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BOOK REVIEW / NON FICTION

A Taste of Vintage Paris and the French Soul

PARIS IN THE FIFTIES: by Stanley Karnow; Times Books; $25, 354 pages

January 12, 1998|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Stanley Karnow capped his career as a reporter and historian with the best history of Vietnam and America's involvement there, "Vietnam: A History." He followed that with the absorbing "In Our Image: America and the Philippines."

Now he has added to those serious works of history with "Paris in the Fifties," a slight but charming account of life in the Paris of 40 years ago when Karnow was a young and impressionable student and reporter, and when Paris was emerging from the grim years of World War II.

The merit of this book is that Karnow takes you with him as he learns about the city and the country he had studied at Harvard. While a student on the GI Bill in Paris in the late 1940s, he met a charming young Frenchwoman, married her, then, riskily, moved in with her family. Along the way, he worked as a reporter for a left-wing paper before landing a post with Time in 1950.

"The longer I remained in France," he writes, "the more its intricacies daunted me. But I derived some consolation from observing that the French themselves--philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, clergymen, novelists, poets, journalists and just ordinary folk--seemed to be just as bewildered as they constantly sought to define their society."

Karnow writes that France "was riddled with baffling and often incomprehensible contradictions." He says he found that, while the French tirelessly espoused the ideals of the revolution (liberty, equality, brotherhood), "they recoiled from performing the most elementary civic duties. They combined tolerance with bigotry, kindness with malice, elegant taste with appalling vulgarity. Politeness ranked high on their list of virtues, yet they could be uncommonly rude, not only to foreigners but to each other."

The author found, as most observers have, that they oddly combined contempt for government with veneration for the state. And, he says, "like the Chinese, the French were imbued with an overweening sense of their superiority." In the 1950s the sentiment was hard to square with the realities of the world, as indeed it is in the 1990s. France was then and is now no longer a great power. This tension between ambition and reality is an underlying theme of Karnow's book.

"Paris in the Fifties" is derived from the peculiar kind of journalism that Time and its founder, Henry Luce, invented. Time hired skilled reporters and paid them extremely well, but in return they relinquished their judgment. All decisions about what appeared in the magazine were made not by the reporters on the scene but by editors and writers in New York.

New York demanded voluminous reports that its editors and writers could compress "into simple, digestible bites devoid of troublesome nuances and complexities," Karnow writes, adding that these reports from the scene "were completely revamped--and inevitably distorted--by skilled wordsmiths into a few silky-smooth, swift-paced, adjective-riddled paragraphs."

"Furiously competing for space," Karnow explains, "the writers in New York dunned us for cutesy if irrelevant factoids that would enliven a story. . . . One of my tasks was to field their queries, and I often concocted the answers. Asked if Charles de Gaulle wore false teeth, for example, I responded, 'Sources here say only molars.' "

The typewriter carbons from Karnow's weekly reports contribute to the contents of this book. He writes about wine and Ho Chi Minh in Paris, haute couture and Hemingway, Andre Malraux and Jean-Paul Sartre, the guillotine and Devil's Island: the kinds of things that would strike his New York editors as particularly Gallic.

Indeed there is a whiff of the cliche from the subjects, as there is, unfortunately, too often in Karnow's prose. Must white wine always be "crisp"? But that is a minor quibble about a little book that both pleases and instructs. After reading "Paris in the Fifties," perhaps we know more about the French than we did before.

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