Curriculum Vitae

Diane Johnson's Neighborhood

At the museum on Friday, I picked up a copy of Diane Johnson's Into a Paris Quartier (National Geographic, 2005). Ms Johnson and her husband spend half of every year in France; currently, she's living on Rue Bonaparte in the Sixième, just up the street from St-Germain-des-Prés and around the corner from the Institut de France. Rashly or not, she provides her street address, and I have to wonder if this will lead to inconvenience, as there are doubtless many Le Divorce-clutching Americans who would love to attend an impromptu book signing at the author's front door.

Much of the pleasure of this book comes from its narrative voice, which is quite unlike that of Ms Johnson's fictional omniscient observers. In her novels, Ms Johnson underlines her American protagonists' blunders with a voice that sounds almost incapable of error. You will learn things about French life from Ms Johnson's novels, useful things. Ms Johnson herself has already learned them. In a Paris Quartier is stuffed to the twelve-foot ceilings with things that Ms Johnson doesn't know. I wasn't surprised to learn that she had never heard of the académicien into whose apartment she stumbled on a househunting expedition, but I was very surprised indeed to learn that, having discovered that she really loved reading the man's novels, that, indeed, he has become her favorite French novelist, she reads him in English, not French, because reading in French slows her down. Hearing this, I felt something like Dorothy upon meeting the Wonderful Wizard. Reading in foreign languages is bound to be slower for all but the truly bilingual, but I soldier on because I don't really believe in translation. Ms Johnson does, however, and more power to her. I found the admission mightily endearing.

Ms Johnson's is the ignorance of a really intelligent and curious person who has long since come to terms with the that doesn't even have a context for her with a plain American "Who cares?" Living in a neighborhood that began to look as it does today after the construction of the Pont Neuf at the end of the sixteenth century, she is beguiled by Hillairet's Connaisance du Vieux Paris, a kind of Guide Michelin to the late great, with dutiful lists of who lived where on any given street. Citing the listings for the Rue des Beaux Arts, where the hotel in which Oscar Wilde died is still in operation (and more luxurious than ever), Ms Johnson muses,

A person raised and educated in America may have to start from scratch when it comes to French history, if I am any example. Who was Lacordaire? Who was Coux? ... Like Rue de l'Abbaye, Rue des Beaux Arts leads between Rue Bonaparte and Rue de Seine, and had its share of celebrated and obscure inhabitants. Just walking on any street of St.-Germain with Haillairet's guide in hand makes me conscious of my almost complete ignorance of the events of French history, things that were unfolding, evidently, as the same time as things in England and, eventually, America, that form the focus of our anglo-oriented studies.

Ms Johnson's full title is Into a Paris Quartier: Reine Margot's Chapel and Other Haunts of St.-Germain. The kernel of her local curiosity is a small round building that she can see from her kitchen window. What is it? Although it takes her a long time to visit the interior, she soon learns that it is a chapel built by La Reine Margot, as Marguérite de Valois is known to literature (and, since 1994, to film buffs), as part of the palace that she erected in 1608 or so. Discovering the chapel leads Ms Johnson to unearth Margot's martini-dry memoirs. The daughter of Cathérine de' Médicis lived in turbulent times, to say the least; her wedding to Henri de Navarre appears to have been the pretext for the slaughter of thousands of Protestants throughout France, the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Reflecting on the violence of French history, Ms Johnson puzzles over the general stability of French life in between the eruptions, comparing it favorably with the political gradualism of her insanely over-armed homeland. 

The chapel is all that remains of Margot's palace and gardens. Margot's replacement as royal consort, Marie de' Médicis, would somewhat later build the Palais du Luxembourg a few blocks to the south, and it's, of course, still very much there. The Americans who petitioned French support for their Revolution all stayed in the neighborhood; by then, the French aristocracy had built up the Faubourg St-Germain to the west (the septième). Aside from the alterations wrought by the development of the three great boulevards, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Ms Johnson's quartier is pretty much what it was three hundred years ago.

The two most famous cafés in Paris (intellectually considered) cluster about the old abbey church of St-Germain, only they're now filled with tourists. I have a small cup and saucer labeled "Café de Flore" to prove my participation in the drill; Kathleen and I had dinner there on a rainy Sunday night when nothing else was open. Into a Paris Quartier is openly addressed to American readers, particularly to readers who might not know much about Paris beyond what you learn from the movies. There is much that we could learn from Paris. It is a city for walking, something that America would lack entirely were it not for the rule-proving exception of New York. And a city for walking is a city for the very agreeable socializing, also foreign to most Americans, that comes from sharing public spaces with mostly agreeable strangers. It has always been the capital of France, despite persistent efforts by monarchs to do without it. (Louis XIV wasn't the first to hate Paris by any means. Charlemagne never spent much time there, and for nearly two centuries the Valois kings favored their châteaux on the Loire. It's difficult to hunt the stag in a city.) Paris seems to know who's on top. As do we here in Gotham. But where Paris concentrates all of France, New York is America's favorite Foreign Destination.

What's wrong with Gotham is its boring grid layout (no views, just "canyons") and its surplus of too-tall buildings. Ms Johnson reports that an American architect, John Field, has developed a theory that buildings of six or seven stories are optimal. The population density of the Upper East Side would drop considerably if it were rebuilt with such height restrictions in mind, but that of most of New York's other residential neighborhoods would rise. My favorite daydream posits the Haussmannization of Queens, replacing current structures with a very Parisian scheme of six= or seven- story buildings and plenty of streets going off from squares in odd directions. Ms Johnson startled me by stating another one of my daydreams, one even less capable of being realized than my folie de bâtir:

(True, we had the Civil war; by now, which American, whether Yankee or Revel, has not secretly wondered whether it might have been better to let the South secede? The two halves of our nation seem to feel so differently about everything.)

Yikes. As someone who has often broached the desirability of this might-have-been, only to meet with surprised incredulity or stony truculence, I have to wonder where Ms Johnson gets her ideas about Americans. (And it is hardly consoling to realize that the the loudest war cries were hollered by militant Christians, as Abolitionists usually were.) But I am perfectly content to enjoy her like-minded company. It is all the more pleasant because evidence of Diane Johnson's professional career, much less its fallout in fame and fortune, are hardly in evidence. Ms Johnson is an American in Paris who likes to think about the world around her. The wonderful thing about Paris is that there is no end of food for thought, and no end of sidewalks by which to reach it. (June 2005)

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