Flanner on France

On this day in 1978 Janet Flanner died. For a half-century her bi-weekly “Letter From Paris” was published under her pen name, “Genet,” in The New Yorker. Flanner’s stylish articulation of the je ne sais quoi was regarded as among the best windows on modern France. Now that the specific people and events which she profiled are no longer topical, she is read for history and painterly mood — a better and more reliable alternative to such memoirs as Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, from one as close to the Lost Gen crowd and closer to wider French culture. In her preface to Paris Was Yesterday, written just a few years before her death, Flanner recalls a suicide talk with Hemingway at the Deux Magots, and the first copy of Ulysses, and the lesbian salon hosted by Djuna Barnes, but the real event is the Paris they all shared:

At any season, and all year long, in the evening the view of the city from the bridges was always exquisitely pictorial. One’s eyes became the eyes of a painter, because the sight itself approximated art, with the narrow, pallid facades of the buildings lining the river; with the tall trees growing down by the water’s edge; with, behind them, the vast chiaroscuro of the palatial Louvre, lightened by the luminous lemon color of the Paris sunset off toward the west….

Flanner’s preface to Paris Was Yesterday eulogizes what “seemed immutably French” but which proved vulnerable, especially to America’s post-war cultural invasion. Sometimes this came without resentment: the first “Letter From Paris” excerpted in Flanner’s book describes the welcome given to the sensational Josephine Baker:

Josephine Baker has arrived at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in La Revue Negre and the result has been unanimous. Paris has never drawn a color line. Covarrubias did the sets, pink drops with cornucopias of hams and watermelons, and the Civil War did the rest, aided by Miss Baker….


A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria on this day in 1913. Camus’s father, a day laborer, died in WWI, and Camus was brought up by his mother (illiterate, and deaf) and grandmother in a two-room apartment in Algiers. This is from “Summer in Algiers”:

During the summer months, the town is deserted. But the poor and the sky remain. We go down with them to the harbor and its treasures: he water’s gentle warmth and the women’s brown bodies. In the evening, swollen with these riches, the people return to oilcloth and kerosene lamp, the meager furniture of their existence….