Wednesday, July 14, 2010

All Paris, all the time

“Marie had had it with the City of Lights. The fucking Eiffel Tower. Overpriced baguette sandwiches. Benoît Doniel.”—Marcy Dermansky, Bad Marie

Happy Bastille Day.


It’s a Paris summer here at Fernham. I sit in this hot little rented house, staring out at the hazy St. Lawrence River, thinking and reading about Paris.

In Bad Marie, Marie runs off to Paris, which plays a comic version of the role it plays for James and so many others. At one point, Marie thinks “Everyone was always speaking French. Marie found it maddening.” Later, in a yet darker mood, “The city was impressively landscaped, if nothing else.” At a café, Marie thinks “The beer was cold, good, better than any other beer she had ever drunk before….Caitlin was also happy with her milk, which supposedly was also better. Europe was supposedly a superior continent in so many ways.”

This book was all the funnier coming on the heels of The Ambassadors, where Jamesian versions of these thoughts abound on the lips of the visitors from Woollett.

It’s strange, then, that James asserts in the preface that “Another surrounding scene would have done as well.” And this is the very question that Erika Dreifus takes up in her essay on The Ambassadors, which she was kind enough to send me. There (in The Henry James Review, 25 (2004): 44-51), she writes about setting and the centrality of Paris to the novel from the perspective of a historian, teacher, and fiction writer. 

Another scene would not, could not, do as well—for Marie’s getaway, for Strether’s awakening, for James Baldwin or Richard Wright or F. Scott Fitzgerald or James Joyce or Gertrude Stein.

Or Sylvia Beach.

Which brings me to remind you that I’ll be giving over Fernham for a full week to Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of Shakespeare & Co. and the first publisher of Ulysses. This is in honor of Keri Walsh’s brand new edition of Beach’s letters.

I looked around to see if others were reading and blogging about The Ambassadors and I found two more things of note:

A blogger called Bruce Oksol has a lovely post of his first impressions, including these:
7. Henry James writing style is perfect for learning to diagram sentences (which I doubt anyone does any more). His sentences are very, very long. Likewise, his passages are very long. James can take two pages to say that two people look alike.
8. I have found at least one occasion in which James uses a word that doesn't exist in the English language, but looks like it should. In context, one can almost figure out what James was saying but who knows for sure. 
 and this:
I am 58 years old. The protagonist in The Ambassadors is 55 years old. He and I are asking the same questions.

And The Millions informs me that Cynthia Ozick’s forthcoming novel, Foreign Bodies is a retelling of The Ambassadors. The Times describes it this way:
Cynthia Ozick will return to the subject of families in need of reconciliation in a new novel called “Foreign Bodies.” On Wednesday, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said it had acquired the book and planned to release it in winter 2011. In a statement, the publisher said the new work, set in postwar New York, Paris and California, “is the story of a divorced schoolteacher who tries to resolve her brother’s family dramas, leading to extraordinary and wholly unanticipated results.”
That seems better than the nonsensical publisher’s blurb that “the plot is the same, [but] the meaning is reversed.”

How can you “reverse” the meaning of a James novel? As E. M. Forster wrote, “it is Paris that gleams at the center…--Paris—nothing so crude as good or evil” (via Erika’s article). What is the opposite of Paris?

Don’t answer that. I think I’ve lived there, too.


2 comments:

Beaudan said...

Great post Enjoying it here living in Paris...All The Time..!! LIVING IN PARIS

Erika D. said...

Love the post, Anne! Thanks so much for the mention. I think that you and I will have to read the new Ozick aussitôt que possible, as they say, and maybe coordinate some blogging about it? To be continued....