At the end of Dreaming in French, in ‘A Note on Sources’, Alice Kaplan terms her narrative ‘this pièce montée’, which is the only time she neglects to supply an English translation. From a scholar of her eminence — she is a historian and critic of French modernity, a professor at Yale, and the acclaimed author of The Collaborator, The Interpreter and French Lessons — such neglect must surely be deliberate.
The term was new to me, and the best I could manage was ‘assembled piece’, which in the context seems to be just a pretentious way of saying ‘book’. So I looked it up, as Kaplan probably hoped her more ignorant readers might, and I am glad I did. Pièces montées are those sculpted confectionary centrepieces at banquets, which achieved their apogee in the kitchens of Antonin Carême (1784–1833), who was chef to Talleyrand, the Prince Regent and Tsar Alexander I, invented the toque, and is reported to have said that, as architecture is the noblest art, so pastry is the noblest form of architecture.
Dreaming in French is indeed an elaborate confection. A typical pièce montée includes spun sugar, marzipan and nougat, while the raw materials of Kaplan’s book are the lives of three American women — Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis — all of whom actually merit the most grossly overused adjective of our time (‘iconic’), and have accordingly often been reduced to their images: ‘a sheath dress and a double strand of pearls, a mane of black hair with a white streak, an afro and a raised fist’.
All of them spent a year studying in Paris, keen ‘to embrace a new language and master a highly coded way of life’, and all succeeded, becoming in the process ‘translations of their American selves’. And all later returned, and had a impact on France. At the same time, they were of course wildly different — a Catholic debutante from the East Coast, a Jewish intellectual from the West Coast, and an African-American revolutionary from the South — and so, too, was the France they encountered during their sojourns.
Bouvier was, in Kaplan’s happy phrase, an ‘imaginary aristocrat’. Her paternal grandfather was a New York lawyer who claimed descent from French royalty (though bouvier means something like ‘cowboy’, and his traceable ancestors were Provençal shopkeepers); and, however inaccurately and improbably, Jackie was brought up to believe that she sprang from ancien régime aristocrats who supported the American revolution.
She was educated at Vassar, which had no provision for study abroad, so she joined a group from Smith for her year in Paris (1949–1950), when the city was drained by the German occupation, shamed by Vichy collaboration, exhausted and filthy. Her landlady was the aptly titled Comtesse de Renty, who with her husband had been a member of Alliance, the right-wing Resistance group; he died in a slave labour camp, while she survived Ravensbrück. Jackie — or Jacqui — was accepted at her own estimation by the young aristocrats of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and enjoyed riding to hounds. Asked what had been her most embarrassing faux pas, she recalled having declared ‘J’ai monté à poil’ (‘I rode naked’), rather than ‘Je l’ai monté à cru’ (‘I rode bareback’).
Her pronounced Gallic style proved to be both an asset to Kennedy’s White House and a liability — there were objections to her couture clothes and to menus in French — but when she returned to France as First Lady she was greeted as royalty, and her husband remarked: ‘I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.’
In 1957–1958, when Susan Sontag first knew Paris — where she lodged, like Angela Davis, in a chambre de bonne — the city was traumatised by the question of Algerian independence, the collapse of Fourth Republic, and the return of de Gaulle. Sontag was older than Bouvier and Davis, and not officially a student. On the run from a scholarship to England, from a failed marriage and an infant son, she was intent on becoming what Kaplan calls ‘a self-invented European’, and on acquiring a literary voice that was ‘neither entertaining nor transparent’. She succeeded on both counts. Paris became her second home, and when her first novel The Benefactor was published in 1963, Le Figaro remarked — whether approvingly or not Kaplan does not say — on its ‘sterility’ and ‘onanism’.
Angela Davis grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, in a district known as ‘Dynamite Hill’, for the number of bombs set off there by segregationists (50 between 1957 and 1962). When she was 17 she and her younger sister went into a shoe store and spoke French, pretending to be from Martinique, and instead of being hustled out of sight they were treated as foreign dignitaries — an important lesson. As a star Brandeis student in France in 1963–64, fêted for her negritude but a witness of the degradation of Algerians, she read in the Herald Tribune about the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, in which four 14-year-old girls, two of them known to her family, were killed — another lesson, which set her on the revolutionary road that led to her career in the Black Panthers, and to her subsequent celebrity in France, where a school has been named after her.
A pièce montée is often just for display, and turns out to be inedible, but Dreaming in French is nutritious as well as elegant and witty.
As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh is the second of what are promised to be three volumes of Susan Sontag’s journals, edited by the son she once abandoned, who is now the keeper of her flame. A hefty volume, it will delight her many earnest followers, but the general reader may wish that her son had edited a little harder. There are flashes, as in the title, of the brilliance she often showed as a critic — and of inspired prophecy. In 1965, for example, she has an idea for a novel about the future: ‘Each man has his own machine (memory bank, codified decision maker, etc.) You “play” the machine. Instant everything.’ And in 1975 she predicts the rise of ‘eco-fascism’, which will ‘mobilise masses not on the basis of fighting racial pollution but of fighting environmental pollution’.
There is, though, rather too much sterility and onanism, along the lines of, ‘My mind isn’t good enough, isn’t really first rate… I’m not mad enough, not obsessed enough… Do I resent not being a genius? Am I sad about it?’ From someone who professed to love gossip, there is hardly any. Unsurprisingly, there are no jokes.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 5, 2012Tags: Book review, Diaries, French, Journals, Non-fiction, Philosophy, Writer