Thursday, January 18, 2007

Au Revoir, M. Buchwald.

A Richard Avedon photograph of Art Buchwald (center) with Audrey
Hepburn, Simone, and other luminaries at Maxim's in Paris, circa 1959.

VIVE LA FRANCE. Art Buchwald has died. I'll leave it to others to eulogize him, because I never much cottoned to the political satire that earned him most of his American fans. But I do want to thank him for what I believe may have been his greater, though less explored, talent as a humorist. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was stationed in Paris with the International Herald Tribune, and while there he wrote an incredibly warm and funny series of columns about living in Paris as an American. These were collected into a book called How Much is That in Dollars?

My father was transferred to Paris for a year on a business assignment in 1963, and our small family of four had only a few months in which to prepare for the transition -- constant French lessons, a host of shots, Michelin guides, maps, packing, etc. But the best orientation I received for the world I would be encountering was Art Buchwald's book, purchased at the American Drugstore on the Champs Elysee by my dad and then passed hand to hand in our household. It was simultaneously funny, engaging, educational, and glamorous, and it conveyed a precise sense of how one should go about being an American in Paris in those years of post-war American ascendance and French ambivalence.

After everyone else had read it, I latched onto it and took it with me to France, where I never stopped reading and rereading it. I loved its wry wit, which managed to appreciate all things French without ever losing the uniquely American understanding that we don't have to stand on dignity to preserve our dignity. Our unfailing shield is our ability to laugh at ourselves, even in places where no one else can. It wasn't until years later that I stumbled upon Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad, and when I did, my first reaction to it was, "My goodness. Twain was a 19th century Buchwald."

I'm sure the exaggerated impact the book had on me because of its intimate relation to my own experience impaired my ability to appreciate Buchwald as a topical political satirist. When I returned home, I sought out his columns and was routinely disappointed. They seemed formulaic, contrived, and only occasionally imbued with the rich humor he had shown in France.

I know that I'm wrong about all these detractions, because every personal comment I've ever read about him attests to exactly the same fine human qualities I saw in the Paris book. And I insist that it's a shame this small gem has fallen out of print. (Here's the best I can do in finding it for you.) I'll stop right there, though, because I've said all I'm qualified to say. Except this:

Merci bien, et bon voyage, M. L'Americain.

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