Reading in Paris

I, an American, have been living in the Paris region for almost ten years.  In the age of the internet, keeping up with events and reading in English is not difficult. But finding books is a bit more complicated.

Don’t misunderstand, I can and have read a few books in French. The most challenging was Celine’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, that I chose to read because he had lived in my suburb Meudon, southwest of Paris. Perhaps the most interesting book I read in French is Le Vengeur,  by Hungarian born Imré Kovacs.  Kovacs died after being a long time waiter at the Brasserie Lipp, a famous restaurant in the quarter Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris.  His journalist son found the secret manuscript after he died and had it published.  Kovacs described an extraordinary 20th century adventure.  During WWII when Hungary was overrun by the Germans he was recruited by the Jewish underground (he was Jewish but didn’t look Jewish) to join a Hungarian regiment of the Nazi Waffen SS as a spy!  He was taken prisoner by the Red Army and finished the war in a Soviet prison camp.  The next adventure after Le vengeur: A la pours... Imre Kovacs Best Price: $5.00 Buy New $18.67 (as of 08:30 EST - Details) the end of the war and his release was to fight with his co-religionists in Palestine during the birth of the Israeli state in 1948.  He was then persuaded to join the French Foreign Legion to hunt for and secretly execute ex-Nazis who had concealed themselves as mercenaries (Le Vengeur is The Avenger in French).  As a legionnaire he participated in the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu that ended French colonialism in Vietnam.  He fought in a similar guerilla war for the French in Algeria before finally retiring to his prosaic life at the brasserie.

There are English language bookstores in Paris.  Shakespeare and Company across the Seine from Notre Dame is the most well known. It has even made an appearance in the films Before Sunset and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.  But I find that The San Francisco Book Company near Odeon has a better selection of used old books and much better prices.  A book I recently purchased there was Daniel Deronda, the last novel written by George Eliot (the pen name for Mary Ann Evans). This is a somewhat strange Victorian novel (written in the 1880’s) that had gone under my radar such that I purchased it with no pre-knowledge even though the BBC had made a series of it.  Deronda is raised as an English gentleman in an aristocratic home but he has never been told, and does not ask, about his parentage. This psychological vulnerability somehow (the plot is a bit fantastic on this point) leads him to an interest in the Jewish faith and Zionist ideas.  When he finally learns that he actually is Jewish Eliot gives us this passage (from Chapter 63).

This new state of decision wrought on Deronda with force which surprised even himself. There was a release of all the energy which had long been spent self-checking and suppression because of doubtful conditions; Before Sunset Buy New $2.99 (as of 10:55 EST - Details) and he was ready to laugh at his own impetuosity when, as he neared England on his way from Mainz, he felt the remaining distance more and more of an obstruction. It was as if he had found an added soul in finding his ancestry—his judgment no longer wandering in the mazes of impartial sympathy, but choosing with the noble partiality which is man’s best strength, the closer fellowship that makes sympathy practical—exchanging that bird’s-eye reasonableness which soars to avoid preference and loses all sense of quality, for the generous reasonableness of drawing shoulder to shoulder with men of like inheritance.

In a world of political correctness it was a pleasure to read this defense of prejudice, and Jewish prejudice no less, which states what is surely true that the more similar race, ethnicity and religion “the closer fellowship that makes sympathy practical.”  There is another part of the novel that intertwines with life of Deronda about a beautiful girl in a bad marriage that is more classic and more entertaining.

The easiest way to buy English books is through Amazon.UK; for example,  I have written about previous purchases of the Flashman series of novels.  More recently I ordered the English language version of The Ancien Régime and the Revolution by Alexis De Tocqueville (the Ancien Regime was the ruling order of the nation state by the King with the support of the aristocracy).  Tocqueville is famous in the US for his description of the country and its Midnight in Paris Best Price: null Buy New $9.99 (as of 06:55 EST - Details) people in the 1830s, Democracy in America, which is still insightful today.  The short book considered here was to be part of a bigger study of his native country France but he died (1859) before completing it. Nevertheless, in it you will find keys to understanding the origins of the French administrative state of today and the society it tries to rule. In particular, that the revolution did not change the nature of the French state, but only its ultimate head.  The key changes that had morphed the decentralized medieval government into a top down Paris dominated society occurred in the 15th century when Charles VII levied a tax on the peasants without consent of the Estates General.  This increase in central state power follows Robert Higgs notion of the ratchet effect in that it occurred during the Hundred Years’ War with England.  Tocqueville quotes Commynes who said: “Charles VII, who won the argument over imposing the taille [the tax on peasants]when he wished, without agreement of the three Estates, laid a heavy burden on his own soul and upon that of his successors, inflicting a wound upon his kingdom which will bleed for a long time.”  For Tocqueville this was so important that he believed “from that day was sown the seed to practically all the vices and abuses which plagued the Ancien Régime for the rest of its days and finally brought about its violent death.”  Note the relative freedom the medieval system alluded to by Tocqueville is in accord with arguments of, for example, The Bionic Mosquito, that this era might be the best example of libertarian society.  Finally, Tocqueville emphasizes in his description of the system that follows the Ancien Regime after the French Revolution that it retains the centralized authority made up of the middle class, the bourgeoisie.  We can well appreciate his description of this new class that persists to this day in France and especially in Washington.

The government officials, almost all from the middle classes, already constituted a social class with its own peculiar spirit, traditions, virtues, code of honour and pride. This was the aristocracy of the new social order which was already established and active.  It simply waited for the Revolution to open up a place for it.

What already typified French administration was the violent hatred it felt against all those nobles and middle-class citizens who wished to run their own affairs beyond the reach of the government….

Perhaps understanding this history better through great books from other times and other nations will allow Americans to better understand their own predicament today?