Born in Brazil to British parents, New York Times Bureau chief in Mexico City, Rio de Janiero, Madrid and later Paris Alan Riding has been interpreting foreign affairs and culture for over 40 years. His works on Opera and Shakespeare are accessible texts for the novice and aficionado alike.
A Conversation with Alan Riding.
Born in Brazil to British parents, New York Times Bureau chief in Mexico City, Rio de Janiero, Madrid and later Paris, Alan Riding has been interpreting foreign affairs and culture for over 40 years. His works on Opera and Shakespeare are accessible texts for the novice and aficionado alike.
DISTANT NEIGHBORS, his portrait of the Mexicans remains thirty years after its publication the definitive guide to understanding Mexican culture and politics. It is an integral part of university courses and required reading for diplomats posted to Mexico City.
Having retired from the Times and living in Paris he has had the luxury to research and absorb cultural life in Paris under the Nazi Occupation. His new book AND THE SHOW WENT ON is now available.Over a leisurely lunch at he Restaurant des Beaux Arts we discussed Paris and the occupation.
TG: When did you first come to Paris?
AR: I was 14 when I first came with my parents as a tourist. I spoke reasonable French and had already lived abroad, yet at the time Paris seemed both alien and intimidating. Years later, coming with girlfriends, the main drama was whether the receptionist in the hotel would demand to see our marriage certificate! In fact, it was only after I had lived in New York that I felt equipped to take on Parisians, who in those days were invariably rude and certainly had no time for foreigners. After New York, it was easy to relax and enjoy Paris.
TG: When and why did you come back to stay?
AR: In 1989 I was named the bureau chief of The New York Times in Paris, so in a sense it was not my decision. Then, in 1995, at the end of that assignment, I managed to reinvent myself as the newspaper’s European cultural correspondent, still based in Paris.
It was a dream job in a dream city and it was soon apparent to me that Paris had become my permanent home. After I left the paper in 2007 to work on my new book, And The Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris, it seemed even less likely that I would ever leave Paris.
TG: Where do you live (arrondissement?
AR: I live in the Sixth arrondissement and what a privilege it is to be within (a short) walking distance of the Luxembourg Gardens. In fact, no day goes by without my thinking, Wow! I live in Paris!
AR: Well, it could also have been the Seventh (east of Les Invalides, of course!) or the Fifth, but I definitely wanted to stay on the Left Bank. Actually, when I was The Times’s bureau chief, I lived in a vast company apartment in the 16th, but I never much liked the neighborhood. It always felt somewhat soulless.
TG: What’s your favorite café?
AR: I’m likely to be found in Le Rostand, a slightly scruffy old-fashioned café on the corner of the rue de Médicis and the Place Edmond Rostand. It has a splendid terrace, protected and warm in the winter, sunny and breezy in the summer. It’s much like the Café de Flore but with fewer tourists, a place where you can sit for hours reading a paper or editing a book and no one bothers you.
TG: What’s your favorite starred restaurant?
AR: When the bank manager permits, I like going to Alain Passard’s L’Arpège on the rue de Varenne. But, alas, that’s not too often.
TG: What’s your favorite bistro du coin?
AR: One block from my office is Polidor, a quaintly classical restaurant that once fed students at the nearby Sorbonne and now is a bit out of their range. It has long refectory-like tables and you never know whom you’re going to meet.
TG: What’s your favorite time of the year?
AR: Definitely spring. Since I walk through the Luxembourg Gardens most days, the first buds, leaves and blossoms reassure me that one more winter has gone forever.
TG: Ever since the publication of Robert Paxton’s groundbreaking VICHY FRANCE the Nazi occupation of France has been the subject of a seemingly endless procession of books and films. Your new book, AND THE SHOW WENT ON: CULTURAL LIFE IN NAZI-OCCUPIED PARIS examines the personalities across the complete political spectrum that continued to practice their art in spite of the occupier. Describe that period and the most significant thing you discovered while writing the book.
AR: I have always been interested in how artists and writers respond to politics, particularly since in France there is a tradition that they give their opinions and people listen. Further, in the decade before the Second World War, Paris was an extraordinary cultural capital, drawing not only France’s best, but also intellectuals and artists fleeing Russia, Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain. Then Paris fell to the Nazis. And in a sense, that’s when my story begins.
What did these artists and writers do? Jews among them of course did their utmost to escape, but among those who stayed there were enthusiastic fascists, supporters of Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime, discreet opponents of the Germans and a handful of outright resisters. And, eventually, everyone from Picasso and Matisse to Sartre and Camus, not forgetting Maurice Chevalier and Édith Piaf, took some position on the occupation.
Yet what most struck me was not only that cultural life boomed, but also that the lines between collaboration and resistance were often blurred: some writers passed quietly from one to the other and a few artists even managed to be friendly towards the occupier at the same time as helping the resistance. And, yes, one humble confession: by the end of my research and writing, I still could not answer the question: what would I have done?
TG: How has Paris affected your work?
AR: I was lucky that my last job of cultural writer was in Paris, not only because Paris is by definition a city bubbling with culture, but also because this forced me to learn a great deal about earlier French cultural history and its enormous impact on the rest of Europe.
In other words, because for so long Paris dominated European culture, I found it a useful prism through which to see the rest of the region.
TG: How has Paris affected your life?
AR: During much of my life, I have felt like an outsider – and I also do in Paris, which is fine by me. I can observe the city and its residents as if I were watching a complex play on stage, a piece of theater that on the one hand seems improvised and on the other follows strict rules. Almost like a voyeur, then, every day I learn something new about how Parisians behave.