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"By articulating what it is in France that makes it French, we might understand what it is in America that makes us American."
July 9, 2013
Adam Gopnik, renowned author, staff writer for The New Yorker, and French-American Foundation board member, talks about his career, cultural differences between France and the United States, his many forays into non-fiction and fiction, and his connection to Proust, among other topics.
Adam Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. During his tenure at the magazine, he has written fiction and humor pieces, book reviews, Profiles, reporting pieces, and more than a hundred stories for The Talk of the Town and Comment.
Gopnik became The New Yorker’s art critic in 1987. In 1990, he collaborated with Kirk Varnedoe, the former curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, on the exhibition “High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” and co-wrote the book of the same name. In 1995, Gopnik moved to Paris and began writing the Paris Journal column for the magazine. An expanded collection of his essays from Paris, Paris to the Moon, appeared in 2000. While in Paris, he also wrote an adventure novel, The King in the Window, which was published in 2005. Gopnik has edited the anthology Americans in Paris for the Library of America, and has written introductions to new editions of the works of Maupassant, Balzac, Proust, and Alain-Fournier.
His other books include Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York (Knopf, 2006), Angels & Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (Knopf, 2009), and The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food (Vintage, 2012).
Gopnik has won the National Magazine Award for Essays and for Criticism three times, and also the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. In 2012, the French government named him a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Gopnik received a Bachelor’s degree from McGill University and a Master’s degree in art history from New York University.
Adam, we are thrilled to be able to interview you for our French and American readership. Your astute, discerning, and oftentimes witty writings are well known on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially by Americans who share your fascination with France. You maintain a seeming love affair with France, having lived there from 1995-2000 and written several books stemming from this experience, including the New York Times best-seller Paris to the Moon and The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. Tell us about your ties to France and if, or how, they have changed over time.
Has your time in France and your ongoing exploration of French history, culture, and society helped you better understand — or question — America and American ways of life?
In far less grand terms, that’s been exactly the subject I’ve been absorbed in: by articulating what it is in France that makes it French, we might understand what it is in America that makes us American. In simplest terms: only by becoming aware of the easy presence of sex in French attitudes towards child birth, did I become aware of the extreme “medicalization” of childbearing in America. The Voyage Out is essential to the Journey In.
France and the United States are, on the surface, remarkably similar and yet diverge in many startling ways. Both nations often misinterpret each other, and cultural misunderstandings arise all the time. The cultures of work, happiness, friendship, love, and gastronomy, among myriad others — cultures that are taken for granted — can be surprisingly different. In your mind, what are the greatest cultural misunderstandings between the two countries?
Your most recent book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, explores the meaning we assign to food and dining, drawing upon France’s historic relationship to food and the idea of family. You wrote, “Having made food a more fashionable object, we have ended by making eating a smaller subject.” Through this lens, what key differences exist between French and American society?
You are a self-avowed devotee of French novelist Marcel Proust. At a co-sponsored Foundation event in 2010, you and Antoine Compagnon, Professor of French Literature at Columbia University and the Collège de France, animatedly discussed Proust at Columbia's Maison Française. Watch the video here. This year, to celebrate the centennial of Swann’s Way, the French review La Revue des Deux Mondes published a special June issue entitled “Proust vu d’Amérique.” In this issue, you were interviewed by Ioanna Kohler, former Foundation Director of Policy Programs, on how Proust is perceived in the United States today. With such knowledge, how would you describe the value of reading Proust today, when communications on Twitter are conducted in 140 characters or less? Why read Proust?
You have served on the French-American Foundation’s Board of Directors since 2006. In 2006, you served as keynote speaker and master of ceremonies at Payard as part of the French-American Foundation’s 30th anniversary celebrations. Why is the Foundation meaningful to you?
You have been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. You have penned many types of pieces, ranging from humor to reporting to story-telling. What was your favorite piece to write, and why?
What book has influenced you the most in your writing, your career, and your life?