This week I bought author Adam Gopnik’s latest memoir, At the Stranger’s Gate, which documents his arrival in New York as a young writer. The book is a prequel to Paris to the Moon, Gopnik’s chronicling of his years spent in Paris on assignment with The New Yorker. I admire the way Gopnik writes about places and so, in an effort to learn a thing or two, I revisited Paris to the Moon and picked out three things that make Gopnik’s words about cities so compelling.
- It’s not about the place.
Exposition isn’t enough. You can’t just take a verbal snapshot. Streets lined with linden trees and poorly lit alleyways make for nice images. But an image is only part of what stirs the imagination. In the passage below, Gopnik takes a (literal) pedestrian experience—walking down rue Saint-Dominique, reveling in its loveliness—infuses it to lingering anxieties from cities past, and shares with readers a reflection about running away from one’s demons that seems entirely tied to that Parisian avenue yet universally applicable.
The hardest thing to convey is how lovely it all is and how that loveliness seems all you need. The ghosts that haunted you in New York or Pittsburgh will haunt you anywhere you go, because they’re your ghosts and the house they haunt is you. But they become disconcerted, shaken, confused for half a minute, and in that moment on a December at four o’clock when you’re walking from the bus stop to the rue Saint-Dominique and the lights are twinkling across the river—only twinkling in the bateaux-mouches, luring the tourists, but still…—you feel as if you’ve escaped your ghosts if only because, being you, they’re transfixed looking at the lights in the trees on the other bank, too, which they haven’t seen before, either. It’s true that you can’t run away from yourself. But we were right: you can run away.
- Everywhere is bizarre.
In every city, village, or house on earth, there are peculiarities: ways of doing something that are unique to that place. Often times it’s these peculiarities that lead to revelations about the city itself. One can comment on the strange conversion of old French bidets into electric plug-in toilets and use that as a data point to support a claim about Paris’s gradual retreat from sexual libertinism:
These days the city’s reputation for naughtiness has pretty much diminished away to nothing. Now the dirty movies get made in Amsterdam; the dirty drawings get sent in from Tokyo; and Oriental and even German towns, of all places, are the places you go for sexual experiment. (Even the bidets are gone from Paris, mostly converted into bizarre plug-in electric toilets, which roar as they chew up human waste, in a frenzy of sanitary appetite, and then send it out, chastened, down the ordinary water pipes.)
- The place is a character.
Paris is a person in Gopnik’s book. His treatment of the city gives it a face, limbs and a conscience. Here it helps that Gopnik has the benefit of comparison, of having experienced similar things in different places. A simple observation about how a mother deals with a misbehaving child, or a comparison of American and French reactions to a waiter forgetting an order, can lead to sweeping but incisive descriptions of a character and her relationship to the world. Gopnik characterizes everyone else in the book—himself included—by their relationships to her.
The romance of Paris was my subject, and if it is a moony or even a loony one, it is at least the one I get, a little. … The French believe that all errors are distant, someone else’s fault. Americans believe that there is no distance, no difference, and therefore that there are no errors, that any troubles are simple misunderstandings, consequent on your not yet having spoken English loudly enough. … Parisians believe they are superior by birth. They do not believe, as Americans do, that they are invulnerable by right.
These three things struck me about the way Gopnik writes about place. Perhaps they contain a few lessons that will help us in writing about where we’re from, where we are, and where we’re yet to go.