A Conversation with the Balzac of Berkeley aka L.John Harris

TG: How long has the idea for your Café French book been percolating in your mind?

LJH: I started to write about my love of Paris cafés after my Foodoodles book came out in 2010. Based on that cartoon memoire about my foodie life in Berkeley, I was invited to write for an online food journal called Zester Daily. I told them that I wanted to write and illustrate a series of articles on Paris cafés and they said yes, though my offbeat material was hardly the standard fare of food journalism. That was the birth of ten so-called “Café French Lessons” and I was very grateful to Zester for letting me wing it. The conceit was that I was giving French lessons  ("café French") to my readers to help them hang out in Parisian cafés and communicate with les garçons and Paris locals. Of course that was a huge joke because I was learning the very French I was "teaching." The challenge was to come up with a pictorial style to illustrate the new vocabulary (faux amis, jeu de mots, etc.) I was discovering. I think I succeeded to the extent that the drawings do advance the linguistic material and provide a jumping off point for my narrative meanderings.

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TG: Your subtitle contains the word “flâneur”. What is a flâneur?

LJH: The flâneur is an urban type who inhabited Paris in the 19th century--and earlier-- as a strolling observer—the verb flâner means to stroll. Balzac called flânerie "the gastronomy of the eye." Charles Baudelaire was considered the quintessential flâneur by the German critic and philosopher, Walter Benjamin. Baudelaire wrote many of his poems based on what he encountered while strolling the streets of Paris, often at night. The Surrealists continued this observational strolling activity into the 20th century. Perhaps the flâneur emerges out of the earlier boulevardier, the difference being that the boulevardier was an extrovert who wanted to be noticed. The flâneur dressed as a bourgeois and wanted to remain incognito, to observe unobserved. The new field of journalism was developed by observing flâneurs.