“For the first time in my life and probably the last, I have lived for a week in a great city where everybody is happy. Moreover, since the city is Paris, everybody makes this euphoria manifest.”
Except for the dubious one about the printing press, that may be the best-known sentence A.J. Liebling ever wrote. He loved France, spoke the language and wrote better than anyone about its food. Seventy-seven years ago today, Liebling was aboard infantry landing craft LCIL (Landing Craft Infantry: Large) 88 off the coast of Normandy along with thirty G.I.’s. He documented his experience of D-Day as a correspondent for The New Yorker in a piece unglamorously titled “Cross-Channel Trip.” The sentence at the top is from his “Letter from Paris” published in the magazine on September 1, 1944 – five years to the day since Hitler invaded Poland and started World War II. In it, Liebling describes the liberation of Paris on August 25, proceeding in exultant Liebling fashion:
“To drive along the boulevards in a jeep is like walking into some as yet unmade René Clair film, with hundreds of bicyclists coming toward you in a stream that divides before the jeep just when you feel sure that a collision is imminent. Among the bicyclists there are pretty girls, their hair dressed high on their heads in what seems to be the current mode here. These girls show legs of a length and slimness and firmness and brownness never associated with French womanhood. Food restrictions and the amount of bicycling that is necessary in getting around in a big city without any other means of transportation have endowed these girls with the best figures in the world, which they will doubtless be glad to trade in for three square meals, plentiful supplies of chocolate, and a seat in the family Citroën as soon as the situation becomes more normal.”
It’s all there – the precise allusion (see Clair’s Sous les Toits de Paris), the wit, the women, the food, the eye for telling detail, the love of France. A mediocre writer throws a soggy blanket over a festive occasion. Liebling pops the cork and leads the celebration.
The book to get is his World War II Writings, published by the Library of America in 2008. It collects all four of his war books and much of his previously uncollected reporting. I say “reporting” because Liebling never stopped being a journalist, but read him for the exuberance of his prose.