(Visual) Notes on Culture
The Twilight Years: Paris in the 1930s
William Wiser
Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001
(Trade Paperback Reprint Edition)

William Wiser is blessed with the gift of gab. His prose bleeds style, force, and more than a little confusion. Though primarily known as a novelist (K and Disappearances among them), he has a unique way with history. This uniqueness is not entirely good - Wiser seems more concerned with eventual quotability than with fact. His history sometimes reads like a gossip column. Keeping this in mind The Twilight Years is a highly readable, if far from authoritative, account of notable lives in 1930s Paris.

Wiser spins interconnected yarns about artists and cultural figures. Though ostensibly about Paris (as a broad, historical idea/ideal), it boils down to notable instances in the lives of a few key players. As one Amazon reviewer noted - confirming my observation - it is more accurately about the lives of various expatriates and artists in exile then about dyed-in-the-wool Parisians. James Joyce and Henry Miller are the big stars. Sylvia Beach (proprietress of Shakespeare & Co. bookstores) figures heavily, as do Dali, Picasso, and a handful of other artists. Wiser presents some fascinating vignettes but never gets to the deeper meanings and experiences. If he had solely focused on the lives of expatriates in Paris in the 1930s, he might have been able to make a stronger statement. Of course, there are many notables missing, chief among them Walter Benjamin.

Wiser's book is a companion piece to The Crazy Years: Paris in the Twenties, which I have not read. Given its limitations Wiser's book is a bit expendable, but could serve as an interesting tapestry for those interested in living vicariously through and with the zenith of Bohemia. One is left wanting more facts and a bigger awareness of the rest of the world.
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