Paris Journal, 1944-1965 by Janet Flanner

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Paris Journal, 1944-1965 Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Flanner began her career with The New Yorker as a modestly experienced professional writer, but as she herself recorded, she had much to learn. Her letters therefore trace her progress toward accomplished reporting and, simultaneously, toward the development of a distinctive style. Aware that Ross wanted her writing to reflect what the French thought, not what she thought, she tried from the outset to compose her letters without the inclusion of editorial comment, impressionism, or personal remarks: goals, critics noted, that she did not always reach. Almost immediately, she eschewed the first-person singular, the “I” that involved writer with subject. To garner a basic range of information as well as to grasp opinion, she consistently read a dozen or so French newspapers each day. Because of the precision of the French language—an exactitude that made it the language of international diplomacy for two centuries—she learned to make her sentences athletic, her imagery sharp. Meanwhile, she met everyone and read omnivorously.

Somehow, in the process of disciplining herself and pleasing Ross and his successor, William Shawn (both of whom she greatly admired), the chic, gruff-voiced, chain-smoking Flanner left many readers sensitive to the tone and rhythms of her evocative descriptions and precise, intelligent speech—one reason that she habitually read drafts of her work to companions. Regardless of her subject or its impact on her, the tenor of her work was commonsensical and lively. Shawn commented the year after her death that she was “a stranger to fatigue, boredom, and cynicism,” that “she met the world with rapture and wrote about it with pleasure.” A brilliant individualist, she nevertheless subordinated her natural vivacity to the essences of her information and to what she believed this hard substance meant.

The twenty-odd years of her postwar letters inevitably differed in tone and content from those that Genêt wrote during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The changes were partly stylistic, but chiefly they were attributable to the altered character of events. Earlier writings had stressed the whirling color of Paris as an international cultural center, as well as the heart of France. They captured the city’s ambience through deft descriptions of its cafés and nightclubs; the openings and closings of its current art shows, plays, and concerts; and even more important, the goings-on about town of newsworthy European and American personalities. Politics certainly were not ignored, but until France was shattered after 1935 by bitter political factionalism, politicians and political activities received less notice than Charles Lindbergh or Mata Hari. This emphasis changed after Genêt resumed her reporting shortly after the Allied liberation of Paris in 1944.

The postwar letters thus began as a chronicle of Parisians’ efforts to rehabilitate their lives, their capital, and their nation: chronicles of the moral and physical reconstruction of France as viewed from Paris. Genêt wrote poignant reports of how Parisians ate (badly), how they dressed (poorly), how they went about their work (listlessly), how they dealt with collaborators (harshly), and how tens of thousands of Parisians and hundreds of thousands of former prisoners of war, forced laborers, and concentration...

(The entire section is 770 words.)