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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rosecrans Baldwin Blows Past Romanticism to Find the Unlovely and Bizarre in Paris

Posted By on Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 9:30 AM

Rosecrans Baldwin: Parisian no more. - SUSIE POST-RUST
  • Susie Post-Rust
  • Rosecrans Baldwin: Parisian no more.

Paris. The name alone carries heft. It's where an artist dreams of legitimacy, and it has existed as such in the popular imagination for a long time -- perhaps too long. Paris couldn't possibly sustain itself as it did for writers such as Henry Miller, a paradise where the poor appeared free of want, simply because they lived in the midst of inspiration. But the community would soon plateau and the dream would become muddied and predictable, sought after by all.

When Rosecrans Baldwin decamped for Paris with his wife, it wasn't only the dream that he was seeking; as an advertising copywriter, there was a middle-class reality to grapple with. This neurotic young writer flirted with two worlds, trying to reconcile fact from fiction, the pedestal from the pedestrian. Paris I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down is about romance, which means it's also about madness, frustration, comedy, tragedy, and moments of absolute stillness -- spaces between scenes that natives know all too well.

By no means does the book rehash the hardy struggles of the Lost Generation. You won't read about Baldwin's exploits in the bread line, but rather things such as his interviewing Sean Connery for a Louis Vuitton commercial, his education on the French obsession for the proper tan and reheated food, and his enduring office banter that mixed racist humor with a hierarchical respect of oral sex.

We spoke recently with Baldwin, who visits to the Bay Area on Tuesday, June 12, at Corte Madera's Book Passage, and Wednesday, June 13, at Books Inc. in Palo Alto.

What do your friends call you?

[laughs] Rosecrans. I've gone by that ever since I was 22, when I met my now wife at a party and she asked my name, and I said "Crans," which is what I went by before then. She asked what that was short for and I said "Rosecrans," and she said "Oh, I like that." And I started going by that a month or two later.

I can divide people I know in my life if they call me "Crans" or "Rosecrans," it puts them on one side of that date or the other.

Early on in the book, I was thinking about all the French people struggling with your name. Did they have a nickname for you?

Not really. They would ask if I went by something different, or had at least a shortened version of my name to use. It's such an odd name already for an American to pronounce. With a French accent, having to roll the R's through, it's really a pain in the ass. It was just an added layer of frustration having to deal with me. At times I would make a joke and say "Yeah, my name is Jean-Paul. Let's go with Jean-Paul." But if I go out and order takeout, I go with John -- because why put people through it?

On the book tour, are a lot of people sharing their experiences?

Mostly it's e-mails coming from two camps -- people who want to live abroad, or do live abroad. Or it's people who are struggling to become what they want to be, to do what they want to do. People who are like "I'm an artist but I haven't gotten there yet." Lots of writers who are saying they got something out my book that just addressed what they're going through, getting up in the morning or working on a novel.

What do you make of the expectations that people bring to Paris?

To answer it in two parts: I wasn't disappointed, and I was thrilled many times. In ways I was upset or frustrated or occasionally bored -- I mean who wants to admit you could be bored in Paris? But all those things happened because I began to have a life there, and it wasn't just the two weeks of vacation that most experience. Once I sank in and became more intimate, there were real ups and downs.

People are disappointed by Paris probably because we hold it to be so lovely. In the book I talk about Paris Syndrome, which is the thing that seems to inflict Japanese tourists more than anyone else, where people go to Paris with an outlandish idea of what it's like and then find out that the first waiter they bump into isn't very nice, and it shatters that fantasy.

For the less extreme reactions, I think it's because Paris is idealized as a place of pleasure, and whether you go to the extreme of hedonism or just having one dessert after lunch, the idea of Paris is to have fun and be decadent and indulge. So when people get frustrated then of course they're going to think "Oh, I hoped for something different." But the truth is it's nice to want that. But if we got what wanted, we'd end up with Disneyland.

The French seem to believe that American notions about their country are fusty, naive, and a little overly romantic. But in the book you touch upon how the French themselves carry their own tired notions about American culture -- the open road, the rebel life, Elvis, or McDonald's. The difference is that our fantasy about their lifestyle seems to exist because of some conscious effort on their part. Do the French perpetuate their own mythology?

I think they have an image to sell. The business of Paris is getting people to come there. It's the most visited city on the planet for tourists. There was a study done in the early 2000s that found a significant portion of people who traveled to France were influenced by a film they saw in which France was featured. The idea is that France understands what it's selling. It knows there is a market out there for the Paris as depicted in Amelie. I don't think we're talking about anything inherently wrong or bad here. Tourism is a pretty modern thing in terms of being accessible to so many people. Nobody went to Paris until jet planes became accessible to the middle class. Before that, it was either the wandering, wealthy women running around in pairs or the dilettantes or wealthy who could afford to do it. There's money to be made in Paris. What they're selling isn't bad. It's an idea of beauty, of civilization preserved. London would be beautiful too if it hadn't gotten the shit bombed out of it. So the beautiful way of life that is a little bit marketing and a little bit true is a fact of life not only for the tourists who buy it but the French who sell it.

If you look at the election of President Francois Hollande, it's a little bit of an "F-you" to former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the world of globalization and the idea that France should hold back on its social programs, when instead it should be a place where people get to retire when they're 60, and only have to work a 35 hour week, and can count on the extremely good child care available to all -- except for the minorities stuck in the towers and the slums.

A lot of younger Americans idealize Paris, and the whole continent, but the policies enacted in those countries tend to differ from those lifestyles. I wonder how we're able to reconcile that.

If you look at the Patriot Act, it's skim milk compared with what they were doing in the 1980s and 1990s while combating Algerian terrorism, throwing up the laws of privacy. It speaks to how much do Americans want to get involved in France. It's a distant country.

There are lots of French people in the United States but it's not a part of our immigrant story in the way that the Chinese are, or the Irish are, or the Italians are. It wasn't a country of mass migration of people seeking freedoms. If anything, you have both countries developing systems of freedom at pretty much the same time. Which is why I partially think they're both proud nations in the current world. "Look at us, listen to us. We've got these ideas worked out." So there's a little competition there.

Going to Paris as a writer holds eternal appeal. Did you find any of the artistic communities or scenes there compelling? People expect you to thrive in Paris as an artist, but that culture seems nonexistent. Did you meet anyone you were hoping to find?

"Hoping" wouldn't be quite the right word. If anything, we were just hoping to find friends. As a writer, Paris didn't have a lot of dreams for me, just on literary terms. Recently I met an author who told me his idea of being a writer in seventh grade was formed by reading about the Lost Generation, Hemingway or Fitzgerald wandering around Paris. And for me, I was all poetry all the time before I started writing novels. So my dream about the artist living the artist life was about living in New York, imagining poets like Frank O'Hara or John Ashbury. The Parisian writers that I admired were dead, really dead. [laughs]

People like Balzac, Andres Gide, or Proust: The period that they had Paris and they made it come alive through their works was so gone, so far gone, that there wasn't much hope of re-creating it.

But what we did find when we started getting to know people in Paris was a good scene of visual artists. I wasn't exactly trying to seek out the artistic community, so there's no truth in me saying "Oh yeah, I found all these great writers and we were drinking Chambord in the 18th arrondissement under a bridge while getting high 14 times a day."

The only novelist I ran into in Paris was an American trust-funder who wouldn't speak English with Americans, then realizing "Oh my God, he's a bizarro coke addict."

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Shona Sanzgiri

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