We came to Paris at a time when any American with good sense was moving to Prague or
Costa Rica, depending on their taste in climates. Most films set in Paris these days are actually filmed
in Prague, which is enough of a look-alike and much cheaper, with a lot less red tape. I chose Paris
because of its history of welcoming writers-in-exile; also, my wife is French and active in the film
industry. We first set up in a lovely, completely restored apartment on the Canal St. Martin, where,
when things were slow, we could watch the barges work their way through the locks; we now live
on the Butte Montmartre. To make ends meet, we run a translation service. Unemployment in
France is at an all-time high, 12-13%, and in the suburbs, among the young, it runs to 50%, and the
result is drug-dealing street gangs that have no fear of the police. (In France, the inner cities are
preserved and the suburbs are like Watts.) And the police seem to be suffering; 23 (five from one
station) have killed themselves since the first of the year. A short time ago, I came across some high
praise of ZYZZYVA in a French literary magazine called, simply enough, magasin litteraire (numero
341, Mars '96). ZYZZYVA is mentioned in the first paragraph of "Les revues americaines
aujourd'hui," as one of the perles rares.
Moreover, ZYZZYVA is described as: "a perfect example of an ambitious editorial posture and
an innate sense of marketing (zyzzyva is in reality the last word in the English dictionary, and means
'one of the tropical varieties of the genus zyzzyva, often destructive to plants'-a little known fact
which would probably annoy the politically correct.")
Why this potential annoyance is beyond me.
All this was preparatory to Paris's 16th annual Salon du Livre, March 22-27, the United States
being this year's featured guest. I decided to attend to catch up on the literary scene, as I seldom
have a sense anymore of whom I should be reading.
The statistics of the Salon were overwhelming: over 800 living, breathing writers, 2,000
publishers, and tons of very expensive paper turned into flyers. There was a small indoor cafe set up
where writers were interviewed every half-hour, with audience participation and $4 beers (an orange
juice is $5, so why not economize?). There was another, slightly larger, conference hall where
writers argued with each other over whatever writers argue about, and many smaller salles for more
concentrated discussion (Sylvia Beach, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway et al). These I passed by,
as they sold no beer and the conversation was heady enough in the cafe.
There I sat ten feet away from Seamus Heaney and listened to him expound on the latest Irish
renaissance (how many of them are there?). His half-hour gone, I heard Jerome Charyn speak a little
French (yes, very little), followed later by Joseph Heller, who had a hard time getting started, but
helped himself with a large tumbler of something that looked like whiskey. He was joined later by
James Salter, who steadfastly refused to talk about his books-"Well, you have to read the book, you
I took myself to the stand for Frank, the last American literary magazine in Paris (or, at least,
that's the way it's publicized, and I saw no other). It promotes international culture (not specifically
American) and has recently devoted issues to such things as African literature, Belgian literature, and
the North Carolina School of Writing. Its editor, David Applefield, invited the American literary
mags to send their wares, which many did, and he faithfully displayed them and passed them out to
purchasers of Frank. ZYZZYVA was right there, propped up in front of Frank, surrounded by the
Hudson Review, Fiction, and others. It was almost enough to tempt me back to California. We
bought a Frank (I can't get used to the name) and made our way back through the book-loving
throngs to a beautiful spring day and the great horizontal buildings of the eighteenth century.
Conclusions? The two American writers most celebrated in France: easily Richard Ford and
Paul Auster. Ford was quoted as saying there'll be no more printed fiction in the United States in 50
years. Watching the people snatch up his books, one could easily imagine that they believed
likewise, planning to store away these treasures of American culture, like fine wines, to age and
enjoy in the years of their scarcity.
By the way, Anais Nin's country home in Louveciennes is up for sale, the French government
having decided not to protect it as a historical monument. The house and grounds are an artist's
dream, and appear often in Nin's journals. She and Henry Miller enjoyed themselves here from
1930 to 1936, some 20 minutes away from the 16th. Some young writers want to turn it into a
museum, but they must first save it from the real-estate agents. They have a web
page,http://www.dol.com/nin, they speak English, and they deserve support, especially given the
recent closing of the American Cultural Center due to lack of funding.
un e-mail de paris
john m. kaman