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Esquire
Wednesday, April 13th, 2005


 

A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

by Stacy Schiff

Ben's Excellent Parisian Adventure

A review by Anna Godbersen

Here is a prelude of sorts to the centuries of enmity-laced, mutual fascination of Franco-American relations; one in which that iconic American, Benjamin Franklin, travels to the old world to ask for money. Stacy Schiff's A Great Improvisation tells the story of Franklin's 1776 trip to Paris to win France's friendship and support of America's struggle for independence. (In this his personal charisma, as well as the two countries' shared hatred of Britain, would prove invaluable.) He stays for another seven years, subtly coaxing an old monarchy into backing a nascent democracy.

Franklin immediately provokes the curiosity and adoration of the French people, who find his plain, unfashionable character exotic in sophisticated Paris. Schiff vividly recreates this scene, "at once the most opulent city in the world and the Calcutta of its day," in which spying was rampant, bureaucracy a force to be reckoned with, where intrigues sexual and political were the norm, and invisible ink was a necessary tool in conducting political business. She also introduces a colorful cast of characters, including Beaumarchais, a flamboyant playwright shrilly committed to the American cause, Vergennes, the workaholic French minister of foreign affairs, and Temple, Franklin's grandson and secretary, a gadfly in training. Also dashing off letters and jockeying for control are Franklin's fellow American commissioners, who are to give him as much grief as assistance.

Like many a story, the one of Franklin's sojourn in France is to get worse before it gets better, and in the course of events Franklin is to be accused of many things, including enjoying the French way of life a little too much.

Schiff, the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Vera Nabokov, writes the kind of shimmering prose in which nearly every sentence contains a clever aside. She is more than equal to the task of resurrecting the brilliant, corpulent Franklin, turning this sensitive and difficult final act of his career into a thrilling story. "It was all a great improvisation," Schiff writes, "He was inventing foreign policy out of whole cloth, [and] teaching himself diplomacy on the job."


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