Metropolitan life

Metropolitan life

Bawer, Bruce

In some ways, knowing a city is not unlike knowing a person. You can know only the face it presents to strangers, or know it through and through; you can be familiar with one side of it, but not at all with others; you can hate it; you can love it; you can warm to it at once, for reasons you can’t fathom, or be vaguely repelled by it from the start; and you can, after many years of feeling one way about it, find that you’ve come to feel quite differently, perhaps not so much because it’s changed but because you have.

It’s in recognition of this resemblance that the novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd has given his book London the subtitle The Biography.1 To be sure, he pushes the parallel a tad too far: “the byways of the city,” he insists, “resemble thin veins and its parks are like lungs”; also, William Harvey once “noticed that the hoses of the fire engines spouted water like blood from a cut artery.” Um, okay. Yet the main problem here is that Ackroyd’s subtitle is misleading. For if London is a person, what Ackroyd (himself a Londoner) has given us is not a biography but a combination portrait, anatomy, and case history, a book that seeks not to tell the city’s life story but to bring it to life before us-to capture its enduring essence.

Yes, Ackroyd’s design is partly chronological: he begins with pre-Norman and medieval times, later recounts the Great Fire and its aftermath, and toward the end gets around to the Blitz. But most of his chapters are thematic in focus, riffing on such topics as theater, music, churches, illness, prisons, food, garbage, taverns, clubs, prostitution, mobs, fog, radicalism, and violence. Ackroyd serves up statistics, anecdotes, descriptions; he quotes liberally from everyone you’d expect (Johnson, Pepys, Blake, Dickens, Henry James); he gives the impression of having covered all the angles and cited every relevant author. And now and then he tells us something absolutely fascinating. We learn, for example, that there are “buried tributaries of the Thames” that run under the city “encased in tunnels or in pipes,” though occasionally emerging into sight-among them the Westbourne river, which “can be observed rushing through a great iron pipe above the platform of Sloane Square Underground Station.” (According to Ackroyd, these hidden streams are thought to have been responsible over the centuries for an unusually high prevalence of various ailments in the neighborhoods built over them.)

The downside of this comprehensiveness is that London is overlong, overstuffed, and often tedious and sloppily written; the upside is that all the accumulated detail adds up to a graphic, even visionary picture of an immense, jam-packed, frantically busy metropolis, a place that has always been dark, cruel, sinister, dangerous, and yet full of energy, humor, creativity, life. Ackroyd’s focus is largely on lower-class London, the London of the streets and alleys; the teeming cast and humble settings can bring to mind one of those quintessentially English Renaissance plays like Bartholomew Fair or A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. In short, with few exceptions, this ain’t Anita Brookner’s London.

Admittedly, the man can be melodramatic. Tudor London, he writes, was “a city dominated by violence, blood, meat and continuing consuming appetite,” while life in Victorian London (“the first characteristically urban society on the face of earth”) was anomic, anonymous, “a harbinger of the future world, a cancer that would not only spread throughout England but eventually cover the great globe itself.” The rhetorical overkill starts early on, when Ackroyd-after suggesting that London isn’t just a great city but is “so large and so wild that it contains no less than everything”-promises that there will be times in the book when London “will be seen to harbour the secrets of the human world.” For all the apocalyptic doom and gloom, however, London ultimately feels more like a love letter than anything else-a celebration of a metropolis which, from ancient times down to the present, has always been a locus of “magical energy.”

If we come away from Ackroyd feeling as if we’ve been plodding through London’s damp, crooked streets-and need a shower to wash off the centuries of grime-to turn to Patrice Higonnet’s Paris: Capital of the World is to find little in the way of urban sights, sounds, or smells (even though Alistair Horne, of whom more shortly, points out that for a long time London “by comparison with Paris . . . was a sweet-smelling city”).2 If Ackroyd’s London is first and foremost a London of the streets, densely and noisily populated and itself, at times, veritably corporeal, Higonnet’s Paris is intellectualized, abstracted; only fleetingly do we feel in contact with the actual city, and then it is not with the back alleys, slums, and abattoirs but with the boulevards, ateliers, and salons. Publishers Weekly says that Higonnet, who teaches French at Harvard, “escorts readers through a very wide range of reading”; so does Ackroyd, but the difference is that with Ackroyd you feel you’re being escorted around a city, not a library.

If Ackroyd pretends to be London’s biographer, Higonnet’s conceit is that he’s taking on Paris’s myths: his book is “a history not of factual events but of the way in which the city has been perceived, conceived, and dreamed-Paris as the capital of modernity, or mystery, or tradition; Paris as the capital of art and fashion; Paris as the capital of world revolution; Paris as the capital of pleasure, crime, sex, science.” After elaborating on his definition of myth-a task that takes several pages and requires him to haul in, among others, Levi-Strauss, Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, and Barthes-Higonnet says he’s concerned not only with myths, which “arise spontaneously” and are, in their deepest sense, eternally true, but also with “phantasmagoria,” which are artificial. He spends several more pages on this distinction, then springs on us the news that until 1889 (“the year of the Eiffel Tower”) Paris was largely mythic, “the capital of politics, science, and modernity” as well as of “world alienation,” but that afterwards “Paris became the phantasmagoric, falsely mythical capital of pleasure, sex, and (in 1931) European colonialism.”

It’s hard to imagine a less compelling thesis, or one more removed from everyday (i.e., non-academic) reality. Fortunately, this book isn’t entirely thesis-driven; unfortunately, it’s not really driven at all. It just drags along, making its weary way from point to point. If Ackroyd’s book is a labor of love, Higonnet’s is just a labor. Jefferson and Franklin in Paris, Twain and Henry James in Paris, the Lost Generation in Paris: what superb material, and what dull reading Higonnet makes of it all! His chapter on Paris art focuses almost exclusively on economics, resulting in what must be one of the least scintillating treatments of the Impressionists ever written. It’s a perverse kind of accomplishment to produce such an uninspired work about such an inspiring city. At times one imagines that Higonnet put Paris together by digging out lecture notes from a dozen different courses, arranging them chronologically, and typing them up-incorporating references to myth and phantasmagoria (plus, for good measure, Benjamin’s term “aura”) to make the whole mess seem thematically unified.

Higonnet reminds you of one of those professors who, more interested in impressing than in elucidating, sprinkle their lectures with references they know will bewilder. “It was in Voltaire’s period,” he writes, “that the equation France = Paris = conversation was firmly established in all minds with a few exceptions like the bilious Louis de Bonald, Mme. de Stael’s enemy.” This is the book’s only mention of de Bonald. Does Higonnet honestly expect most readers to know his name? Might it not be useful here to identify Bonald briefly-and, for that matter, to explain why he was Mme. de Stael’s enemy, and what his biliousness and his connection to her have to do with the rest of the sentence?

On a par with Higonnet’s professorial posturing is his Gallic superiority. Not long after condescendingly dismissing Mark Twain-who committed the felony of failing to appreciate Paris sufficiently-Higonnet respectfully discusses some of the more fatuous aspects of French surrealism; later he patronizingly chastises the Lost Generation for “the superficial nature of their relation to the capital.” And he saves the best for last, conjuring out of nowhere-like a magician pulling a lapin out of a chapeau-a preposterous would-be conclusion to the effect that Paris, once “the mythical capital of a divided continent,” is now “a capital of the civilizing spirit,” and “can work to maintain that spirit by reaching out beyond its closest borders first to the Paris region . . . and then to Europe and the world, whose auratic [the adjectival form of “aura”], monumental, and aesthetic urban conscience it now is and-or so we can fervently hope-will remain for centuries to come.” (Oh, well: at least he didn’t claim Paris as the world’s moral conscience.) Here and elsewhere in this book, one gathers that for Higonnet, the ultimate measure of an individual’s intelligence is the degree to which he or she recognizes Paris as the center of the universe.

How different, in every way, is Alistair Home’s magisterial Seven Ages of Paris.3 The title refers to Home’s division of Parisian history into seven periods, most of which he names after national leaders: Philippe Auguste, Henri IV, Louis XIV, Napoleon, de Gaulle. (The other two are “The Commune” and “The Treaty of Versailles.”) After Ackroyd’s themes and Higonnet’s theories, Home’s straightforward historical narration is a sheer delight; one is grateful to read a writer so cogent, unpretentious, and eager to enlighten and enthrall. The author of several previous books on French history and other topics, Home brings the past alive, generation by generation, in a way that underlines the weaknesses of Ackroyd, who in his attempt to capture London’s unchanging essence pays insufficient heed to the dramatic and revealing changes that take place from era to era. One could gripe about Home’s decision to sum up the entire 1789 Revolution and Reign of Terror in a few brisk sentences, or carp that his pre-Revolution sections read less like a history of Paris than of French royalty, court intrigue, and warfare; but what he gives us is so thoroughly absorbing and authoritative, so consistently wise and witty, and (above all) so sumptuously, beautifully written that one feels it would be churlish to complain.

If Higonnet pumps up Parisian myths, Horne punctures them. Take French glory. “The trouble with Louis XIV,” proposes Home, “as indeed with some other rulers of France in succeeding centuries, lay in his addictive pursuit of la Gloire, that most elusive of viragos.” And, later: “Inevitably, many of Napoleon’s grandiose projects-like those of Louis XIV, before him-reflected that illusive commodity so precious to French hearts: la Gloire.” Though he plainly admires much about France, Horne doesn’t shrink from uncomfortable truths. Here he is, for example, on French fickleness: “When he [Napoleon] reached the capital [after escaping from Elba], there took place yet another of those volte-face that occur through French history, which amazed even Napoleon himself. They let me come back just as easily as they let the others go!’ he exclaimed.” When the Corsican’s comeback bid failed, an English officer in occupied Paris noted “how strange it was that the French were so happy in their defeat.” Judging from Horne, this is an observation that would seem to have applied on pretty nearly every one of the many occasions over the centuries when the French have found themselves waving a white flag.

It’s possible to have read widely in French history and yet experience this book as something of an eye-opener. Even a cursory perusal should give pause to anyone inclined to take seriously, for so much as a moment, the opinions of today’s French intellectual and political elite about British or American policy on anything whatsoever. Although Home rarely underlines the contrast, his book serves as a reminder that while the history of post-Glorious Revolution England has to a remarkable extent been one of peaceful, coherent, sensible, and gradual reform, that of modern France has been a hodgepodge of sanguinary revolts and sweeping systemic transformations, many of them reversing previous transformations and all of them accompanied by operatically excessive rhetoric and conduct. (Horne quotes Louis Napoleon: “It is very difficult in France to make reforms; we make revolutions in France, not reforms.”)

Indeed, many of France’s political changes over the last two centuries have been motivated less by the cool reason that the French like to attribute to themselves than by ennui; as Horne demonstrates, Frenchmen-or, at least, Parisians-have historically thrived on upheaval, responding to their few periods of peace and prosperity by starting unnecessary wars and/or over-throwing relatively decent rulers. Louis Philippe’s monarchy, for example, “died out of sheer boredom, for ‘lack of panache,’ in a uniquely French fashion. The good King had given France some of the happiest years in her history, but, as has been remarked, ‘the French do not live on happiness.'” Over the centuries, the essentially unchanging behavior of Parisians in crisis has been striking: whenever an enemy has marched on the city, its residents have tended to remain bafflingly oblivious up to the last minute, pursuing the usual social diversions as if nothing were amiss; their response to the actual entry of enemy forces into the city has been marked less by courageous resistance than by hysteria and extravagant appeals for mercy;4 and they have, after a startlingly brief interval, accommodated themselves to the new order and begun hobnobbing cheerfully with their new rulers.5

There are, of course, other ways of looking at Paris. Alfred Kazin once wrote a winsome memoir, A Walker in the City, about his New York wanderings; now the gifted novelist Edmund White, who lived for many years in Paris, has produced a short book, The Flaneur, that takes its title from the French word for this activity.6 The flaneur, “that aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination and goes wherever caprice or curiosity directs his or her steps . . . has a long, distinguished pedigree in France,” White says, citing Baudelaire, Breton, and Benjamin as examples of the breed. Americans, by contrast, “are particularly ill-suited to be flaneurs,” partly because, “driven by the urge towards self-improvement,” they make a beeline for set destinations instead of just wandering, and partly because they “consider the sidewalk an anonymous backstage space, whereas for the French it is the stage itself.” In any event the flaneur is principally a structural device in White’s pages, wherein various stroll-worthy areas of Paris (a city that, in his view, “has become a cultural backwater”) spark reflections on such disparate topics as French monarchism, Americans in Paris, Parisian attitudes toward Arabs, blacks, and Jews, the city’s diminished art scene, gay cruising (a topic one might have thought White exhausted in his novel The Farewell Symphony), and the lack of identity politics among French writers. This slim little volume has its moments but is ultimately too slight, scattershot, and self-indulgent.

Not so Adam Gopnick’s Paris to the Moon,7 which, although a collection of pieces (all of them originally published in The New Yorker under the heading “Letter from Paris”), hangs together far better than The Flaneur. Gopnick, who lived in Paris for several years with his wife and small son, Luke, is a perceptive observer of the French character and an edifying cataloguer of transatlantic contrasts. And he’s funny, too: “The French ideal of a world in which everyone has a metier but no customers to trouble him is more practical than it might seem. It has been achieved, for instance, by the diplomats inside the quai d’Orsay, who create foreign policy of enormous subtlety and refinement which has absolutely no effect on anyone outside the building.” He does a particularly fine job of capturing what it’s like to live abroad. After four years in Paris, Luke speaks perfect French, while the author, at parent-teacher meetings,

speaks with an Accent, and this brings onto him [Luke] exactly the same shame that my grandfather must have felt when his Yiddish-speaking father arrived to talk to his teachers at a Philadelphia public school. I try to have solid, parental discussions with his teachers, but as I do, I realize, uneasily, that in his eyes I am the alter kocker, the comic immigrant. . . . I had thought to bring him the suavity of the French gamin, and instead I have brought onto him the shame of the immigrant child. . . .

Gopnick is at his best in this vein, confessing his reduction “to an immigrant helplessness” and noting that “the loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.”

If there’s anything unsatisfying about this book, it’s that Gopnick-in his prose style and choice of topics, as well as in the sensibility he projects-is just a bit too much the generic New Yorker writer, with the at times oddly trivial emphases (Luke’s serious illness gets a paragraph; his preoccupation with Barney the TV dinosaur gets several pages), the touches of standard-issue Updikean polish and whimsy, and the tendency (in Paris as in New York) to focus on certain sectors of the metropolis and ignore others. To be sure, Gopnick does note the staggering demographic shift that has made Paris, in large part, a city of poor Muslims, and makes it clear that his upscale Parisian friends would prefer to pretend that this is not the case; but after raising the topic, Gopnick-presumably knowing that many of his readers in New York, after all, would prefer to pretend the same thing-drops the subject. So it is that instead of reckoning with the sprawling Arab suburbs that increasingly define the new Paris-suburbs that, teeming with the unassimilated, discontented, and fanatical, symbolize a looming challenge to twenty-first-century European democracy and stability-Gopnick gives us page after page about Luke’s swim dates at the Ritz. (And don’t miss the anecdote about how Luke, flown back to New York for a nursery-school interview eighteen months before matriculation, charms his interlocutors with the confession that his favorite breakfast is “croissants and confiture.”) For all the cultural differences Gopnick delineates, alas, his sliver of Paris can sometimes feel barely indistinguishable from New York, N.Y. 10021. (If Gopnick had really wanted to experience culture shock, perhaps he should’ve moved to Queens.)

Thad Carhart is yet another American writer who has lived in Paris for several years. In The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, he offers a personal account that is, on the face of it, unremarkable.8 It would not be incorrect, indeed, to describe this book-which begins with Carhart walking, for the first time, into the shop of the title-as an almost stunningly low-key chronicle of piano lessons and conversations about music, interspersed with bits of piano lore and history and descriptions of many of the pianos that pass through the shop. But it’s much, much more than that: it’s a book about life itself, and about music’s mysterious ability to enrich life. It’s about the importance of looking closely and listening carefully. (Proust would have approved heartily of Carhart’s alertness to detail, though the two writers are pretty near the opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum.) It’s about the possibility of changing one’s life path by knocking on a strange door and allowing oneself to encounter new people, discover new things, and face new challenges. And it’s a book about Paris, one of the few cities on earth where the particular kinds of encounters, discoveries, and challenges described by Carhart are conceivable.

Carhart doesn’t go out of his way to draw attention to the Parisian setting. But by the end of this immensely appealing memoir-which is written in a wonderfully plain, quiet, unselfconscious, pitch-perfect prose-we realize we’ve been given a vivid sense of the daily rhythm of life in Carhart’s quartier, and that we’ve learned a thing or two, as well, about French business practices, the French approach to music education, and other such topics. If Horne heightens our awareness of Paris’s less laudable aspects, Carhart does the city proud, introducing us to a cluster of Parisians, at once civilized and down-to-earth, whose extraordinary piano-related talents (whether as performer, tuner, or repairer) are matched only by their humble dedication to their respective crafts. The French could do worse than to give Carhart the Legion of Honor: he’s managed to make Paris seem a winning, lovable, human city, rather than a self-impressed, self-regarding showplace defined by grand boulevards and sterile monuments.

Monuments! In Higonnet’s book, we read that if Rome’s monuments “are primarily religious” and London’s are “monarchical . . . political . . . or frankly imperial,” while those of some other cities “suffer from being chiefly municipal or regional,” a monument in Paris “is expected to propose a broader message, one that is simultaneously civic and universal.” Among the first points that the Dutch journalist Geert Mak makes in Amsterdam is that the city on the Amstel is frankly anti-monumental.9 Try to put up a building designed to impress, he says, and “the city’s answer is nothing but mockery and sniggering. The monumentality of Amsterdam exists only in the heads of its inhabitants, not on the streets.” This attitude isn’t surprising if one knows about Dutch thrift, practicality, and distaste for pomp and pretense-not to mention the Dutch people’s belief in equality and in the individual freedom to decide for oneself what, if anything, one believes in and whom, if anybody, one lionizes. Or, as Mak puts it succinctly: “Grandiosity and gesture do not sit well with the character and outlook of the Dutch middle classes.” While raising the possibility, moreover, that Amsterdam’s “culture of compromise” inhibits memorial-building, Mak suggests an additional factor: “a lack of belief on the part of the sober Dutch in the value of the symbol, and the power of the immaterial.”

Amsterdam isn’t just the story of a city. It’s also, in a way, the story of the creation of the Dutch character, which-with its devotion to tolerance and other liberal values-played a key role in the shaping of modern democracy. What’s fascinating is to see how these values grew out of homely necessities. A millennium ago, for example, the fishermen and farmers who lived in the marshy, underpopulated lands along the river IJ, in “a sort of Wild-West situation,” recognized that they needed to build and maintain dikes in order to protect themselves from the sea. “The planning, building and upkeep of these dykes,” Mak explains, “required good organization, which led to the setting up of a simple administrative system” whereby “each had some say in the project.” Efficiency was paramount, for “at stake was nothing less than the defence of the land against their greatest enemy: water. This tendency in the coastal areas to deal with problems privately, to tend toward centralization and a rough kind of democracy, was to form the basis of the administrative tradition which, in the end, would determine Dutch political culture for centuries to come.” To this day, as anyone who has done business with a Dutch firm can tell you, the Dutch place more emphasis on group decision-making and compromise than perhaps any other people on earth.

Later came another innovation: “The merchants of Amsterdam . . . developed, quite early on, the habit of spreading the risk among themselves”: instead of shipping “a large cargo on a single ship,” they would distribute it “over several vessels, belonging to different colleagues, so that even if one ship should sink unexpectedly, only a part of the cargo would be lost.” Out of such stratagems was born the distinctively Dutch combination of individualism and communitarianism, which is still alive and well today. Mak also stresses that the tolerance for which the Dutch became famous (fifteenth-century Jews, for example, enjoyed a freedom in the Netherlands that “was unheard-of elsewhere”) was a practical necessity for a country whose economy was based on international commerce: the Dutch, who traded with everybody, simply couldn’t afford to be intolerant of anybody. (As Mak says, in seventeenth-century Amsterdam “there was only one creed that was regarded as universally valid: negotiation.”)

Amsterdam’s golden age was the seventeenth century, and as familiar as one may be with the history of the Dutch Republic, it’s always awe-inspiring to read again about the rapid and seemingly magical transformation of this tiny land into the world’s leading economic power, an oasis of prosperity as well as of freedom and tolerance. “The new Amsterdam that had emerged after the peaceful revolution of 1578,” writes Mak, “was dominated by a formula for success which, until then, had been unknown: the pursuit of wealth in combination with a new conception of liberty. Money and freedom pushed aside, for the first time, the old medieval combination of ‘honour’ and ‘heroism.'” Even sexual mores were different than elsewhere in Europe: Mak tells a diverting story about Casanova, on an Amsterdam visit, being uncustomarily rattled when the burgomaster’s audacious fourteen-year-old daughter made him an offer he felt obliged to refuse.

Mak’s section on the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam is long-and sobering. At the end of a history that has portrayed the shaping of a people’s character (a character, moreover, that is commendable in so many ways), Mak unflinchingly shows how certain aspects of that character inclined the Dutch not to resist the Nazi occupiers but to cooperate with them to a degree unsurpassed in Europe. The Germans, we’re told,

never posted more than 60 officers in Amsterdam, even at the height of the persecution of the Jews. The rest was done by the Dutch. Of the total number of men deployed in the big raids, about half were ordinary Dutch policemen. Furthermore, after October 1942, the Dutch police were ordered to raid Jewish houses on their own, instead of under the leadership of the Sicherheispolizei or the SS. The majority of these officers did just that, and more: they were so thorough that when they found Jews in a flat for which they did not have an arrest warrant, they took them anyway. “Concerning the Jewish Question, the Dutch police behave outstandingly and catch hundreds of Jews, day and night,” the senior German police officer in Amsterdam, Rauter, wrote to his superior, Himmler, on 24 September 1942. His colleague, Willy Lages, was to admit after the war: “We would not have been able to arrest ten percent of the Jews without their help.”

Mak’s frankness about the despicable extent of Dutch collaboration does him great credit.10 His grim account should be required reading for every foreign tourist who walks out of the Anne Frank Museum thinking that the universal response of Dutch gentiles to the Nazi persecution of the Jews was to help their neighbors in every way they could.

Venice, like Amsterdam, was once a center of world commerce and capital of a fabled republic and is now, also like Amsterdam, an achingly beautiful tourist trap, crammed with art, riddled with canals, and slowly sinking into the muck. In Venice Revealed: An Intimate Portrait,11 Paolo Barbare, a civil engineer who was raised in Venice, recounts his return decades later, in the mid-1990s. It’s a very simple, and very elegant, book-a lyrical report of Barbaro’s observations and reflections as he wanders around the city day after day, taking time to notice the changing angle of the sun, the shifts in humidity from one street to the next, the rise and fall of the water lapping against the stones. He rediscovers curiously named old courtyards and thoroughfares, some of the latter so narrow that only one person can pass through at a time, and in more than a few of them he encounters the ghosts of his dead. Death is a dominant motif here: “Venice,” the locals tell him, “is dying.” Newspaper obituaries routinely outnumber birth announcements. Businesses close. Ghosts abound. “Because of the way it’s made, because of the way it is,” Barbaro reflects, Venice “brings the faces and lives of the dead continually back into memory,” for it’s a city that “holds fast to her ghosts, continuously evoking and ‘channeling’ voices, footsteps, dreams, thoughts, and presences. Perhaps this is the reason that so many detest her as soon as they leave her. For all of Venice-in her most solitary quarters, in her out-of-the-world canals-is first and foremost something unbearable: a powerful conduit for memories.” At times, this book makes Death in Venice look upbeat.

Yet despite the ubiquitous memento more, Barbaro also finds in Venice something of the very essence of life. Venice-this “tapestry,” this “labyrinth,” this “work of art” that seems to him to be a world unto itself, as impossibly distant from the Italian mainland as from America-is for him a place of richness, abundance, infinitude. Its dialect has several words for different kinds of fog and even more for different kinds of streets: “I’ve just become aware of how often, up until now, I’ve thought and written ‘street’. . . In reality these brief passages between houses change names and structures ten or twelve times in the course of about two hundred meters. ‘Street’? Hardly. They are sottoportico, casin, callelarga, callelunga, callestretta, or simply calle; they are ponte, fondamenta, salizzada, ramo, piscina, ponticello, and riva. . . .” It’s a city of endless mystery, where there are always new things to be discovered: “Hidden behind the well-known streets, the calli [small streets] trampled by everyone and his brother, in the heart of the labyrinth, in the blind bowels of the city, within the dark lattice that takes your breath right away, here they are: Venice’s unexpected gardens, her green spaces, her cultivated orchards, her trees. You have to earn them; you have to wind yourself into the innermost turns of the maze-but they’re there, patiently waiting for you.”

“It’s the opposite of Paris,” says a friend of his, “which is so excessive and pompous, where everything is grande-grande, even when it’s not.” It’s “the last real city,” Barbaro suggests (even though the brief glimpse he offers of the tourism industry would seem to suggest that it is among the least real cities, less and less a place where people live and more and more like, well, Disneyland). Those in search of Venetian history, of course, must look elsewhere: the point of Venice Revealed is to present the city as it figures in one man’s life and is seen through one man’s eyes. And while Barbaro’s prose can sometimes be more than a bit too precious, it’s often genuinely mesmerizing and evocative. (The translation, by the rather appropriately named Tami Calliope, is exemplary.) Reading Barbaro on Venice, you want to go there; you feel you are there. Like a smaller-scale Proust, this book is, at its best, a lesson in using one’s senses to their fullest.12

Two recent anthologies about American cities take two distinct approaches. Before her death in 2001, Katharine Graham, longtime proprietor of the Washington Post and doyenne of D.C.’s beau monde, compiled dozens of book excerpts and essays about the nation’s capital.13 The picture they add up to, alas, is somewhat narrow. Though my own Washington social circle has included a number of people (journalists, Senatorial staffers, a Congressman) whom I think of as movers and shakers, reading this book I often felt like an eighteenth-century peasant peering through the windows at Versailles. Many of the selections dwell on such matters as the proper seating at A-list dinner parties (who ranks higher, the Secretary of State or the British ambassador?) and the details of this or that couple moving into or out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In several pieces, First Ladies snipe at each other and former presidential underlings offer intimate glimpses of their sometime bosses. (The most vivid: a Secret Service agent on Coolidge, a White House usher on Jackie Kennedy, and political advisor Michael Deaver on Reagan.) Reading this book, you’d never know Washington is 60 percent black. (Graham, in a royal nod toward the serfs, throws in a couple of Post pieces about black Washington, but they feel like token guests at this soiree.)

If Graham’s anthology is frankly based on one woman’s taste, Writing Los Angeles, a chronologically arranged collection of eighty-odd stories, essays, poems, and diary and novel excerpts published by The Library of America, aims to be definitive.14 From beginning (an 1883 essay by Helen Hunt Jackson offering an affectionate view of what was then a fading Spanish mission town) to end (a 1997 piece by David Thomson about Mulholland Drive), it has an estimable catholicity, taking us to every corner of town and embracing a wide range of periods, genres, moods, and perspectives. There are extracts from Upton Sinclair’s muck-raking novel Oil! (1927) and from a 1931 Arna Bontemps novel about black life; there are essays in which Simone de Beauvoir, Octavio Paz, and Truman Capote (among others) vouchsafe their diverse impressions of Lotus Land; and there’s even H. L. Mencken’s hilarious takedown of Aimee Semple McPherson (in which he attributes her success to the fact that “there were more morons collected in Los Angeles than in any other place on earth”). Joan Didion defends the Getty Museum; Umberto Eco visits Disneyland; Evelyn Waugh entertainingly mocks Forest Lawn; James M. Cain (in 1933) serves up a keen “appraisal of the civilization of southern California”; and Gees Nooteboom, in a truly splendid 1973 essay, “Autopia,” shows us the sprawling, centerless metropolis through the eyes of a Dutchman who, for all the alienness of the place, is touchingly, amusingly determined to overcome the cultural gap and get it.

The Dream Factory isn’t ignored here. In 1915 Vachel Lindsay, noting “the Boston domination of the only American culture of the nineteenth century, namely, literature,” prophetically enthuses over “the prospect that Los Angeles may become the Boston of the photoplay [i.e., movie].” (While conceding the shallowness of both California and films, Lindsay suggests that “it is thrillingly possible for the state and the art to acquire spiritual tradition and depth together.”) Jan Morris, in 1976, makes a point that has occurred to me, too, while observing film crews: that “somewhere near the heart of the L.A. ethos there lies, unexpectedly, a layer of solid, old-fashioned, plain hard work. This is a city of hard workers . . . It suggests to me, unexpectedly, the guild spirit of some medieval town, where the workers in iron or lace, the clockmakers and the armorers, competed to give the city the glory of their trades.” And Christopher Isherwood dishes about several celebrities of his acquaintance, including Garbo: “If you watch her for a quarter of an hour, you see every one of her famous expressions. She repeats them, quite irrelevantly.” Gratifyingly, however, movie-star gossip doesn’t overwhelm this book in the way that Presidential tittle-tattle does Graham’s. Indeed, after reading Writing Los Angeles, which depicts so many sides of El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula from so many points of view, one is all the more aware of the impoverishing narrowness of Katharine Graham’s Washington-and of the richness, complexity, and variety that are the hallmarks of every great metropolis.

1 LONDON: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. $45.00.

2 PARIS: Capital of the World, by Patrice Higonnet. Trans. by Arthur Goldhammer. Harvard University Press/Belknap. $35.00.

3 SEVEN AGES OF PARIS, by Alistair Horne. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.00.

4 Such as this 1870 plea by Victor Hugo, begging Prussia not to destroy his beloved city: “It is in Paris that the beating of Europe’s heart is felt. Paris is the city of cities. Paris is the city of men. There has been an Athens, there has been a Rome, and now there is a Paris. . . . Is the nineteenth century to witness this frightening phenomenon? A nation fallen from polity, to barbarism, abolishing the city of nations; Germans extinguishing Paris. . . . Can you give this spectacle to the world?” (Never mind that in that war, the “barbarism” had begun with an unprovoked French invasion of Germany.)

5 Horne tells of Baron Elie de Rothschild, whose Paris mansion was the site of many prewar cafe-society soirees and was inhabited during the Occupation by a Luftwaffe general. “On returning from prison camp after the war, Rothschild observed to the old family butler, Felix, that the house must have been very quiet during the Occupation. The butler replied, ‘On the contrary, Monsieur Elie. There were receptions every evening.’ ‘But . . . who came?’ asked the astonished Rothschild. ‘The same people, Monsieur Elie. The same as before the war.'”

6 THE FLANEUR: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, by Edmund White. Bloomsbury. $16.95.

7 PARIS TO THE MOON, by Adam Gopnick. Random House. $14.95p.

8 THE PIANO SHOP ON THE LEFT BANK: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier, by Thad Carhart. Random House. $13.95p.

9 AMSTERDAM, by Geert Mak. Trans. by Philipp Blom. Harvard University Press. $17.95p.

10 It must be noted that the postwar Dutch government, compared with its counterparts in other countries, has done an exemplary job of honestly documenting-and repenting of-its people’s wartime collaboration.

11 VENICE REVEALED: An Intimate Portrait, by Paolo Barbara. Trans, by Tami Calliope. Steerforth Press. $27.00.

12 The antithesis of Venice Revealed is Elisabeth Crouzet-Pavan’s VENICE TRIUMPHANT: The Horizons of a Myth (The Johns Hopkins University Press, $39.95), an economic and geopolitical history of Venice up to the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. The lack of human interest and the stiff prose style of Lydia G. Cochrane’s translation (“It seems quite justifiable to emphasize the abundance of representations of Venice at the head of a chapter devoted to the classical topic of political and economic history”) make this a book that will be of interest only to specialists.

13 KATHARINE GRAHAM’S WASHINGTON, ed. by Katharine Graham. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.00.

14 WRITING LOS ANGELES: A Literary Anthology, ed. by David L. Ulin. The Library of America. $40.00.

BRUCE BAWER has lived in New York, Amsterdam, and Oslo. . . .

* Asterisk indicates a new contributor.

Copyright Hudson Review Spring 2003

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