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The Observer, Observed

New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik is an aesthete of the ordinary, and this year’s Massey lecturer

From the November 2011 magazine
Photograph by Jody Rogac

When I stepped out of the elevator into the hall, on my way to Adam Gopnik’s apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, woozy from the record July heat, the first thing I saw was a scruffy little buff-coloured dog with a wet beard bounding toward me.

“Off, Butterscotch!” Gopnik yelled from his doorway, as his one-year-old Havanese gleefully hopped up my leg. With his tuft of receding hair mussed and his white shirt unbuttoned at the collar, rolled up at the sleeves, and untucked, he had dogs on the brain that afternoon. “I never used to like dogs,” he said. “I was afraid of them, but my daughter, Olivia, convinced my wife and me to get one, and now I’m obsessed.” Dogs are yet another of the obsessions that have defined his twenty-five-year career as a staff writer at The New Yorker. “I go to my editor Henry Finder at the beginning of every year and talk through the list of what I’m obsessing over,” he told me, before heading over to the magazine’s Times Square offices later that afternoon to put the finishing touches on “Dog Story” for the August 8 issue.

He whisked me into his spacious living room, with its white couches and bank of windows. On the walls hang the French engraving that inspired his best-known book, Paris to the Moon; and several family photographs, including one of his wife of thirty years, the filmmaker Martha Parker—decked out in a flowing white dress and hugely pregnant with their son Luke—shot by Richard Avedon. Below, on a Persian area rug, sits a stack of hardcover copies of his book Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York. “This is what I do with unsold books instead of putting them in remainder,” he quipped as we walked past, glumly suggesting that the only place the book sold well, surprisingly, was in Italy, in Italian.

At fifty-five, Gopnik stands at the peak of his career. He has written six books to date (two of them for children), including the acclaimed Paris to the Moon and Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, as well as countless articles of varying length for The New Yorker. This fall, he is publishing two new books, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food and Winter, which he is delivering across Canada this fall as the 2011 CBC Massey Lectures.

While The Table Comes First follows the winning formula for his earlier books—developing previously published New Yorker pieces and writing additional essays that link them into a more or less coherent whole—Winter represents a substantial departure. Divided into five chapters, or lectures, on various aspects of the season, this sustained meditation relies less on the idiosyncratic stories and characters that work so well in his New Yorker pieces, and more on philosophical ruminations about everything from Lawren Harris’s paintings to arctic travel to Christmas to hockey. Gopnik built his reputation as an urbane, witty, and lyrical stylist by gracefully modulating his stories between the romantic comedy of family life and the brilliant obsessive-compulsives that populate metropolises like Paris and New York. Among the recent generations of New Yorker writers, his temperament most closely resembles that of the magazine’s early pantheon: E. B. White, James Thurber, St. Clair McKelway, A. J. Liebling, and Joseph Mitchell. The Massey Lectures, now marking their fiftieth year, put Gopnik in different but no less formidable company (over the years, they have been delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, John Kenneth Galbraith, Claude Lévi-Strauss, George Steiner, Doris Lessing, Jane Jacobs, Michael Ignatieff, and Charles Taylor, among others), and he remains acutely aware that he won’t get by on charm alone. At their best, the Massey Lectures have served as a forum for major thinkers to present the core of their vision, and it’s unclear as yet whether Gopnik as a thinker rather than as an agile stylist has the depth and breadth to meet the high standards the series has established.

Adam Gopnik was born in Philadelphia in 1956, the son of two students at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1968 the family (he has four sisters and one brother) left the dark politics of Vietnam-era America for academic jobs in Montreal, and an apartment in Moshe Safdie’s new Habitat 67. He went to CEGEP at Dawson College, where he fell in love with his future wife, and then on to McGill; in 1980, he and Parker packed their bags, boarded a bus, and headed for New York, where he started graduate school at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.

There, he wrote his master’s thesis on Leonardo da Vinci’s dazzling, and hilarious, grotesques: women with bulbous heads and monkey-like faces, toothless old men in doges’ hats with long noses and protruding chins. Gopnik was on his way to writing a dissertation on Picasso’s caricatures when he dropped out. “I’m the black sheep of the family,” he told me, laughing. Getting a Ph.D. is practically de rigueur in his family, and he’s the only one of his siblings who never completed a doctorate. “I didn’t want to be a professor. I was writing humour pieces all along, slipping them under the door of The New Yorker,” he said. “I went to graduate school as a way of getting to New York. Then I met Kirk Varnedoe, an amazing teacher, and we became good friends. I probably stayed in graduate school too long because of him.”

His extensive academic training didn’t go to waste. In 1986, The New Yorker finally published one of those humour pieces he had been slipping under the door, “Quattrocento Baseball,” a brilliantly funny excursus he had written years earlier on his twin loves, baseball and Renaissance painting. “I am by vocation a student of fifteenth-century Italian art and a fan of the Montreal Expos,” the piece begins. “It is a mixture of callings that provokes more indulgent smiles than raised eyebrows… I have tried to imagine a pasture on the slopes of Parnassus where Bill Lee plays pepper with Giorgione and Fra Filippo Lippi calls off Warren Cromartie.” The piece has all the hallmarks of Gopnik’s style: the self-deprecating humour, the natural elision between high culture and popular culture, the eclectic erudition, and prose that weds Thurber’s deadpan vernacular with the polished high-wire act of John Updike’s ornate constructions. It wasn’t long before he was hired on at The New Yorker, where writing Talk of the Town pieces launched his apprenticeship as a reporter.

In 1995, he, his wife, and their infant son moved to Paris. They had talked about living in France for years, and anyway their SoHo loft was infested with rats. For the next five years, he wrote on everything French, from the country’s nearly metaphysical passion for bureaucracy, to the surrealism of haute couture and the crisis in French cuisine, to the trial of a Vichy collaborator, to family life in the City of Light. The result was the bestselling Paris to the Moon, an ecstatic, wide-eyed, wryly sentimental book. It tells about discovering a place he already loved, and about creating the intimacy of a family, which is why the series of Christmas journals that weaves the book together is its most moving and successful part. “He rides the carousel,” he writes of the days he and his son spent in the Luxembourg Gardens, “the fallen leaves piled neatly all around it, and though bent-up it is a beauty. The animals are chipped, the paint is peeling, the giraffe and elephant are missing hooves and tusks, and the carousel is musicless and graceless.” Gopnik is an aesthete, but unlike many of his fellow students of fifteenth-century Italian painting he is not an elitist; he is an aesthete of ordinary and intimate pleasures.

“Paris is always there. You can keep Paris,” he commented as we sat drinking iced coffee in a sun-drenched nook in a corner of his living room, overlooking Eighty-Eighth Street. He was, in fact, leaving for Paris in two days to stay with a friend on the Left Bank. “But you’re always losing New York. If you had told me in 1980 that this would become one of the safest places in the United States, that you could go out and take walks at night in Central Park, I would have thought you were insane.” When he moved back to New York in the new millennium, not only had the city reinvented itself once again during his absence, but he had changed as well: no longer the bohemian SoHo writer, he was now a family man with a new baby daughter, bidding on apartments in doorman buildings on the Upper East Side.

Encompassing the period between the autumn of 2000 and 2006, Through the Children’s Gate is very much a follow-up to Paris to the Moon (it, too, concerns the manners of the professional classes in a cosmopolitan city), but its tone is far more sombre. “Paris to the Moon is about discovery,” Gopnik said, “and Through the Children’s Gate is about loss—the loss of 9/11, the loss of Kirk Varnedoe, whose illness was one of the reasons we decided to move back—but it’s also about the resilience of people.” Through the Children’s Gate is his most soul-searching and introspective book. Confronting loss invariably involves confronting one’s self.

“It was two years ago, and I was standing in the falling snow on Fifty-Eighth Street, waiting for the bus,” Gopnik said. “An email popped up on my phone from Bernie Lucht at CBC, asking me if I wanted to do the Massey Lectures. I went home and told my wife, ‘I’m going to do the Massey Lectures on winter!’” He continued: “I wanted to talk about how the fascination with winter is a product of modernity and the nineteenth century, so I started going to the New York Public Library and just reading all day. It was like being a graduate student again. The Massey Lectures have this weird arrangement where the book is published before the lectures are given, and I wanted the book to sound more like someone speaking than like my sometimes over-polished prose. To do that, I invited a few friends over and essentially delivered the lectures extemporaneously to them, my wife and kids, even Butterscotch, in my living room.”

For Winter, Gopnik divides the season into five modes: Romantic, Radical, Recuperative, Recreational, and, finally, Remembering. “Romantic Winter” charts the transition from winter as a brutal, dangerous reality—people can freeze to death, after all—to one we can admire as picturesque and stroll through with pleasure and wonder. Throughout, he reflects upon poems by Samuel Johnson, paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, scientific treatises on snowflakes, and the differing ideas about reason from the Enlightenment and the counter-Enlightenment. “Radical Winter” investigates the obsession with reaching the Arctic and Antarctic poles. “The search for that spatial winter, the search for the poles, has become an obsessive subject for modern people. It’s the model of all exploration for exploration’s sake, exploration undertaken with a minimum of national advantage, a marginal economic purpose, and a maximal amount of adventure taken for adventure’s sake.”

If polar travellers are, as Gopnik puts it, “a kind of ecstatic monk of nature,” Christmas, which he explores in “Recuperative Winter,” is the paradigmatic secularized winter holiday. He uses “Recreational Winter” to briefly review the history of ice skating—ice skating paintings, ice skating poems, including a sublime passage on the subject from Wordsworth’s The Prelude—as well as hockey and his beloved Montreal Canadiens. In “Remembering Winter,” he meditates upon the ways in which winter shapes our memories and imaginations, and what it might mean for us, in this era of escalating climate change, to ultimately see it disappear. “When we lose a powerful symbol of order, some other symbol comes to take its place,” he writes at the end of the final lecture. “Human beings are matchlessly good at making them. But when we lose, through the vagaries of life or history, some powerful symbol of order, we feel the loss, and we should spend a minute mourning it.”

“My work at this point is about the longing for modernity in a postmodern world,” he told me. He is no longer the young, wickedly smart humorist of “Quattrocento Baseball”; he is moving on to the larger, humanist, even spiritual themes his heroes—Samuel Johnson, G. K. Chesterton, W. H. Auden, John Updike—engaged in with such depth and wit. Though he would never admit as much, he seems to be drifting away from his man-about-town New Yorker persona. At a magazine dominated by hard-core journalists like editor David Remnick and scholarly specialists like James Wood, Gopnik is the kind of oddball, difficult-to-categorize essayist more common fifty years ago.

Much of his recent writing is driven by a need to find meaning and purpose within a radically secular world, to find powerful and grounding symbols of order. Through the Children’s Gate is haunted by mortality, its finest chapter a moving tribute to his dying friend, Kirk Varnedoe; the final essay in Angels and Ages is a meditation on the dizzying sweep of human and geological time; and in The Table Comes First, even the comforting ritual of dining out and the pleasure of fine food and wine feel fragile and impermanent, at the mercy of history and under the shadow of the European famines of the not so distant past. Winter is a diffuse and eclectic book, straining at times to sustain its theme with no chance to fall back on the quirky, heartwarming personal narratives that propel Paris to the Moon and Through the Children’s Gate. But in the end, Winter is also deeply personal: it is about finding a sense of home and rootedness and meaning in a fragmented postmodern world; it begins with and ultimately returns to the city of his formative teen years and early adulthood, Montreal. “Practically everything important that has happened to me happened in Montreal,” he said: “The first time I fell in love, the first time I fell out of love, the first time I made love.”

Adam Gopnik is a very busy man. Like many successful writers who actually make a living writing, he is probably spread way too thin. As well as delivering the Massey Lectures this fall, he is going on the road with The Table Comes First while continuing to fulfill his commitments to The New Yorker, where he produces ten or twelve full-length pieces a year. There is also the novel he has been working on for years in his spare time. Nonetheless, when the composer David Shire approached him about adapting Through the Children’s Gate into a musical, he not only jumped at the opportunity, but insisted on writing the libretto; he had just delivered the second act the day before I visited him. “When I moved to New York, I came with a sheaf of songs. I intended to be a songwriter, a sort of cross between Harold Arlen and Joni Mitchell,” he admitted, pointing out that on the upright piano in a corner of the dining room sat a stack of classic American songbooks from the likes of Arlen and Richard Rodgers. “I still write songs,” he confided, “though mostly for special occasions, like my wife’s or the kids’ birthdays.”

At this point, his son Luke appeared, a lithe and handsome seventeen-year-old with thick brown hair. He went to the kitchen and came back with a dog treat, as Butterscotch practically spun in circles on her hind legs. Then he began slowly waving the treat over the stack of unsold copies of Through the Children’s Gate, and soon Butterscotch followed, leaping with her stubby legs fully extended, with surprising grace, over the wall of books, back and forth, back and forth. Gopnik looked on, rapt, amazed, and absolutely beaming.