautiful. It was also the opportunity to raise a child who would know what it was to romp in the Luxembourg Gardens, to enjoy a croque monsieur in a Left Bank café--a child (and perhaps a father, too) who would have a grasp of that Parisian sense of style we Americans find so elusive.

So, in the grand tradition of the American abroad, Gopnik walked the paths of the Tuileries, enjoyed philosophical discussions at his local bistro, wrote as violet twilight fell on the arrondissements. Of course, as readers of Gopnik's beloved and award-winning "Paris Journals" in The New Yorker know, there was also the matter of raising a child and carrying on with day-to-day, not-so-fabled life. Evenings with French intellectuals preceded middle-of-the-night baby feedings; afternoons were filled with trips to the Musée d'Orsay and pinball games; weekday leftovers were eaten while three-star chefs debated a "culinary crisis."

As Gopnik describes in this funny and tender book, the dual processes of navigating a foreign city and becoming a parent are not completely dissimilar journeys--both hold new routines, new languages, a new set of rules by which everyday life is lived. With singular wit and insight, Gopnik weaves the magical with the mundane in a wholly delightful, often hilarious look at what it was to be an American family man in Paris at the end of the twentieth century. "We went to Paris for a sentimental reeducation-I did anyway-even though the sentiments we were instructed in were not the ones we were expecting to learn, which I believe is why they call it an education."

Excerpt

Not long after we moved to Paris, in the fall of 1995, my wife, Martha, and I saw, in the window of a shop on the rue Saint-Sulpice, a nineteenth-century engraving, done in the manner, though I'm now inclined to think not from the hand, of Daumier. It shows a train on its way from the Right Bank of Paris to the moon. The train has a steam locomotive and six cars, and it is chugging up a pretty steep track. The track is supported on two high, slender spires that seem to be anchored somewhere in the Fifth Arrondissement (you can see the Panthéon in silhouette nearby), and then the track just goes right up and touches the full moon up in the clouds. I suppose the two pillars are stronger than they look. The train is departing at twilight--presumably it's an overnight trip--and among the crowd on the ground below, only a couple of top-hatted bourgeois watch the lunar express go on its way with any interest, much less wonder. Everybody else in the crowd of thirteen or so people on the platform, mostly moms and dads and kids, are running around and making conversation and comforting children and buying tickets for the next trip and doing all the things people still do on station platforms in Paris. The device on the ticket window, like the title of the cartoon, reads: "A Railroad: From Paris to the Moon."

The cartoon is, in part, a satire on the stock market of the time and on railway share manipulations. ("Industry," the caption begins, "knows no more obstacles.") But the image cast its spell on us, at least, because it seemed to represent two notions, or romances, that had made us want to leave New York and come to Paris in the first place. One was the old nineteenth-century vision of Paris as the naturally modern place, the place where the future was going to happen as surely as it would happen in New York. If a train were going to run to the moon, that train would originate from the Gare du Nord, with Parisian kids getting worn out while they waited.

But the image represented another, more intense association, and that is the idea that there is, for some Americans anyway, a direct path between the sublunary city and a celestial state. Americans, Henry James wrote, "are too apt to think that Paris is the celestial city," and even if we don't quite think that, some of us do think of it as the place where tickets are sold for the train to get you there. (Ben Franklin thought this, and so did Gertrude Stein, and so did Henry Miller. It's a roomy idea.) If this notion is pretty obviously unreal, and even hair-raisingly naive, it has at least the excuse of not being original. When they die, Wilde wrote, all good Americans go to Paris. Some of us have always tried to get there early and beat the crowds.

I've wanted to live in Paris since I was eight. I had a lot of pictures of the place in my head and even a Parisian object, what I suppose I'd have to call an icon, in my bedroom. Sometime in the mid-sixties my mother, who has a flair for the odd, ready-made present, found--I suppose in an Air France office in Philadelphia--a life-size cardboard three-dimensional cutout of a Parisian policeman. He had on a blue uniform and red kepi and blue cape, and he wore a handlebar mustache and a smile. (The smile suggests how much Art, or at any rate Air France, improves on Life, or at any rate on Paris policemen.)

My younger brother and I called the policeman Pierre, and he kept watch over our room, which also had Beatle posters and a blindingly, numbingly, excruciatingly bright red shag rug. (I had been allowed to choose the color from a choice of swatches, but I have an inability to generalize and have always made bad, overbright guesses on curtains and carpets and, as it turned out, the shape of future events.) Although we had never gone anywhere interesting but New York, my older sister had already, on the basis of deep, illicit late-night reading of Jane Austen and Mary Poppins, claimed London, and I had been given Paris, partly as a consolation prize, partly because it interested me. (New York, I think, was an open city, to be divided between us, like Danzig. Our four younger brothers and sisters were given lesser principalities. We actually expected them to live in Philadelphia.)

My first images of Paris had come from the book adaptation of The Red Balloon, the wonderful Albert Lamorisse movie about a small boy in the Parisian neighborhood of Menilmontant who gets a magic, slightly overeager balloon, which follows him everywhere and is at last destroyed by evil boys with rocks. Curiously, it was neither a cozy nor a charming landscape. The Parisian grown-ups all treated Pascal, the boy, with a severity bordering on outright cruelty: His mother tosses the balloon right out of the Haussmannian apartment; the bus conductor shakes his head and finger and refuses to allow the balloon on the tram; the principal of the school locks him in a shed for bringing the balloon to class. The only genuine pleasure I recall that he finds in this unsmiling and rainy universe is when he leaves the balloon outside a tempting-looking bakery and goes in to buy a cake. The insouciance with which he does it--cake as a right, not a pleasure--impressed me a lot. A scowling gray universe relieved by pastry: This was my first impression of Paris, and of them all, it was not the farthest from the truth. To this set of images were added, soon after, the overbright streets of the Madeline books, covered with vines and the little girls neat in their rows, and black and white pictures of men in suits walking through the Palais Royale, taken from a Cartier-Bresson book on the coffee table.

Pierre, though, being made of cardboard, got pretty beat up, sharing a room with two young boys, or maybe he was just both smaller and more fragile than I recall. In any case, one summer evening my parents, in a completely atypical display of hygienic decisiveness, decided that he was too beat up to keep and that it was time for him to pass away, and they put him out on the Philadelphia street for the trashman to take away.

I wept all night. He would sit out with the trash cans and would not be there in the morning. (A little later I read about Captain Dreyfus and his degradation, and the two uniformed and mustachioed figures got mixed up, so perhaps he had been sent to supply intimations of the other, darker side of French life. They were certainly there to be intimated.) What made me sad just then was the new knowledge that things changed, and there was nothing you could do about it. In a way, that was a Parisian emotion too.
Adam Gopnik

About Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik - Paris to the Moon

Photo © Brigitte Lacombe

Author of the beloved best seller Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. He is a three-time winner of the National Magazine Award for Essays and for Reviews and Criticism and of the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. He lives in New York City with his wife and their two children.

Praise

Praise

Advance praise for Paris to the Moon

"Adam Gopnik's avid intelligence and nimble pen found subjects to love in Paris and in the growth of his small American family there. A conscientious, scrupulously savvy American husband and father meets contemporary France, and fireworks result, lighting up not just the Eiffel Tower."
--John Updike

"Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon abounds in the sensuous delights of the city--the magical carousel in the Luxembourg Gardens, the tomato dessert at Arpège, even the exquisite awfulness of the new state library. But the even greater joys of this exquisite memoir are timeless and even placeless--the excitement of the journey, the confusion of an outsider, and, most of all, the love of a family."
--Jeffrey Toobin

"The chronicle of an American writer's lifelong infatuation with Paris is also an extended meditation--in turn hilarious and deeply moving--on the threat of globalization, the art of parenting, and the civilizing intimacy of family life. Whether he's writing about the singularity of the Papon trial, the glory of bistro cuisine, the wacky idiosyncrasies of French kindergartens, or the vexing bureaucracy of Parisian health clubs, Gopnik's insights are infused with a formidable cultural intelligence, and his prose is as pellucid as that of any essayist. A brilliant, exhilarating book."
--Francine du Plessix Gray
        
        
"Adam Gopnik is a dazzling talent--hilarious, winning, and deft--but the surprise of Paris to the Moon is its quiet, moral intelligence. This book begins as journalism and ends up as literature."
--Malcolm Gladwell
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Questions for Dis cussion
1. Throughout Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik seems to be writing about small things—Christmas lights, fax machines, children’s stories—but he tries to find in them larger truths about French and American life. Can the shape of big things be found by studying small ones? Is it really possible to “see the world in a grain of sand”? What overlooked small things in our American life seem to resonate with larger meanings?

2. Although composed of separate essays, the book follows a thread toward a larger meaning: that the “commonplace civilization” of Paris is beautiful but its official culture is often oppressive. What kinds of evidence, small and large, does Gopnik collect to illustrate this idea? In “Papon’s Paper Trail,” how does this lighthearted observation turn serious? In the chapters about the Balzar wars, how are the author’s feelings finally resolved?

3. Can we find a similar distinction between “civilization” and “official culture” in America? Do you agree with the notion Gopnik alludes to in “Barney in Paris” that media culture is our official culture? Do you think his urge to “protect” his child from the “weather on CNN” in favor of the “civilization of the carousel” is admirable or foolish?

4. Although Paris to the Moon is not a novel, it has a novelistic shape, with characters we come to know. Are there “secret stories” in the book? Does Gopnik want us to sense something about the development of his feelings about his child? About his wife? Has the narrator changed or matured by the end? In what way are “all chords sounded” by the birth of a new child?

5. “The Rookie” is one of the most popular stories in the book. Why do you think this is so? The author seems to be saying that American life gives the “gift of loneliness”; do you agree? If you were away from home for a long time, what elements of American culture do you think you would miss?

6. Throughout the book, Gopnik compares France and America. What are the most frequent points of comparison? Where do you think he favors America, and where France? Which do you favor?

7. At the end of Paris to the Moon, when the family decides to return to America, Martha says, “In Paris we have a beautiful existence but not a full life, and in New York we have a full life but an unbeautiful existence.” The author has said that this distinction is central to his experience of being an expatriate. Do you think it’s a valid distinction? Given the choice, which would you prefer?


Further Reading
Books about Paris and France stretch out to the end of the horizon, and fill libraries. But the subcategory of books about Americans in Paris is smaller, and still choice. Of twentieth-century books, A. J. Liebling’s Between Meals:AnAppetiteForParis is pure gold, as is his The Road Back to Paris. Janet Flanner’s Paris Journals are collections of her letters from Paris for The NewYorker, and are full of condensed, stylized French history.Henry James’s A Little Tour in France is the classic literary guidebook, and James Thurber’s wonderful stories of his mishaps in France are included in MyWorld andWelcome to It and in The Thurber Carnival, particularly the stories “A Ride with Olympy” and “Memoirs of a Drudge.” Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is probably the most famous twentieth-century Paris memoir, though it is more aboutAmericans than about Paris.
Novels about Americans in Paris make up an even longer and richer list. They include Henry James’s The American and The Ambassadors. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is the classic story of American expatriates in Paris in the 1920s, and in Irwin Shaw’s Collected Stories there is many a glimpse of American expatriates in the 1950s. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” is probably the saddest and most beautiful story about an American in Paris after the crash—and the fall.
Finally, George Gershwin’s great tone poem “An American in Paris,” which is heard often in the background of Paris to the Moon, has been recorded many times. The best version is Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 recording, made with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra; it is available on CD. Gershwin’s piece was the basis for a not-bad Gene Kelly movie directed by Vincente Minnelli, widely available on video.


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