An interview with Matthew Fraser by Laurel Zuckerman for Paris Writers News, see link here.
Laurel Zuckerman: What brought you to France?
What is Poodleland?
Poodleland is my neighborhood in the 7th arrondissement of Paris where my book largely takes place. There are chapters on my time living in Fontainebleau and a holiday in Provence but most of the book takes place in Paris, ask the title suggests. I actually came across the word “Poodleland” in a New York Times article written more than thirty years ago. The article was about James Joyce, who lived just up the road from my place, he lived in rue Edmond-Valentin. The journalist described the neighborhood as “Poodleland”.
The author with Leo (left) and Oscar (right)
The book was written mainly for a non-French audience — more specifically, for “Anglo-Saxons” as the French call all Anglo-Americans. I would hope that German, Danish, Norwegian – and even French – readers would find the book interesting too. But it’s a book that gives an Anglo-Saxon perspective on French society by someone who, I believes, knows this country intimately after thirty years. The book also is a personal memoir and, as such, it’s a story about a personal journey of rediscovery, in this case of life in France. It’s a book, at the deepest level, about faith, hope and the meaning of home. But it certainly can be read as a book of observations about the French and how French society works — all its vices and virtues. Anglo-Saxons who already live in France will immediately identify with the situations and conundrums I describe. Those who live outside of France might be surprised by my descriptions of life in France, because I try to pierce through the the myths and provide insights into the realities.
It’s a funny thing, the cliché about Paris is that it’s a dog-loving city and that Parisians adore their dogs. Well, like all cliché’s it’s only partly true. Paris is actually an exceedingly inhospitable city for dogs. Dogs are banned in most public squares and parks — you see those little signs everywhere. Look at London’s great parks — dogs always running around freely. Not in Paris. Also, Parisians are very bad about picking up after their pets. There is a section in my book about this. Many Parisians clearly despise dogs. I get hostile looks all the time when I’m walking Oscar through the streets of my neighborhoods. Only the other day a very frail old lady astonished me by stopping and telling me that my dog was “dégueuelasse”. If you are letting a flat in Paris, as you probably know, it’s best to keep mum about the fact that you have a dog. If you do, you might not get the apartment. To be nice about it, let’s say that Parisians are schizophrenic about domestic animals — some adore them, others loathe them.
When I arrived in Paris in the 1980s it was, as I was saying, tremendously exciting. The French were still certain of their certitudes and self-important about the prestige of their national culture. That’s gone. The malaise started to set in during the mid-1990s, around the time I left the country. When I returned a decade later, France was sinking into a morose combination of depression and denial. The country is in very bad shape today, largely due to three decades of mismanagement by both the left and right. As I say in my book, France is a nation betrayed by its own elites. The situation is bad at the moment that the best and brightest are leaving the country, especially entrepreneurs. It’s almost as tragic as Louis XIV’s expulsion of the Protestants in 1685, when hundreds of thousands of people left, many of them members of the economic elite. Today the difference is that the exodus is voluntary, they are leaving on their own volition. A lot of foreigners are still infatuated with the food, wine, fashion, and architecture — what I call the “museum” virtues of France. But the deeper social realities are grim.
How is Home Again in Paris being distributed? What are you working on now?
I released Home Again in Paris as an ebook mainly due to timing. When I finished the manuscript in the spring I started making contact with agents and publishers with the usual delays and ambiguous responses — to the point where I realized that this book was not going to get out by the fall as hoped. Then I was chatting with someone I know in publishing who said to me, “It won’t be published till spring 2014 at the earliest, probably the fall”. Oscar is now 13, he’ll be 14 in January. I certainly hope he’ll be around two years form now, but the whole question of timing made me decide to put the book out straight away as an ebook. I wanted the book to exist — for Oscar and Leo. Now it exists. As for a printed book, we’ll see how that goes for 2014. In the meantime, I am posting photos and blog updates on the book on my author website. I’m an optimist about how the book industry is changing. It’s rather like music CDs — we can now offer add-ons, bonuses, and updates via the Web. The story is always moving forward in some way. I’m very happy the book is out there now for another reason. It has freed up my time to get on with my next book, which is taking me in a completely new direction. The book I’m writing now is a murder mystery set in Paris
An interview with Matthew Fraser by the This French Life site:
WHEN you watch a city, and country, long enough you begin to recognise its idiosyncrasies; its swings and its roundabouts.
And it is these traits that the writing and observations of Matthew Fraser reveal, as he offers up views of life in Paris but also an insight into what lies beneath the French people.
His latest book, Home Again in Paris: Oscar, Leo and Me, tells of his return to the French capital, much changed from when he left it 25 years earlier, with two bichon dogs in tow.
Here he answers questions about Paris, writing and the difficulties France currently faces.
Q : Over the years you have lived in Paris, how has the city changed in both good and bad ys?
A : I first moved to Paris in the 1980s when François Mitterrand was president. It was an exciting time to be living in Paris, there was an idealism in the air that was almost palpable.
Those were the days just before the Latin Quarter was transformed into today’s ‘Saint-Germain-des-prets-a-porter’ cluttered with clothing boutiques selling expensive labels to rich tourists from China, Russia and the Middle East.
It was the end of an era, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The French were still living with the self-assurance of their own cultural superiority and the grandeur of their nation. It was a myth, but an inspiring one.
Today the French are confronted with the grim realities of the world around them. I could already sense a growing malaise just before I left in 1994. The mood was changing.
When I returned a decade later the French were gloomy. On the positive side, the triumph of realism over idealism, despite French denial, has opened up French society. The younger generation are much more open to the English language and American culture than the French were thirty years ago.
In those days it was fashionable in the Parisian chattering classes to denounce everything American as a pernicious influence on French culture. Being an Anglo-Saxon in Paris didn’t make you popular, quite the contrary. Today it’s trendy.
Young Parisians pepper their language with English words and expressions. They live in the world of the iPhone and Facebook like everyone else on the planet. They want access to the outer world. That’s a big change.
Q : What is it abut Paris that inspires your writing? And do you have any particular writing ‘habits’?
A : My latest book, which is a personal memoir, is essentially about my life in Paris and how I view the city differently today than I did three decades ago when I first moved here. It’s paradoxical. In those days, like most romantic youths who come to Paris, I was infatuated and unquestioning.
Francophiles tend to see only the mythic qualities of France the ‘museum’ aspects of French culture like history, architecture, cuisine, wine, fashion and so on. This infatuation is understandable because France indeed has a rich history and stunning architecture.
But at the same time it’s disconnected from the realities of French society. Parisians themselves are tired of their status as the world’s museum overrun with tourists, they are getting on with their daily lives all the time. Like me, I’ve become an anglo-Parisian and I often feel the same way Parisians do.
When I was a young student here, I was indulging in the myth. Today I have a greater understanding of how French society actually works, virtues and vices, and consequently I am much more critical.
And yet at the same time my understanding of French society has brought me closer to this country as my home. That in essence is what the book is about and it’s made explicit in the title.
What inspires me most is walking around Paris. I take a long walk every day. Paris is the world’s greatest city for flaneurs. Which is why I despise those ghastly Segway machines that are meant to allow tourists to motor through the city in a hurry.
The best way to discover Paris is to walk slowly and look up. I’m always looking up and closely at details in buildings. I am lucky to live in the 7th arrondissement because it combines a number of architectural styles, old aristocracy, grande bourgeoisie Haussmannian, Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
The reason is that parts of the neighbourhood were razed entirely to make way for several Paris world fairs in the 19th century, culminating with the Exposition Universelle of 1900, which was a triumph of the Art Nouveau style which we still see every day at Metro station entrances and street lamps.
My writing habits have changed over time. This is my fifth book. Most of my previous books were written late in the evening, sometimes into the early hours of the morning. This book was written during the day, starting in the morning.
My bichon Oscar gets me up very early every day, sometimes at six o’clock, and after my coffee I start to write. I stop at about noon and we go out for a walk. Then I usually teach my courses in the afternoon, at American University of Paris and Sciences Po.
This book was different because I wrote the first draft last summer, one year ago, then just left it sitting there for months before returning to it at Christmas. I reworked the chapters and then, in March, took it up again and rewrote a third draft. So it took a year to write, which is much longer than I usually take.
My previous books were written in four to six months, intensely. I took more time over this book, probably because it’s more personal.
Q : Calling on your experience lecturing in French universities, why do you think there is a problem over teaching some courses in English?
A : In France these postures can usually be explained by the economic interests of professions, in this case, university professors.
France is an exceedingly closed society in which the elites benefit from extraordinary privileges and protection from competition. You see symptoms of this all the time in Paris with the constant spectacle of strikes and demonstrations.
Foreigners are perplexed and frustrated when they encounter it. Those who move here to live and work are also startled to discover how closed French society is. You can’t just show up and join French society. Most doors are shut. Any American without a work visa knows that.
The French institutional system is closed and self-protecting. Take your example of universities. The overwhelmingly majority of university professors in France, more than 98%, are French. Professors in France are hired not by individual universities, as they are in America or Britain, they are hired centrally by the French ministry of higher education. They are in effect, and in law, civil servants. It’s not an open professional environment, it’s a closed bureaucracy. True, it’s starting to open up, mainly due to outside pressures from competition for international students.
And needless to say one of those pressures favours classes in English. It makes sense, of course, because English is the international language, the Latin of the modern era.
But in a university system long used to cloistered privileges and a culture of intellectual hostility towards Anglo-Saxon dominance, it’s controversial in France. These are old-guard convulsions.
The young generation in France are on the side of change. The changes are not happening quickly enough, however, which explains why so many young people in France are leaving the country. The talent exodus is a real problem.
Q : What impact does the énarque system have on the country that gave us liberté, égalité, fraternité?
A : The énarques are emblematic of the closed system that I was just describing. France is what I call a winner-take-all society that gives tremendous privilege and power to a tiny elite who attend a very small number of so-called grandes écoles in Paris, ENA, Sciences Po, Polytechnique and HEC.
The graduates of these prestigious schools have a virtual monopoly on all the levers of power in France’s ruling class. Almost every politician in France over the past half century, including all the presidents except Charles de Gaulle, has been a graduate of Sciences Po and/or ENA.
If you have the misfortune of attending an ordinary regional university in Toulouse or Rennes, you have no access to the political and economic elites. You are stuck, all doors are closed to you, because recruitment is restricted to a tiny elite of grande école graduates.
That’s another reason why so many young people, especially business-minded entrepreneurs, are leaving France for England or America.
They understand that the bias of the entire French system is creating a ruling class of bureaucrats and politicians and is largely indifferent to innovation and economic success.
All rewards go to a single caste whose careers are mainly attached to the French state. It’s an astonishingly elitist system that produces highly negative long-term consequences. France produced the Minitel, America produced the Internet.
It is true however that things are changing, slowly to be sure, but the French are beginning to embrace a more open and pragmatic approach to how they manage their society.
The ‘museum’ will always be there, and the tourists will keep coming, the challenge is how to reform French society to bring attitudes and institutions into the 21st century.
The French are a nation that has long turned to their glorious past, looking toward the future is not a natural reflex. But as noted, things are changing.
The coffee is much better in Paris than it was thirty years ago — thanks mainly to an influx of American barristas. There is a new restaurant scene of cafés and neo-bistrots sprouting up all over Paris.
I’ve been here long enough to see that change is slow, but I can see the changes happening. After three decades living here on and off, Paris is now home to me, so much so I wrote an entire book about it.