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Reviewed by:
J. Gerald Kennedy. Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993. xvi + 269 pp. $30.00 cloth.

Two decades ago I taught at the University of Paris and resided in the Latin Quarter. Living close to the Place de la Contrescarpe, I was four blocks from the Pantheon and six or seven from the Sorbonne; no one spoke English. On my first trip to Paris, I felt a kinship with its culture and neighborhoods, my image formed by Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, and Gertrude Stein, with touches of Djuna Barnes and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I had, in short, absorbed the myth of Paris before I got there, and I sought old landmarks—Stein's apartment on the rue de Fleurus, le Dôme, la Coupole, Shakespeare and Company, les Deux Magots—breathlessly, in the city where modernism was created.

How these five writers imagined Paris is the topic of Kennedy's Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity. Many books have discussed how Paris nurtured the arts and figured in American fiction. Two recent comprehensive studies are Shari Benstock's Women of the Left Bank (1986) and Jean Méral's Paris in American Literature (1989). Kennedy, however, focuses on the ways expatriate "narratives of exile" function "as instances of the profound effect of place on writing and self-identity." [End Page 360] He postulates that through imagining Paris writers have discovered themselves by representing place, because we experience place only through the intervention of consciousness. "The only possible comparison for the critic is thus between a personal, readerly concept of place . . . and a textual, writerly image . . . we do not inhabit places so much as they inhabit us."

Expatriation causes additional anxiety, for "the experience of expatriation often discloses an alternate self, responsive to the differences which constitute the foreignness of another place." Stein, who wrote about Paris extensively in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Paris France, believed she could "invent" modernism because she lived where English was not spoken and cultural practice was conservative and stable. Because of this emphasis, however, Kennedy claims that she "felt a curious indifference to the topography of Paris"; the city "could be understood and represented only as a series of complex interior scenes."

Hemingway associated Paris "with the exhilaration of danger . . . idealiz[ing] the seedy quartier around the place de la Contrescarpe perhaps because it represented the cultural antithesis of Oak Park." Here one lived among prostitutes, drunks, and artists, none beholden to the ethic of paying one's bills promptly and postponing gratification. In defining himself against his constricted background, Hemingway found that "the atmosphere of peril added to the enticement of Paris." From The Sun Also Rises to A Moveable Feast, "Paris was more than a geographical location; it was the scene of a dramatic metamorphosis" in Hemingway as an artist and individual.

Of all these writers, Henry Miller had the most "intimate and extensive knowledge of the city," and he understood the relevance of expatriation to the self. He "contends that the self internalizes place," and "through this subtle incorporation of a new body which quite literally dis-places the old . . . we actually become different persons in different settings; we experience place in the flesh . . . as a force which acts upon us . . . to change us radically and irreversibly." Miller explores this liminal self in Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring, accentuating "the dilemma of . . . living between two worlds and belonging to neither, of working in the marginal space between inner and outer landscapes to articulate a provisional identity."

In his concluding chapter Kennedy suggests that for Barnes and Fitzgerald "the city of exile combined . . . the strangeness of the foreign and the unreality of the modern, producing an alienation from the immediate environment while . . . endowing it with the sort of imaginary power which only the unreal can possess." Focusing on Nightwood and Tender is the Night, Kennedy discusses Barnes's use of surrealism and Fitzgerald's of psychoanalysis as ways to explore how the "unreal" determines an American identity, "by projecting a strangeness upon an obscure and sometimes incomprehensible cityscape." [End Page 361]

This well-written book contains excellent readings...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 360-362
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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