French faculty shed light on Paris through writers eyes

Nov. 5 – Nov. 11 marked National French Week. Following French-themed dinner choices in the Caf on Wednesday, the festivities continued with a faculty panel titled “Paris: Secrets of the City” on Thursday, Nov. 6. Students and faculty alike crammed into Buntrock 225 to hear four faculty members discuss their research on various writers who have challenged notions of personal and geographic identity centered around France’s capital.

The talk began with Jolene Barjasteh, Associate Professor of French, reading her research paper “Julian Green’s Paris: Secrets, Confessions and Discovery.” Born in Paris to American parents, Green grew up in a strict Protestant household. As a result, both religion and his homosexuality made frequent appearances in his work. While Green published dozens of books over his lifetime, Professor Barjasteh focuses on one of his most well-known. Paris, a travel memoir of sorts, details the author’s visits to various monuments, streets and public places in the city. Like all the panelists, Barjasteh spoke in English but provided French quotes from Green’s texts, which were often preceded with light grammar jokes.

“Paris is not just the place where Julian spent his formative years, but also part of his body,” Barjasteh said.

Barjasteh’s paper concluded that Paris, for Green, was an area of reflection and self-discovery where the mystic and the sensual converged. A recurring term in Barjasteh’s talk was “flaner,” a French verb that translates to stroll, or walk aimlessly. Such was Julian Green’s approach while writing Paris, where he described the areas he visited with wonder and affection.

Registrar and Professor of French Mary Cisar continued the panel with her focus on French-Canadian writer Gabrielle Roy. Cisar began the talk by introducing the concept of “depaysement.”

“If you take that word apart, it literally means uncountried … Roy references her struggle as a cultural and linguistic minority,” Cisar said.

From 1605 to 1710, regions of eastern Canada made up Acadia, a colony of New France. While the British would come to permanently take over, a Francophone presence remains in Canada to this day. As a writer, Roy led a life of many different adventures; Cisar chose to focus on Roy’s stint in Paris, where even as a French speaker she was linguistically Canadian French is markedly different from the French spoken in France, geographically and socially disoriented. In her autobiography, Roy addresses Paris’ effect on her rather than the city itself. Roy ultimately left Paris for England after realizing that her linguistic identity could not be fully determined in France.

Assistant Professor of French Lise Hoy’s talk brought the audience to the 21st century United States with “The City as a Myth: Adam Gopnik’s Paris.” Adam Gopnik is a New York Times writer known for Paris to the Moon, a book of essays chronicling daily life in Paris for him and his family, who lived there for five years. Gopnik’s work on Paris often references French thinker Roland Barthes and his conception of mythology. Hoy tackled Gopnik’s deconstruction of Barthes’s myth as it relates to our perceptions of Paris.

Hoy paid particular attention to the city’s monuments and structures as tools of mythification. From his American perspective, Gopnik drew upon the realization that Paris had become mythical both in reality as well as in our imaginations. Much of the city’s distinct architecture was erected in the 19th century under the watchful eye of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, appointed by Napoleon III in 1853 to oversee a series of major public works projects, both for the sake of beautifying the city and accommodating its growing population. Nearly two centuries later President François Miiterrand would announce the expansion and renovation of France’s national library, also located in Paris.

In comparing the two, Hoy said, quoting Gopnik, “‘Haussmann’s Paris is a materialized dream.’ Mitterrand’s Paris however, was not as impressive.” Gopnik, like Green, also took an intimate perspective on travel writing and examining the identity of the city.

Assisstant Professor of French Maria Vendetti finished the panel with “Georges Perec: Exhausting the Everyday, Rewriting Paris.” Perec was a member of the Oulipo movement, founded by a group of French-speaking writers who wrote within certain constraints; Perec, for example, had written an entire novel without using the letter “e.” Vendetti primarily focused on two of his works, Tentative d’un Epuisement d’un lieu Parisien and La Vie mode d’emploi translated to An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris and Life A User’s Manual. In the first work, Perec wrote down everything he saw sitting at a cafe near Saint Sulpice church in the heart of the city. His observations were jotted in simple list form and were at times mundane. His point? To record “what’s happening when nothing is happening,” or “ce qui se passe quand il ne rien se passe.”

Four writers from various backgrounds, Green, Roy, Gopnik and Perec captured some of the beauty, contradiction and complexity that is Paris. St. Olaf College’s French department is fortunate to have faculty members willing to share those insights with the rest of the campus, fulfilling the college’s mission of providing a global perspective to its students.