A Conversation with David Downie, author of A Passion for Paris
David Downie is a native San Franciscan who moved to Paris in the mid-1980s and now divides his time between France and Italy. He is the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books, including the critically acclaimed Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptical Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James and Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, now in its 10th printing. He is also the author of two thrillers, and his travel, food, and arts features have appeared in more than 50 print magazines and newspapers worldwide. His latest book, A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light, will be published by St. Martin’s Press this month. It’s been met with lavish advance praise–and my review of it is coming soon, so stay tuned!
Downie recently took the time to answer my questions about A Passion for Paris, as well as the critically acclaimed Paris to the Pyrenees, and Paris, Paris, via email.
Note added August 2015: A few weeks later we had the chance to chat about A Passion for Paris in person at Politics & Prose bookstore, for an enthusiastic crowd. As usual, David’s intelligence, wit, and probing insights made for a very interesting conversation.
JH: Your new book, “A Passion for Paris,” is subtitled “Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light.” I think most readers will instantly understand what is meant by “a passion for Paris” (or at least will feel that they do). But what is the distinction between romanticism and romance?
DD: I would say that “passion” should be interpreted in the widest sense. This is not a “gush” book about romantic passion in Paris, though it recounts a number of passionate affairs, and passions of all kinds.
Romanticism with a capital “R” is a specific, though hard to define, period of history: literary history, art history, political history, and so on. Most historians agree than in France it comprises the years 1820-1860, though many would go back to 1800 and extend as far as the 1880s, or even to 1914, the outbreak of World War I. Basically, romanticism is about individual liberty, freedom, the inner light shining out into the world, the struggle of man and woman-kind to affirm the importance of the individual over the hierarchy or group, the person of intelligence and excellence over the hereditary aristocracy, and so forth. It is essentially about struggle, rebellion, and passion—passion for the arts and literature, passion for others—sexual passion and freedom. It coincides with the beginning of what is often called the “modern age,” the age we live in today, though the clothing and modes of transportation look different.
In fact the first instances of the use of the word “modern” come around 1800. It was Victor Hugo who started talking in the 1820s about the modern age, compared to the classic—meaning the outmoded—age. Victor Hugo is one of the heroes of this book. It has many heroes—and many heroines too. The role of women shifted mightily during the Age of Romanticism, and we are finally experiencing the benefits of the recognition of women as fully fledged persons, not merely adjuncts or servants of men. George Sand was an absolute pioneer in this and she is the main heroine of my book, a fascinating woman!
“Romance” is closely associated with Romanticism, but nowadays people think of it as purple, scarlet, lusty–about love, sex, naughtiness, and wholly hedonistic. There is a component of this aspect of romanticism in the book because modern romance—the kind we experience today, with people sacrificing and marrying or eloping, or reshaping their lives for love, not land or money or power—really was born in the Age of Romanticism.
JH: Massive amounts of research went into writing this book, and yet your approach is very personal, and in some places delightfully fanciful. What made you want to write this book, how long did it take you to write it, and what kept you going when it seemed (as it must have seemed, at times) an impossible thing to accomplish?
DD: I fell under the spell of Paris sometime in the 1970s when I first spent time here. I was a teenager! This was a painful experience, because I did not want to be in the thrall of this city. I loved Rome, I loved San Francisco, why Paris? Paris to me seemed elegant and cool—meaning chilly. I did not connect with the Parisians, and I kept wondering what it was about the place and these maddening French people that drew me back. Was it the image of the city I got from Hollywood movies? The history I had read about? The lives of the Great Romantics, like Victor Hugo, or Charles Baudelaire, or Honoré de Balzac, or my own personal hero, Félix Nadar?
Nadar was the photographer who in real life knew and loved Mimi of La Bohème, and I was an opera nut. I was miffed to discover that Puccini’s masterpiece was based on a book written by a Frenchman, and largely true. I liked the fact it was true, and wanted to know who these people were. I tell that story in my book, so I won’t steal my own thunder. But my early relationship with Paris was pugilistic. Then I became enchanted. I also met and married my wife here. I’ve been here about 30 years, and I have always tried to understand the spell Paris casts on people from all over the world. That is how the book was born. Why Paris? Why not Rome, or Amsterdam, or New York, or Tokyo, or San Francisco?
As to how long it took to research and write? One answer is, a lifetime. Another is that I had very little time, because publishers now demand a good “return on investment,” so writers have no more than a year, or 18 months max, to write a book. It almost killed me to make the deadline, even though I am very familiar with the themes, the people, and the place, and had done a lot of research to write my proposal. It did seem nearly impossible to pull off, and I am still recovering from the effort.
JH: To what extent (if any) are we still living in a Romantic world? And, separate question, what do we have to learn from the Romantics? So much of what we know of this period and the personages in it seems hardly worthy of emulation–dissolute living, wild and often ruinous love affairs, melancholy, narcissism, various types of histrionics–but sturm und drang aside, what is the real legacy of the Romantics? What do we owe them, and what did they have that we need more of in our world?
DD: I think I’ve answered a lot of this above. We are definitely still living in the Romantic Age—modernism and postmodernism are merely kinks, or subcategories, of Romanticism’s modern branch. Some of it is negative and some of it is positive. We don’t really have the choice of being or not being like the Romantics—we are products of that world.
We live, as the Romantics did, with total syncretism. We have amazing science and “progress,” and yet we have millions of creationists and people who seek religion and spirituality and deny evolution. We are nostalgic, yet we want to go forward. We are individualists to such an extent that we are sacrificing the common good and destroying our planet because we cannot see that what we want for ourselves and our families, or group, or nation, is going to be bad for everyone in the long run. Modern narcissism began with the Romantics!
The good points are, we are often skeptical, we rebel, we challenge authority, we have a sense of history and the past—at least some of us do—and of historic preservation that no one had in the pre-modern, pre-Romantic world. Here again, “passion” is the key: we often follow our hearts no matter what the cost. We buck trends, we go against the odds, we challenge science because we want to believe in something more, in something eternal: God, the gods, or perhaps art and beauty, or the perfectibility of the species, or the creation of a utopia (or a dystopia if we’re nasty). We want to believe but often we can’t—that is the key, that is the “romantic agony” as it has been called. It would be impossible to turn the clock back to pre-modern, pre-Romantic times in the West. To achieve that you would have to physically go to one of the benighted countries of the world, where contemporary madmen and women are trying to bring back the Middle Ages. The Romantic Age and the mindset of modern-romantic people are the opposite of what is going on with ISIS and the other terrorist groups of the world, who want to destroy the individual.
JH: I’ve just read your book “Paris to the Pyrenees” for the second time, in preparation for a class I was teaching. One of the things that struck me is the current relevance of much of the musing you did, and some of the conversations you had with people along the way on that trek, about the question of French identity and the ideals of the French republic, especially the notion of laicité and its roots in the anticlericalism of the French Revolution. In the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January and the ensuing conversations about current social issues in France, have you found yourself going back to some of the thoughts you had about France and French identity on your trek through the heart of it a few years ago? How do the issues of cultural identity, secularism and, in general “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” relate to issues of immigration, integration and/or assimilation in France today?
DD: Wow, this would require an entire book to answer. How about your readers read Paris to the Pyrenees to find out?
I stand by what I wrote in that book: France is militantly secular—the Nation has replaced God. However it is a divided society: about one-third is centrist, or center-right, and more or less progressive and open to the world, though they tend to have pro-French, mildly anti-immigrant feelings, and can also be nostalgic for a time when France was not globalized. Another third are socialists or social-democrats, and they are very progressive, open, and largely welcoming to immigrants, and suspicious of nationalism. The last third is extreme right, paranoid, potentially dangerous, backward looking, nationalistic, ignorant, sometimes racist and anti-Semitic, and nearly always xenophobic—they distrust and hate foreigners—and nutty when it comes to basic economics. All of the above face backwards and forwards at the same time, and each group is at daggers drawn with the others. If you think the Tea Party and Democrats disagree, that’s nothing compared to what goes on here!
Add to this cocktail Europe’s biggest Muslim community—estimated at about 6 million—many of whose members are believers who go to mosques and follow the rites and rituals of Islam, and you have an explosive situation. It’s illegal to keep statistics on race and religion in France but it’s estimated that only about 7 percent of the French are practicing Catholics and fewer than half of the French now identify themselves as Catholic, or of Catholic culture.
The biggest difference between France and America in this wise is, in the U.S. we boast about “freedom of religion,” and in France the rule is “freedom from religion.” Again, the cult of the nation replaces religion, and you are measured by the standard of what is good for the nation, or collectivity. This goes back to the French Revolution, and it is one of the underpinnings of Romanticism and the modern age: the end of absolutism, the birth of a republic, the notion of modern man who must make his way in the world without God or the gods, and who is absolutely free to speak his mind and publish, mock, ridicule whatever he wants. There is an irony in this: the new enemy of the individual is the collectivity and the nation! The real hero of this struggle was Voltaire of course, and Voltaire is read by every French person, and admired by nearly all of them today, as well he should be.
JH: “Paris Paris: Journey into the City of Light” is the book I almost always recommend when someone asks me, “If I can bring only one book with me to Paris what should it be?” Do you have a favorite essay in “Paris Paris,” and if so why is it your favorite?
DD: That’s like asking a mother who her favorite child is! I stand by all of them. Perhaps the one that captures the spirit of the city and of my new book too is the one about Paris in the year 1900. The past lives on—not just in the buildings and streets, but in the hearts and minds of the French people.
JH: What’s next from David Downie? Your fans are eager to know!
DD: I’m happy to say that I’ve just signed with St. Martin’s Press for another book about Paris, this time a lively memoir and quest merged into a history of the Parisian love affair with food. Paris is where the notion of gourmet dining was born. Paris is often cited as the greatest food city on the planet—at least it was until everyone became a know-it-all “foodie,” and started to say that London, or New York, or Sydney had better food. I’m not convinced of that, and in any case, my interest lies in the culture and history of food in Paris. As in A Passion for Paris, I will be asking why Parisians are, or were, at the cutting edge of the food culture for centuries. Why Paris, why not Rome or elsewhere? There will be lots of anecdotes, a few recipes, and plenty of exploration of restaurants and shops and whatnot–then and now.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She writes about France for Bonjour Paris, France Revisited, and on this blog (you’ll find more posts on Paris here). She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” in Paris each summer for Queens College, CUNY, and also teaches classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.