E8S1 Adam Gopnik

The amazing thing about Adam Gopnik, staff writer for The New Yorker, is that he knows more about France than many French people. It’s as if this podcast was made for him. You can ask him a question about anything, from the Statue of Liberty to French pop music, and he will give you an eloquent, informative and captivating answer.

When he arrived at the French Embassy’s building on Fifth Avenue for this interview, we had just begun major renovations. We basically met in a storage room, between two cabinets and a sofa propped on its side. This is what added to the informal nature of the conversation.

We talked about the intellectual exchange between France and America (2:10), the role of the president in both countries (24:30), Montaigne (3:34), Romain Gary (12:40), and Bastille Day. (31:50)

Show Notes

The below notes are designed to enrich the listener's experience by further explaining the more obscure French references mentioned throughout the show.

3:37 Montaigne

A French philosopher and author from the 16th century, Montaigne is known for his Essays. In 107 chapters, Montaigne embarks on a deep self-exploration to uncover the truths of human condition. Constantly wondering “What do I know?” Montaigne uses doubt and skepticism to attain wisdom. 

5:03 Montesquieu

French political philosopher from the late 17th and 18th century, his theory of the separation of powers is still at the heart of modern democracies. The Spirit of the Laws (1748) and Persian Letters (1721) – a satire of French contemporary society – are classics Enlightenment literature. 

6:09 Camus 

French philosopher, author, and journalist born in Algeria. His writings explore the human condition and its absurdity. A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, he wrote novels (The Stranger, The Plague), plays (Caligula), and non-fiction (The Myth of Sisyphus).

7:00 Foucault, Derrida, Barthes

Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes are three influential French thinkers of the 20th century. Michel Foucault is known for his analyses of social institutions, including his criticism of the criminal justice system (Discipline and Punish). Jacques Derrida (Of Grammatology) is a leader of deconstruction philosophy that emerged in the context of post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy. Roland Barthes shares Derrida’s post-structuralist approach and has been influential in literature with his concept of the death of the author. His essays are collected in Mythologies

8:29 Bernard-Henri Lévy

A contemporary French public intellectual, widely referred to with his initials “BHL.” Along with André Glucksmann and Alain Finkielkraut, he was considered as part of the New Philosophers generation. His writings include La barbarie à visage humain, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville and The Genius of Judaism

11:59 Céline, Genet, Drieu La Rochelle

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle and Jean Genet are controversial French authors from the 20th century. Céline introduced a revolutionary style based on orality and strong emotional reactions, while Drieu la Rochelle was director of the NRF, an influential literary magazine, but their ties with the Nazi regime and their anti-Semitic positions have deeply tainted their literary legacy.

12:40 Romain Gary

A French novelist, diplomat, film director and World War II aviator, Romain Gary is the only author to have won the prestigious Prix Goncourt twice, first as Romain Gary for The Roots of Heaven and then as Émile Ajar for The Life Before Us. However, he is probably most associated with his autobiographical novel, Promise at Dawn, which was made into a movie first in 1970 and more recently in 2017.

18:39 Poussette

(nf) stroller

18:47 Le Monde

French daily newspaper of record founded in 1944. If you are looking for a French newspaper abroad, Le Monde (which translates as “the world”) will very likely be the one you’ll find.

21:02 Promotion 

(nf) Refers to a class of students that have spent their schoolyears together. Some schools only refer to the date (promotion 2015, promotion 2010-2013) while others are named after historical figures. 

21:10 “soixante-huitard”

Used to refer to someone who participated in the May 1968 protest. Roughly translates as “sixty-eighters.”

28:08 Manif’

Common shorthand for the French term “manifestation,” meaning “demonstration.”

30:50 Minitel

In the 1980s, before the Internet era, the Minitel was the most advanced digital technology. French users could have access to online purchases, banking, travel booking, and even chatting. The Minitel was distributed free of charge by the state-owned telecom company. The system failed to be exported out of France and lack of innovation eventually led to its growing out of fashion with the rise of the Internet. The Minitel definitively ended in 2012.