December 11, 2017
Janet Flanner, FranceOn 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. These were afterwards collected in a handful of volumes, most notably Paris Journal, 1944-1965, which won a National Book Award in America. Flanner also wrote a novel (The Cubical City), and translated several of Colette's, but she is most famous for profiling the famous politicians, artists and events of her era in a new form and a unique style. In her preface to Paris Was Yesterday, Flanner says that when she started in 1925 the "only specific guideline I had received from the editor, Harold Ross, was his statement that he wanted to know what the French thought was going on in France, not what I thought was going on." She saw this as the opportunity for "a new type of journalistic foreign correspondence," and attempted to develop a witty, fluid style that was "precisely accurate, highly personal, colorful, and ocularly descriptive."
Many who know France still rank Flanner's stylish articulation of the je ne sais quoi as among the best. 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 France. 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. We get a taste of the "civilized, countrified, appetizing" thirty-cent lunch, eaten daily for years in a small restaurant in the rue Jacob "in the company of some minor Surrealists." We follow her up "a narrow circular staircase, which like the newel of a snail's shell wound upstairs to the second floor" -- follow carefully, as one of the Surrealists "had painted a series of false steps in a Cubist design." We get this larger view of Paris:
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