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Dreaming in Frenchby Alice Kaplan
Synopses & Reviews
A year in Paris . . . since World War II, countless American students have been lured by that vision—and been transformed by their sojourn in the City of Light. Dreaming in French tells three stories of that experience, and how it changed the lives of three extraordinary American women.
All three women would go on to become icons, key figures in American cultural, intellectual, and political life, but when they embarked for France, they were young, little-known, uncertain about their future, and drawn to the culture, sophistication, and drama that only Paris could offer. Yet their backgrounds and their dreams couldnt have been more different. Jacqueline Bouvier was a twenty-year-old debutante, a Catholic girl from a wealthy East Coast family. Susan Sontag was twenty-four, a precocious Jewish intellectual from a North Hollywood family of modest means, and Paris was a refuge from motherhood, a failing marriage, and graduate work in philosophy at Oxford. Angela Davis, a French major at Brandeis from a prominent African American family in Birmingham, Alabama, found herself the only black student in her year abroad program—in a summer when all the news from Birmingham was of unprecedented racial violence.
Kaplan takes readers into the lives, hopes, and ambitions of these young women, tracing their paths to Paris and tracking the discoveries, intellectual adventures, friendships, and loves that they found there. For all three women, France was far from a passing fancy; rather, Kaplan shows, the year abroad continued to influence them, a significant part of their intellectual and cultural makeup, for the rest of their lives. Jackie Kennedy carried her love of France to the White House and to her later career as a book editor, bringing her cultural and linguistic fluency to everything from art and diplomacy to fashion and historic restoration—to the extent that many, including Jackie herself, worried that she might seem “too French.” Sontag found in France a model for the life of the mind that she was determined to lead; the intellectual world she observed from afar during that first year in Paris inspired her most important work and remained a key influence—to be grappled with, explored, and transcended—the rest of her life. Davis, meanwhile, found that her Parisian vantage strengthened her sense of political exile from racism at home and brought a sense of solidarity with Algerian independence. For her, Paris was a city of political commitment, activism, and militancy, qualities that would deeply inform her own revolutionary agenda and soon make her a hero to the French writers she had once studied.
Kaplan, whose own junior year abroad played a prominent role in her classic memoir, French Lessons, spins these three quite different stories into one evocative biography, brimming with the ferment and yearnings of youth and shot through with the knowledge of how a single year—and a magical city—can change a whole life. No one who has ever dreamed of Paris should miss it.
The largely untold story of Americans on the Right Bankand#151;who outnumbered the Left Bank writers and artists by ten to oneand#151;turns out to be a fascinating one. and#160;These were mostly businessmen, manufacturersand#8217; representatives, and lawyers, but also newly-minted American countesses married to dashing but cash-poor foreigners with impressive titles, though most of the women were spouses of the businessmen. Thanks to Nancy Greenand#8217;s superb archival research, this new cast of characters emerges with singular vitality. and#160;While Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, and other writers all appear here, and do so in a new light, the focus is on the men and women who settled into the gilded ghetto of the Right Bank. and#160;and#160;Greenand#8217;s story of these overseas Americans is a way of internationalizing American history (it is also a way of questioning the meaning of and#147;Americanizationand#8221; in the 20th century).and#160;
and#147;My idea of a writer: someone interested in and#145;everythingand#8217;and#8221;, declared Susan Sontag (1933-2004). Essayist, diarist, filmmaker, novelist, and playwright, her own life seemed to match this ideal. As well as writing in an unusually broad array of genres, Sontag wrote about a startling range of topicsand#151;from literature, dance, film, and painting to cancer, AIDS, and the ethics of war reportage. Few have captured the 20th century in the same manner.
In this new biography Jerome Boyd Maunsell follows the astonishing scope of Sontagand#8217;s life and work, tracing her growth during her academic career at Chicago, Oxford, and the Sorbonne, through her short-lived marriage to Philip Rieff at the age of 17, to the birth of her son David and her subsequent relationships with women. The extraordinary arc of Sontagand#8217;s life provides the structural backbone of the book; from her literary life in New York to her diagnosis with cancer in the mid-1970s and her miraculous rebirth as a novelist and critic in the 1980s and and#8217;90s. The biography puts intellectual development hand-in-hand with personal, providing a fully integrated picture of Sontag as private person and as public figure.
Brilliantly uniting the personal and the critical, French Lessons is a powerful autobiographical experiment. It tells the story of an American woman escaping into the French language and of a scholar and teacher coming to grips with her history of learning. Kaplan begins with a distinctly American quest for an imaginary France of the intelligence. But soon her infatuation with all things French comes up against the dark, unimagined recesses of French political and cultural life.
The daughter of a Jewish lawyer who prosecuted Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg, Kaplan grew up in the 1960s in the Midwest. After her father's death when she was seven, French became her way of "leaving home" and finding herself in another language and culture. In spare, midwestern prose, by turns intimate and wry, Kaplan describes how, as a student in a Swiss boarding school and later in a junior year abroad in Bordeaux, she passionately sought the French "r," attentively honed her accent, and learned the idioms of her French lover.
When, as a graduate student, her passion for French culture turned to the elegance and sophistication of its intellectual life, she found herself drawn to the language and style of the novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine. At the same time she was repulsed by his anti-Semitism. At Yale in the late 70s, during the heyday of deconstruction she chose to transgress its apolitical purity and work on a subject "that made history impossible to ignore:" French fascist intellectuals. Kaplan's discussion of the "de Man affair" — the discovery that her brilliant and charismatic Yale professor had written compromising articles for the pro-Nazi Belgian press—and her personal account of the paradoxes of deconstruction are among the most compelling available on this subject.
French Lessons belongs in the company of Sartre's Words and the memoirs of Nathalie Sarraute, Annie Ernaux, and Eva Hoffman. No book so engrossingly conveys both the excitement of learning and the moral dilemmas of the intellectual life.
On February 6, 1945, Robert Brasillach was executed for treason by a French firing squad. He was a writer of some distinction—a prolific novelist and a keen literary critic. He was also a dedicated anti-Semite, an acerbic opponent of French democracy, and editor in chief of the fascist weekly Je Suis Partout, in whose pages he regularly printed wartime denunciations of Jews and resistance activists.
Was Brasillach in fact guilty of treason? Was he condemned for his denunciations of the resistance, or singled out as a suspected homosexual? Was it right that he was executed when others, who were directly responsible for the murder of thousands, were set free? Kaplan's meticulous reconstruction of Brasillach's life and trial skirts none of these ethical subtleties: a detective story, a cautionary tale, and a meditation on the disturbing workings of justice and memory, The Collaborator will stand as the definitive account of Brasillach's crime and punishment.
A National Book Award Finalist
A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
"A well-researched and vivid account."—John Weightman, New York Review of Books
"A gripping reconstruction of [Brasillach's] trial."—The New Yorker
"Readers of this disturbing book will want to find moral touchstones of their own. They're going to need them. This is one of the few works on Nazism that forces us to experience how complex the situation really was, and answers won't come easily."—Daniel Blue, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
"The Collaborator is one of the best-written, most absorbing pieces of literary history in years."—David A. Bell, New York Times Book Review
"Alice Kaplan's clear-headed study of the case of Robert Brasillach in France has a good deal of current-day relevance. . . . Kaplan's fine book . . . shows that the passage of time illuminates different understandings, and she leaves it to us to reflect on which understanding is better."—Richard Bernstein, The New York Times
About the Author
Alice Kaplan is the author of French Lessons: A Memoir, The Collaborator, The Interpreter, and Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, and the translator of OK, Joe, The Difficulty of Being a Dog, A Box of Photographs, and Palace of Books. Her books have been twice nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Awards, once for the National Book Award, and she is a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She holds the John M. Musser chair in French literature at Yale. She lives in Guilford, Connecticut.
Table of Contents
List of Photographs
1. Jacqueline Bouvier: 1949-1950
2. Jacqueline Bouvier: The Return
3. Susan Sontag: 1957-1958
4. Susan Sontag: The Return
5. Angela Davis: 1963-1964
6. Angela Davis: The Return
A Note on Sources
What Our Readers Are Saying
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