Friday, February 13, 2015

"Paris in the Fifties" by Stanley Karnow

All the beautiful Paris myths are embodied in Stanley Karnow's book Paris in the Fifties. Existentialists, journalists, politicians both left and right; criminals, their trials, and those that punish them (even the famous operator of the Guillotine), and many other colorful Paris residents populate the chapters of this book. His mother-in-law was writer Nathalie Sarraute He interviewed Hemingway. He sort of rubbed elbows with Sartre and his circle. In fact, Karnow was quite a name dropper!

The New York Times, reviewing the book in 1997, was unenthusiastic:
"Time (the magazine) seldom ran any of Karnow's dispatches as he wrote them, and time (the entity) has been no kinder to his material. Despite the sometimes interesting experiences he chooses to record, most of his reporting is dated. Some is merely superficial (as in his overview of French literature through the ages), some (as in his commentaries on French politics) needs more interpretation than Karnow gives." -- See "American Abroad"

Because he wrote in the 1990s, Karnow chose themes that had lasting relevance, and though I generally agree with the reviewer, I found some things about the book still interesting. Paris in the news in 2015 includes the terrorist murders of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo and Jews at the Kosher supermarket, the trial of Dominique Strauss-Kahn for participating in a prostitution ring, and of less significance, the release of the newest edition of the Michelin guide. Reading what Karnow had to say made me see deep roots for these events.

For example, his chapter on Poujadism, a now-forgotten right-wing, antisemitic, populist anti-tax movement is interesting. But particularly interesting: that one of the enforcers who worked for the movement was a thug named Jean-Marie LePen, and that that type of political bullying remains a constant in France.

The low birthrate and declining workforce that was of concern then caused France to have increased immigration from its former colonies -- a matter of great concern now, as decaying public housing is crowded with disaffected Muslims. The antisemitism of the right has been overshadowed by direct terrorism against Jews, most recently the murder at the Kosher supermarket.

Most disappointing to me was Karnow's treatment of food in Paris in the fifties. Yes, he documents in detail the menu at events, especially at politicians dinners. He interviewed the nearly 80-year-old food writer Curnonsky and gave a rather unimaginative history of restaurants in France. He lists the names of restaurants where famous people ate. But it's sadly not very vivid.

All in all, Karnow knew what stereotypes readers would bring to a book with this title, and he tried to satisfy their expectations. His earliest chapters about being a poor student and getting to know late-1940s Paris have some appeal, but somehow the book seems flat. Or as the Times reviewer says: "routine and ordinary, perilously close to boring."


Pam said...

Interesting post. I just received the Van Gogh book from Amazon. Great book so far, about a very unique individual!

Jeanie said...

As you can see, I'm catching up. I'm sorry to hear this isn't too satisfying. I'd love for it to be -- an intriguing period, a good journalist. But with so many Paris (and other) books in the pile, I suppose this might have to wait -- if it makes it there at all. So glad I read your take on it.