Share this article

print logo

DIVINITY IS IN THE DETAILS FOR ESSAYIST GOPNIK

"The easily exhausted but determinedly spritely essayist Adam Gopnik, who knows that despite his best efforts, he will always be remembered as "that guy who lived in Paris' . . ."

And here, the easily exhausted but determinedly spritely essayist pauses at the task assigned by the also easily exhausted and determinedly innovative Buffalo News reporter to come up with a way to start this story.

Gopnik, who delighted readers with his essays from Paris for the New Yorker and his subsequent book, "Paris to the Moon," says, "You know, there are 7,000 things in life that will get us into heaven, but only one thing in our life that will be written on our tombstone, and I am "The guy who went to the gym in Paris and asked for the towel.' "

Because Parisians have a decidedly casual attitude toward exercise -- this gym, which boasted high-intensity New-York-style workouts, had no price for those who wished to exercise more than once a week -- Gopnik's request for a towel was not granted, and, he wrote, "I walked all the way home, moist as a chocolate mousse."

But as the conversation roams from Paris to Buffalo, Gopnik hits on a new way to begin this story: "I am looking forward to being up there, and I hope it's cold, and I hope it snows. We never had snow in Paris, although the sky always looks as though it's going to snow, and here's the lead for you! "The essayist Adam Gopnik is the one visitor who's coming to Buffalo in desperate hope of a blizzard,' because it's true.

"I love snow, I live for snow, I think that it has an amazing emotional effect, and it never snows in New York -- well, it does once or twice, and then it becomes so filthy you don't want to look at it. There's nothing I would like more than an early snowstorm on Nov. 6. That would bring me joy. Would you please arrange that?"

Um, Adam? Maybe not. Winter comes early enough around here. But snow or no snow, Gopnik is looking forward to his visit to Buffalo, where he will speak on art, modern life and culture at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Gopnik has written for the New Yorker since 1986 and has won the National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism as well as the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. His latest book, "Americans in Paris," collects the experiences of Americans, both modern and historic, famous and unknown, in the City of Light.

Gopnik spoke by phone from his hotel in Dallas, where he was to speak that day on what he calls the "Endless Tuition Tour." He and his wife, Martha Parker, have two children.

How did Buffalo snag a spot on the Endless Tuition Tour?

I spoke at SITE Santa Fe when Louis Grachos (director of the Albright-Knox) was the director there, about four years ago, and Louis called last year to see if I'd come in, and I said I'd be delighted. He and his wife are wonderful people, and his son is a hockey player, as is mine, and I was hoping to bring Luke up to Buffalo, but he's got practice or something. I still may sneak him away.

Readers know Luke as the infant and toddler in "Paris to the Moon." How old is he now?

He's 10. We brought him home as a little French boy in overalls and red shoes, and now he's -- we call it "Boobus Americanus," the American kid in a giant T-shirt -- and he's still a wonderful boy.

How old is Olivia?

She just turned 5, they have birthdays within one day of each other. She's wonderful, and she's very proud to have been born in Paris, but she's very American, a very New York Jewish little girl.

What do you plan to talk about here?

It's been 10 years now, almost to the day, since I stopped writing about art professionally on a weekly or even a monthly basis. It was something I loved doing, it was very much part of my life, it was what I studied in school and what I did when I first started writing for the New Yorker. I was art critic there for several years, and then I stopped it altogether.

And now I want to try to go back to it from a slightly different point of view, and that is not so much to try and rate pictures or to do scholarship or to make fine distinctions among things, but to sort of ask a basic question: Why do we participate in this ritual of museum-going at all? What value does it have for us? Because the truth is, and you will forgive me if this sounds pretentious, but in the past 10 years, in the time I was in Paris, particularly, I wrote that my real subject, the thing that ties together all these weird and unconnected things I write about, is secular ritual -- the way we organize our lives to give them some meaning, and all the little things we do -- going to gyms and having children and drinking wine. And that's how we live horribly painful and mortal lives, and we try to give those lives some meaning by ritualizing them.

The whole role of art, of theater-going and museum-going as secular ritual, is what sort of fascinates me now. And the Buffalo talk will be about that. But I want to try to look beyond the immediate art historical question, beyond why did these people paint these pictures at this time, to the question of why do we continue to go and look at these pictures today? What true value does it have, beyond all the things people tell us -- they'll make our characters better, they will improve our morality, and so on. What really draws us to it? And I have a complicated and probably totally spurious theory . . . should I go on?

No, better not! Leave everyone wondering until Nov. 6!

Good idea! (Laughing) But I will say that it has to do with the nature of our experience of time. And if that all sounds horribly pretentious, I will say that my two kids, poor things, have been dragged from cultural activity to cultural activity all through their lives, from museums to theater and so on. So I asked them the other night, "Which do you like better, going to the theater or going to museums?" and Luke said, "Well, actually I prefer the theater because at least they let you sit down," and Olivia said, "Actually, I prefer museums because at least you are allowed to talk." And it's sort of from those two comments -- it's about sitting down and being free to talk more than it's about anything else.

It's meant to be a meditation on what draws us to museums.

You love details.

The kind of writing I value is writing that's about the particulars of everything -- the particulars of existence and the particulars of the little social rituals and secular rituals we have to try and bring joy, meaning, significance to our existence and how we use them to face all the horribly harsh and perplexing facts and realities of living a mortal life in a hostile universe.

You couldn't write about the particulars so precisely and evocatively without having excellent powers of observation, which you do.

Well, thank you, you're very kind to say that. Someone asked me last night -- I gave this talk at the Corcoran Galley -- if the practice of writing art criticism had fed into my later work after I stopped doing it. I think the one part of it was that when you're writing about art, the credibility of everything you write depends on the credibility of your descriptions.

Everybody's got a million opinions about everything, but if you describe with fervor and accuracy the things that people see, then they are prepared to believe that maybe your opinion is of value. So I think that the discipline of having to look at a Fragonard or a Winslow Homer or an Audubon -- and in those days, the New Yorker had no illustrations at all, so having to convey them, what they look like, what they feel like when you look at them, even more important, how you feel when you look at them, that was a hugely useful discipline.

The more you observe, the more you learn that the way to convey observation isn't so much through a kind of exhaustive inventory of what you see and what you notice, but through finding the one right metaphor or finding the one right tiny touch to set a scene that will make it come alive.

Do you have a favorite word right now?

The two words that keep sneaking into my writing, I find, right now, are "consequences," I'm overusing "consequences," I have to change it all the time, and "matchless." My editor keeps pointing out, "You're using "matchless' too much!" It's funny how little things sneak in and they have some kind of significance. There was one I was using a little while ago -- "heartbreaking," that was the third one that I was overusing.

Do you have a favorite word to say?

As you can tell from "Luke Auden" and "Olivia Esme Claire," I like long vowels. And I once wrote, I can remember, about a Fragonard picture. I was just starting at the magazine, I wrote that the pictures were filled with "treacle wells," remember in Alice in Wonderland, she says there are three girls who live at the bottom of a treacle well? I wrote that the pictures were filled with "treacle wells of chiaroscuro." And my editor, bless him, a wonderful guy named Chip McGrath, said, "You are not putting that sentence in this magazine." And I never did, but I always thought that if I had a pet phrase, it was "treacle wells of chiaroscuro."

Henry James once said that he thought that the most beautiful phrase in English was "summer afternoon." I've always thought the most beautiful phrase in English is "Christmas music." Isn't that a nice phrase? "Summer afternoon" is beautiful too; it's both euphonious and instantly evocative. And I will say "Christmas music," which has nothing to do with being religious, is both a euphonious and comforting phrase.

Gopnik has just completed an adventure book for children titled "The King in the Window." Tickets for his Buffalo talk are available in advance or the day of the event: $10 for the general public, $7 members, $5 students and seniors. Call 270-8292 for more information or to order tickets.

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com