I was in New York almost exactly a year ago. Spending a week or so in Manhattan had become something of a tradition over the last couple of years – there was usually a work trip around April/May and I sort of took things forward from there. This spring nobody’s going to New York whether they have jobs or not, a slight consolation, but very slight.
I don’t even know why I like New York so much – I rarely did anything touristy or otherwise partake in grand spectacles there and usually kept to my half-autistic bookstore hauls. I do love walking around aimlessly, though, and New York is perfect for that.
The city also did not mind me being in there. While it wasn’t necessarily bending over backwards to make me feel comfortable, it was never openly, passive-aggressively hostile like Paris. It took me about 20 visits to Paris to understand that some serious fucking effort was required from me to earn its acceptance. I’m a first-born and thus a people-pleaser, so this suits me just fine. I’m also a sucker for punishment, and oh, did Paris enjoy punishing my un-chic being every time I paid a visit. But over the decades I learned what I had to: I am everybody’s bitch in Paris.
And when I say everybody’s, I mean everybody’s.
While nothing is possible in Paris* (try modifying your order at a restaurant), people migrate to New York precisely because anything can, often does happen there. No one is from New York, so it seems to give a shit about those who wander its streets. You hand it money, it shuts up.
People go to New York for the atmosphere and the people who populate the islands: if you’ve grown up in New York, your life is an archaeology not of structures but of voices, also piled one on top of another, not really replacing one another.
It is not thus in Paris. In short: one travels to New York to see what’s new as much as one travels to Paris to check that everything is as it’s always been.
We (excluding me, because I’ve learned my lessons, merci beaucoup) go to Paris half-expecting some weird historical Spiel filled with Ladurée macarons, baguettes, beret-wearing accordionists at the corners of le Marais, all wrapped up with a dîner spectacle at Le Moulin Rouge.
There is an actual ailment one can contract from the sheer shock when le Metro is full of urban commuters rather than creations of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: the Paris Syndrome. Says Wikipedia: It is a condition exhibited by some individuals when visiting Paris, as a result of extreme shock at discovering that Paris is not as beautiful as they expected.
Point being: One does not travel to Paris for the people.
The other point: Comparing New York and Paris is like comparing apples and les poires.
Probably because of the annual cycle of actually being in Manhattan, I’ve half-consciously taken to reading books that are set there. The three offerings that I’m recommending today are not the most obvious literary New York-fetiches, history knows more famous takes on the City, but they are all confinement-appropriate: light, if not a bit dreamy, excellent writing (as in not Devil Wears Prada and such nonsense) and, well, just very nice New York-y books.
Cathleen Schine has been writing for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, Vogue and many other publications for years and has published many bestselling novels as well, The Grammarians being the latest. It follows English language-obsessed identical twins grow up in Manhattan, and it is brilliant. Much recommended. Another Schine recommendation is The New Yorkers, a novel as much about dogs as it is about their owners.
Schine has been dubbed the modern-day Jewish Jane Austen, as well as Nora Ephron. Having seen these comparisons, I may have detected some similarities in the lightness of expression and in the structures of the sentences. Not that it really matters, though – she’s a brilliant writers whose dialogues are never naff.
Vivian Gornick is born and bred in New York, she’s originally from Bronx, and started her writing career at the Village Voice in the 60s. Her article The Next Great Moment in History Is Theirs in 1969 was a catalyst for the formation of the New York Radical Feminists -group. Gornick, who is 84 years, teaches writing at the New School and has written countless essays, memoirs and novels. The Odd Woman and the City is a memoir and a sort of guide to New York: most people are in New York because they need evidence – in large quantities – of human expressiveness; and they need it not now and then, but every day. That is what they need. Those who go off to the manageable cities can do without; those who come to New York cannot.
If you wish to complement your literary at-home NYC-experiment, liberally spray yourself with Le Labo’s Santal 33. It is the unofficial Scent of the City, because everybody in New York wears it.
And when I say everybody, I mean everybody.
Very finally, my relationship with Paris is much longer than the one I have with New York.
Paris can take my punches, mainly because it has something New York does not: a sense of humour.
*Don’t waste your time thinking about whatever might be off with the locals. I found an extremely useful quote from 1868 by Fernand Giraudeau, which explains everything we need to understand about the French: “We are French, therefore we are born to oppose. We love opposition not for its results, but despite its results: we love it for its own sake. We like to launch the assault, not so as to enjoy the spoils of victory, but for the pleasure of charging up the ladder.”
(And maybe also this, by Charles Péguy, a 19th century French essayist and writer: C’est embêtant, dit Dieu. Quand il n’y aura plus ces Français. Il y a des choses que je fais, il n’y aura plus personne pour les comprendre.)
The graphic illustration on top is from Vahram Muratyan’s book Paris vs. New York.