Authors in Conversation
“Americans continue to visit Paris not just for Paris, but for ‘Paris,’” Rosecrans Baldwin, author of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down, wrote in an email just before Bastille Day. “As if out of some collective nostalgia for what Paris should be, more than what it is.” He was writing to Toby Barlow, author of Sharp Teeth and, most recently, Babayaga — a novel of love, spies, and witches in 1950s Paris. In their exchange, Barlow and Baldwin discussed “Fake France,” pommes frites, and the enchantments of the City of Light.
Toby Barlow wrote:
Hey Mr. Baldwin,
I finished your book. I have to admit, I had multiple levels of trepidation picking it up. I had already studiously avoided looking at it when I was working on my book about Paris. (I generally instinctively avoid any influences when I’m writing, lest they become too influential. The only resource I had for my book was a dog-eared 1960s Fodor’s guide.) But once I was done with my book, I really didn’t have any excuse not to read yours, yet still I avoided it because I was sure you were going to nail Paris to a much more precise degree than I did, and I thought it would hurt reading that, which it did. But in a good way. In a lovely way. It’s a lovely book. I think what both of our books involve is how the idea of Paris drives people’s involvement with Paris at every level, and how it is a city on display. I think it’s interesting that a place can be that and then other places — a random strip mall for instance — can so clearly not be that.
I am interested in how and why we would choose to distinguish one space as holding meaning and another space as only holding functionality. In essence, a place is a place, and yet our attitude about Paris is so clearly different than our attitude about almost any place else on the ol’ space-time continuum. You know what I mean?
Rosecrans Baldwin wrote:
I stayed away from your book a couple weeks after it turned up in the mail, along similar lines. I’ve been talking and reading and writing about Paris and France nonstop for three years, it feels like, and I am a lot more interested now in San Luis Obispo or Bridgeport or Wilmington. But your book kept bothering me. The marketing copy was practically designed for my interests — “postwar Paris,” “Cold War espionage.” I cracked it because what is a Babayaga anyway? Then, page twenty, there’s a head on a spike, followed by witchcraft. So yeah, you got me back in Paris, a new Paris, and I sort of resent you for it (not really; really).
So, Maureen Dowd just filed a column for The New York Times from Paris. To be exact, the dateline says she’s filing from “PARIS—VERSAILLES.” She lets us know the French are so depressed they don’t have the energy anymore to be rude. She suggests this is partially connected to smoking e-cigarettes. Also, she includes this line: “On Place Vendome, Christian Lacroix was dispatching models in black crepe chiffon peplum basques — whatever they are.”
Give me a break. Maureen Dowd pretending not to know her way around a chiffon peplum basque is like gazillionaire Jay-Z threatening to do more than litigate his foes.
But the article is yet another sign that Fake France persists, even if it is dying. That Americans continue to visit Paris not just for Paris, but for “Paris.” As if out of some collective nostalgia for what Paris should be, more than what it is. For someone else’s memories. To enjoy something fading — a way of life, the rooftops, the waiters’ uniforms. Does fading equate to genuineness? Really, was Paris ever not fading? For insiders and outsiders alike, I think, Paris-the-actual-city is its past way more than its present. And suffers from it. It is its stories, too many stories. But we’ve reached a point where we need them. Because once you dig below the surface, Paris is too much — too much history, too many dead, too much sex and marketing. It becomes “Paris.”
Then again, at least it’s not Rome. Rome is too magnificent. I’ve only been once — I could barely turn a corner. It’s like when you visit an art gallery and spend half an hour in front of a single painting, then walk out because now your stomach’s full. I think I could be dropped off in a random piazza in Rome, spend a week not moving, sleeping on the bench, then go home and genuinely say it was my favorite-ever trip.
Toby Barlow wrote:
Happy Bastille Day!
I think you’re right that Paris is too much, but I am also fascinated by how the superficial has come to reign so completely. Perhaps it was always so. Perhaps that eternal and dominant fascination with the superficial — and the philosophical and aesthetic reaction to that superficiality — was what created civilization, layer by layer, which for a time we studied and we struggled to understand and for brief periods we even knew. Now we just stand in lines waiting for our macarons. If I worked at Ladurée I wouldn’t give you a macaron unless you recited a line from Baudelaire.
One of my favorite parts of your book was when you described the “Paris syndrome,” which occurred when a Japanese tourist was so disappointed that the city did not live up to her expectation that she suffered a nervous breakdown. What the hell did she expect? To me it underscored how impossibly superficial we’ve become — the city must be an anime explosion of Disney and Sailor Moon or tears will fall.
I can recall having my own version of this as a kid when I saw the Pasteur Institute had done work identifying the AIDS virus. I remember thinking, “Wow, people actually do stuff in Paris?” But they do, as you prove; real work still happens there. Which is why it’s more like Rome and not like Florence, though perhaps it’s somewhere between the two, because it is so damn precious. That’s why I think people are so captivated by the idea of living in Paris. It’s not just visiting but actually living and working in Cinderella’s castle.
In the end, though, I’m not sure why people don’t take their fascination with the city and apply it to other places. We shit out parking lots and big-box stores and despoil every piece of land we touch and then we spend those profits and more on nights at the Ritz. How come we can’t take our love of beauty out of Paris? Or has it somehow bewitched us into believing it can only live there? The city is under a spell but, as you say, I’m not sure it’s an entirely benevolent one.
Rosecrans Baldwin wrote:
Well, to address the bewitching, I’ll pose a question: why did your Paris need witchcraft? Wasn’t a spy thriller-cum-policier good enough?
When I was working at the ad firm in Paris, my French colleagues were quite aware that Paris was itself a hulking advertising campaign. We all lived inside it; the only way to escape it was to burrow deeper, away from the tourists, the queues, the overwhelming sense that the city’s best days were past. And like all advertising, it’s mostly stereotype, a reduction of the thing it’s selling — recognizable in broad strokes, but false.
Martin Amis said writing is a campaign against cliché. Well, that only applies to good writing. But I think travel is that, too — against cliché. The best travel, at least. I mean, if you go to Paris only to visit Notre Dame, why buy the plane ticket? Why not just stay at home and look at some exchange student’s Facebook photos?
Toby Barlow wrote:
Good question! Originally, I wanted to write about this moment because it felt to me like the last time in history when Paris was still the center of something essential. But the Cold War was running aground in Europe, the game they had ginned up — of culture wars, propaganda and espionage — was dying down, and the industrial war complex had discovered that proxy wars on the other side of the planet were the only way to keep things profitable. I liked the idea and was playing around with it, but the more I thought about Paris at that point, the more I realized what a terminus it was. So many old traditions were dying out as commercialism and capitalism seized hold of economies; supermarkets and pharmacies were beginning the long, tireless march that would lead to Walmart and Duane Reade. I imagined the witches, with their home cures and their bizarre arcana, being a symbol of the vanishing past. Everything was ending and everyone wanted to hold on.
To that degree, as you say, I wonder if that sense of ending, which you felt there quite recently and my characters felt over fifty years ago, has always been going on, and if there’s some kind of Hegelian dialectic of ending and sentimentality giving birth to beginnings and promise that defines those arrondissements. But I am curious and anxious now — did you hate the witches? The book’s not going to be released for another week or two — I suppose that’s enough time to edit the witches out.
People love clichés. They cling to them. In language and in travel. There’s a great New Yorker profile of the writer George Meyer (of Simpsons fame) in which he talks about going to a movie and seeing the joke coming that was in the preview and thinking “nobody is going to laugh at this, because they’ve heard it before in the preview.” And then the joke comes and of course the audience laughs loudest. Because it’s familiar, expected, because they know they’re supposed to laugh. Just like they know they’re supposed to go to the Louvre, even though they don’t know the foggiest thing about anything hanging in the Louvre or anything about the building or anything at all except maybe that french fries are called pommes frites.
Rosecrans Baldwin wrote:
Oh, I loved the witches. I think Paris needs more witches, more new magic. And so I will look forward to Babayaga, Deux: Zoya et Hollande.
Toby Barlow is the author of Babayaga (“Tolkien meets Graham Greene meets Anne Rice in this wild, surrealistic caper,” available this August) and Sharp Teeth. He lives in Detroit.