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A Good Writer

The Cubical City

by Janet Flanner
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1926; reprinted 1974, University of Illinois Press, $8.95

An American in Paris

by Janet Flanner
Simon & Schuster

Pétain: The Old Man of France

by Janet Flanner
Simon & Schuster

Men and Monuments

by Janet Flanner
Harper & Bros

Paris Journal: Vol. I, 1944-1965

by Janet Flanner, edited by William Shawn
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $5.95, paperback edition (paper)

Paris Journal: Vol. II, 1965-1971

by Janet Flanner, edited by William Shawn
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $4.95, paperback edition (paper)

Paris Was Yesterday, 1925-1939

by Janet Flanner, edited by Irving Drutman
Penguin, $2.95

London Was Yesterday, 1934-1939

by Janet Flanner, edited by Irving Drutman
Viking Press

Citizen Genêt came to the United States in 1793 as minister from France’s First Republic. Though on account of political indiscretions a recall was asked for by President Washington in that same year, he actually stayed on as a resident and married here. During his short diplomatic tenure he had sent home letters loaded with information. In 1925 the late Janet Flanner, already resident in France’s Third Republic, adopted the revolutionary Citizen’s name for signing a fortnightly letter from Paris to The New Yorker. Why she took on a pseudonym for reporting is not clear, save possibly to distinguish a journalistic function from a literary, since she was already author of a novel, to be published the next year.

Some years later, easily thirty, when the present witness referred to Miss Flanner as an “ace journalist,” she took umbrage at the term. “I am not an ‘ace journalist,’ ” she said, “I am a writer, a good writer.” Well, by that time a good writer she was, a very good one; and a fine reporter too, imaginative in her coverage and alert in phraseology. If the snippets of early work quoted from The New Yorker in Paris Was Yesterday are typical, she had started off as a journalistic writer of concision with a bright carrying power, whereas her literary style in The Cubical City, though still perhaps readable, is weighed down by descriptive overwriting.

Actually, if one reads the books in something like reverse order beginning with the most recently published, Janet Flanner’s World (or better still, the two volumes of Paris Journal, which cover the years 1944 to 1971), it becomes clear that their reporting, though vivid, became substantial only in the early 1930s. An exception would be the short profile of Isadora Duncan from 1927. Then in 1933 the Flanner account of how two housemaids of Le Mans, the Papin sisters, murdered their lady and threw her remains about before going at last upstairs to bed together—the original events on which Jean Genet later based his play Les Bonnes—is crime reporting unquestionably brilliant. And so were her extensive 1934 reports of the Alexander Stavisky case, a swindling affair which led to his assassination (almost certainly by the police) and to the bloody firings on February 6 into a mass of citizens on the Place de la Concorde (also by the police and with no warning by trumpet-call).

Another complex swindling story, that of the famous Madame Hanau, was written up in 1935. In the meantime Flanner had told about French crimes (not always in The New Yorker) with such liveliness that a publisher asked her for a whole book of them. She declined on the ground that Americans might have trouble believing that “in France nobody ever murders anybody he doesn’t know.”

With the 1935 full-length portrait from London of H.R.H. Queen Mary and the 1936 profile from Berlin of Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler, Janet Flanner became visible as an almost political observer—well informed, picturesque as to language, and responsive to the sympathies of middle-class, educated Americans.

It is certain that Flanner, though thirty when she took up journalism, matured along with the magazine she was to be so fitting a part of for over half a century. And it is also certain that The New Yorker itself went through quite a bit of maturing in its early days, for all that it is not easy now to imagine so sedate a publication having ever experienced insecurities.

Some years back, going through old stacks of it in a garret, I was amused to discover (actually it was Julien Levy pointed it out) that for its first years The New Yorker was a magazine of humor specializing in sex. Then in 1927 someone cleaned it up. It had started out with a fresh device, the one-line joke, originally an invention of the novelist Ronald Firbank. It also profited from a novel advertising policy, which was to write up shops and restaurants even before they advertised. Its third major experiment was a scholarly treatment of the news (to check everything), along with an aspiration (intact today) toward perfect proofreading.

Scholarship techniques for collecting the news had already been set up by The New Yorker‘s predecessor, Time. And The New Yorker has preserved these, notably in its full-length articles. Time did less well with them, because its regional source reports, first rewritten in collecting centers like London, Rome, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo, then being recast at home into a lingo known as “Time style,” ended up as often as not quite different from what the original had said. (I remember a piece about myself from around 1939, I think it was, that contained according to my count at least one error per sentence.) World coverage, with a world war to cover, saved the magazine, “Time style” came to be abandoned, and an excellent newsweekly was preserved.

But The New Yorker just seemed to go on as it was, while changing imperceptively from an originally “smart” publication into the slightly left of center political organ it has been for two decades now, its fine fiction, its huge reportages, and its luxury-trade advertisements making dependable reading matter for airplane trips and even for keeping around the house.

Janet’s manner changed gradually too, along with the tone of the magazine, which, as the European war approached, was becoming less heavily addicted to the light touch and more unashamedly straightforward, as war reporting augmented and eventually became a necessity. When the European war was over, with plenty of serious soldiering still active in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, neither Janet nor her paper went back to their earlier attitude of gently kidding the rich. If a time should come when there are, for however briefly, no wars or other holocausts to keep us sober-minded, perhaps we shall all go back to promoting luxuries and making fun of the buyers. But Janet will not be with us, though surely we shall again and again reread her deliciously serious stories of French life, art, and politics as she told them every other week for thirty years.

Journalism that can be collected into books is already of tested quality; and a further accolade comes when such books can be read still again. For myself all Janet Flanner’s reporting books are a delight to swim around in, also to follow as a stream. But I am an addict, as she was, of French living, and I too take French politics seriously. Garrett Mattingly used to tell his students that “the history of Europe is the history of France,” and that may well be true today, for all of Russia’s power and Germany’s new wealth.

In any case Janet’s continued story of French politics since World War II is to me a convincing performance, and not so much because her sympathies were the “right” ones to have as because she knew better than most observers what the French political parties were up to. That, for an outsider, is no small chore.

Americans writing about France tend to make French people seem very small and to underestimate their sincerity. Not Janet. For her Léon Blum was ever a great man and Mendès-France the hope of one, in spite of their frequent failures. As for de Gaulle, either active or just waiting, she grants him always his full stature, which even physically was enormous, and she recognizes in him the chief author of today’s France, though from his return in 1944 till his death in 1970 his very presence, no less than his deeds, never ceased to terrify her, as they did also his most loyal countrymen.

She had attained already by the early 1930s a fairly detailed understanding of the French political system, the result of a friendship with the French novelist Germaine Beaumont, who also helped toward improving her French. Later she came to know the French Communist Party with its almost independent status and its appeal for workingmen and their housewives, as well as for French intellectuals of the revolutionary tradition. I take it that the poet, novelist, and chief party theoretician Louis Aragon, a long-time friend, may well have been Janet’s main source of clarity regarding party maneuvers. Trotskyist reasonings she seems less familiar with. But her inside view of French politics was ultimately enriched hugely by her acquaintance with André Malraux, whose portrait is the chief novelty in Men and Monuments.

Another art-and-politics excursion in the same book is called “The Beautiful Spoils,” which deals with Hitler’s personal acquisitions in France, Italy, and Holland; the vast plunderings of Göring (the more knowledgeable of the two and the greedier); and the eventual “liberation” by a handful of American specialists of practically everything not actually destroyed. For this information she probably had access to someone French (my guess is Georges Salles, then Directeur des Musées de France) and certainly to sources in the American army.

Living in New York from the summer of 1939 till 1944, when she returned to France and Germany as a war correspondent in uniform, she composed from official and unofficial sources, from arriving Europeans, and from her own files thoroughly credible pictures of life in occupied France and a four-part profile, Pétain: The Old Man of France. Here also she first published her story of the escape from France during the winter of 1942 and 1943 of Mary Reynolds (called in the narrative Mrs. Jeffries), a woman in her late forties who had traveled clandestinely for six months by trains, trams, and buses, also by walking over the Pyrenees, before she arrived finally in New York and collapsed into bed at the Waldorf. This last weakness, which Miss Flanner omits, followed a forced vaccination for small-pox by American medical authorities, an apparently unclean needle having produced a festered leg which kept the patient supine for six weeks.

Flanner’s Paris Journals (1944 to 1965 and 1965 to 1971) give us for those years a two-volume report on life and politics in France which I find an enchanting continued story. London Was Yesterday, which contains the Queen Mary profile, has other pieces from the 1930s and is ornamented by photographs of London’s handsomest actors and noblest ladies; but it does not come to life as the Paris pictures do. English life and politics are harder to open up anyway, and the English newspapers tell you nothing. (Even the lordly Times, silent for nearly a year, was scarcely missed.)

Of Flanner’s other postwar reportings, those from Italy are the most picturesque, those from Germany quite gripping. She could and did read the Italian press, and was somewhat conversant in that language; everywhere I am sure she neglected neither press contacts nor private occasions to inform herself. But Americans’ fascination with Rome after World War II lasted maybe a decade at most. As seat of three world powers—the Catholic Church, the Communist Party, and the film industry, all impenetrable—and of a brand new republic incapable of governing, it was certainly no place to write home about with confidence.

Germany after the last war was far more comprehensible, especially to those who spoke and read German (which Janet could do). Her letters about the Nuremberg trials in Janet Flanner’s World are a grand performance for their attention to enlightening detail, for their missing very little of who outclassed whom in the courtroom fracases, and for an almost compassionate view of the losers, in spite of their obvious guilt and their haughty pretense that the whole thing was a frame-up.

But German is heady stuff even today and hard to take in large doses. Back in Paris, with side trips, Janet was happily at home in a hotel room (nowhere did she cook or keep house, ever), lunching out always and dining with friends (she was faithful to them all), reading the whole press every day, going to concerts and to art shows (as an amateur with high toleration), and even keeping up with the new writers, especially the French ones. Steadily she did all of this day after day plus weekends in the country, still reading and talking and listening, for she was a good listener. She was a steady character too, neither an angry one nor jealous nor passionate nor prone to excitements. Level-headed and laborious she always was, and lovely to be with. One wonders how she got through all that writing and the preparations for it.

Was that writing literature? She hoped and rather thought it might be. If literature is something you can read several times and still keep your mind on, then for me Janet Flanner is exactly that. So I keep her books around me. But if they are literature, what is their species? Poetry they are not, nor fiction nor formal history nor, after the war freed her from wisecracks, was she a professional humorist, though her Midwestern ways with common sense and with debunking the proud made her cousin to Mark Twain and to George Ade. No busybody she, no reformer, do-gooder, brave bullyboy, or buttinsky. That would be another kind of Midwesterner, including the great Hemingway himself, whom as a writer she adored.

The format of her own writing is closer, I think, to an English model. Let us call her a diarist. Columnist won’t do; she was personally too reticent for that. Let us think of her perhaps with Samuel Pepys, who could go on and on about London, and still make us wish for more.

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