Behind the tourist's Paris is a city that struggles to regain momentum and a sense of purpose that drifts between the lure of the technological, "European" future, and a longing for the golden past.
A malaise most perceptively described by Mavis Gallant, a Canadian exile who has lived in Paris since 1950. In the stories, 11 of which appeared in The New Yorker, her characters--French painters, writers, Royalists and art gallery owners--are sometimes nostalgic, sometimes frightened, more often resigned to small battles, with son, spouse or tax collector. And, sign of the times, culture is a game of adapting to the winds of political or philosophical fashion, rather than joust in the Pantheon, "compete with the dead--Proust, Flaubert, Balzac, Stendhal. . . ."
With little dignity, they live: "It was Juliette's custom to furnish social emptiness with some rattling anecdote about her own activities. Guests were often grateful. Without having to cast far, they could bring up a narrative of their own, and the result was close to real conversation."
And with little dignity, they die: "Juliette had asked to be cremated, thinking of the purification of the flame, but the rite was accomplished by clanking, hidden, high-powered machinery that kept starting and stopping, on cycle. At its loudest, it covered the voice of the clergyman, who affirmed that Juliette was eyeing us with great good will from above, and it prevailed over Juliette's favorite recordings of Mozart and Bach."
If Gallant's rich and subtly ironic prose does not produce Sisyphean characters locked in heroic struggle, her exile's perspective offers a cross-section more accurate, more appropriate: a merciless and tender dissection of an old body running on tired blood.