July 19, 2013
"By articulating what it is in France that makes it French, we might understand what it is in America that makes us American."
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.
As I explained in the introduction to my book, Paris to the Moon, Paris had occupied my mind long before I occupied Paris. I was in love, as much as De Gaulle – albeit in an incomparably more Lilliputian form – with “a certain idea of France,” expressed for me in The Red Balloon and the Madeline books and, a little later, in the vertiginous picaresque opportunism of D’Artagnan among the Musketeers. I actually saw Paris for the first time when I was sixteen, and (forgive me; I’m repeating old jokes here, but it’s an old subject in my life) it was the first time – and remains the only time – when the real thing seemed to correspond perfectly to the imagined one. The rich traffic back and forth between the American-imagined Paris and the real France has been one of my subjects ever since.
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?
Yes. There is no way to grasp ourselves as clearly as we do when we’re wrestling with the “Other.” Levinas, if I read him correctly, says that this is the essential human moment: when we look into the eyes of the Other and see, not ourselves – that’s the act of the colonial imagination! – but one somewhat like ourselves, yet irreducibly different. Without that act of looking at the Other, we remain invisible to ourselves.
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?
I made a list once of three chief differences — obviously, it was written with tongue in cheek; there are lots more. But the three chief ones, I think, are the difference in attitudes towards youth and age, towards the relation between theory and evidence, and towards the state. Very quickly – everyone in America wants to be sixteen again, and, in my experience, many in France would be glad to become forty – the Bac long behind, and sexual adventure continuing. The difference between theory and evidence, as I wrote at length once, is indicated in the French puzzlement at the American (or anyway New Yorker) practice of fact checking. Why double check facts so carefully, my French subjects often wondered about American magazines, and accept shaky argument so readily? And as to the state…there are many in America who expect black helicopters to sweep down and enslave everyone to the government; in France, as I said once, there seem to be many who believe that there are white helicopters which will swoop down and give everyone at forty a permanent pension from the government.
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?
One strong difference lies in the way the two countries use food as political symbol. In America, you can deduce someone’s politics “at the door,” so to speak, by whatever they choose first to serve you. If you get an organic locally grown carrot sprinkled with fleur-de-sel, you know how much the family offering it contributed to the first election to President Obama, and how much they are contributing this time. In America, a taste for the local, the organic, the slow… are sure signs of political liberalism, as we call what the French would call “leftism.” But in France, the same signs might well indicate an allegiance to the right or even to the extreme right – the organic carrot, the local growth, emphasizes the supremacy of the terroir, of the soil of France. Indeed, many of my young big-eating French friends, hate the slow food movement, because they think that traditional French food is slow enough already. It’s slowing down the table and, since the table is the raft of national life, the country.
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?
In plain English (in the absence of complex French!) because Proust is such a winning, such a charming, captivating writer. Yes, of course, there are dull patches in the Albertine books, and yes, the sentences are long – but never really opaque; the meaning is always perfectly clear and epigrammatically precise. But on the whole, and particularly in the first four books, there has never been a more acute, engaged, indulgent, observant, ardently romantic narrator than that of Proust’s great book. He’s just very good company – and what do we read for except good company?
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?
A love of French civilization – or at least as it is expressed in its Parisian centers – is one of the strongest emotions I possess. I recognize the elements of American idealization, nostalgia, deliberate blindness that can enter into this emotion – but the emotion remains. As someone whose life is too harried to provide many opportunities for charity in the old fashioned sense – for doing good – serving within and for institutions for whom an equal love of France and America is not just an idiosyncratic emotion, but an institutionally fundamental premise, gives me a sense of a good deed done. Anything that keeps that relation alive helps keep my heart alive.
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?
I enjoy the kind of work I do most often now – weaving together a narrative from the matter of many books, often intimidatingly technical or academic ones. (I did this, for instance, in a long recent piece on the literature of the Internet, or on the language of Abraham Lincoln and his circle.) But the “comic sentimental” essays, of the kind I assembled in “Paris To The Moon” and “Through The Children’s Gate,” where a small domestic incident becomes the vehicle to a larger existential speculation, are still those closest to my heart and, I suspect, to the center of my talent, such as it is.
What book has influenced you the most in your writing, your career, and your life?
Proust, of course, and Montaigne, and in another way Molière have all sat inside my head and muddled my mind, to its improvement. But I suspect that the work of A.J. Liebling, John Updike, and J.D. Salinger have left the deepest scratches on the recording surface of my mind. One of the things of which I’m proudest – if proud is not too strange a word to use in this context – is that I was asked to write the eulogies for the last two in The New Yorker.