The Crazy Years
In an attempt to give a sense of order to things, there is a tendency to seek a closed pattern to events within arbitrary time units—years, decades, centuries. One such unit which has received a great amount of retrospective attention is the decade of the 1920’s. Because this period was roughly bracketed by the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression, there is perhaps more justification than usual for isolating it as a block of time, and if there was one place in which the spirit of this time was most fully embodied, it was Paris. In his book, The Crazy Years: Paris in the Twenties, William Wiser tries to capture the frenetic activity of an international cultural capital during an especially significant and colorful time.
Perhaps no decade and no place has been so exhaustively remembered, relived, and recounted as Paris in the 1920’s. (The only rival might be the less-focused reminiscences of World War I.) The approach to the topic ranges from highly subjective, self-serving memoirs by people who were part of the scene to exhaustive, objective scholarly tomes. The Crazy Years is somewhere in the middle. Wiser adds little or nothing to what is available elsewhere, contenting himself with retelling familiar stories about familiar people always with an eye to the titillating or conventionally scandalous. He succeeds in giving a sense of the desperate energy of the time but more in the style of the literate gossip columnist than the historian of ideas or culture.
Clearly intended for a wide audience, The Crazy Years goes out of its way to focus on those topics which justify its eye-catching title, with no attempt to explore serious cultural or artistic questions. The reader is offered many piquant details, for example, concerning the mistresses of famous artists and writers but almost nothing about the significance of any of their paintings or books. With no documentation, the book does not pretend to serious cultural history and should be taken as a potentially entertaining gloss of the more notorious aspects of Paris in the 1920’s.
Economics played an important part in Paris becoming an international mecca at this time, especially for the ever-present Americans. As a result of the devastation of the European economy by World War I, the dollar brought better than twenty-five francs for most of the decade and as much as fifty at one point (it currently commands about eight). The undiscovered writer, artist, or musician could afford both to eat and explore his craft, and the well-to-do from abroad could live like kings.
In some cases, the members of the cultural scene almost were kings. Wiser pays special attention to the Russian contribution to Paris life. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the coteries of exiled Russian revolutionaries in Paris went home, to be replaced by even greater numbers of disenfranchised, and often impoverished, Russian aristocrats. This greatly varied cast of Slavs included men with titles but no money looking for women in opposite straits, quack doctors and spiritualists, and talented avant-garde painters, composers, and writers.
The most visible Russian presence in Paris was Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The Crazy Years devotes significant space to Diaghilev and the cast of characters that surrounded him—Vaslav Nijinsky, Igor Stravinsky, Sergey Prokofiev, and the like. Wiser touches on the rivalry between Stravinsky and Prokofiev but, typically, does not explore the historical or musical significance of their work or of the Ballets Russes in general. Instead, he offers intermittent sketches of Diaghilev in his various roles as discoverer and manipulator of talent and as impresario.
The most conspicuous internationals, however, were the Americans. Often flush with cash, sometimes with talent, they came to France by the boatload looking for the latest in art and literature or in nightclubs and dissolute living, sometimes both. Wiser details the changing attitudes of Parisians toward the inescapable American presence. The early goodwill left over from the war yielded to a grudging tolerance of those whose big mouths and boorish manner were compensated for only by their equally big wallets and free spending. Disdain sometimes turned to anger regarding such issues as American insistence that France repay its war loans and the execution in the United States of Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The exploits of Americans such as Josephine Baker and, especially, Charles Lindbergh provided brief moments of universal good feeling.
One possible advantage...
(The entire section is 1889 words.)