I have always been a Francophile, hugely fond of France. There has been only one thing that I didn’t like about it: the French. To be exact, not all the French, only the petit bourgeois variety, as petty as bourgeois can get: miserly, xenophobic, small-minded.
The more educated classes, including the snooty quasi-aristocrats, are something else again, although during my year as a Fulbright fellow I didn’t get to know many of those. Though I was supposed to be working on my doctorate in Comparative Literature, I did not frequent the libraries, and only met my very congenial adviser late in the game for a very amiable session. I did however avail myself of the cultural and aesthetic bounties the capital could bestow, which proved altogether sufficient. As Rabelais said, the city of Paris was a better teacher than the Sorbonne University.
I have written about the time I did miss big when I did not attend a Sorbonne lecture by Thomas Mann, guest speaker, who committed a hilarious error. I have also written about the time I earned Mann’s gratitude when during his tiring book signing session, I did not, unlike most others, ask for a wordy dedication, merely his signature.
Typical of middle-class stinginess were my landlady and her retired engineer husband, from whom I rented a room. She would drop in on me periodically and compliment me on the French books I had bought, not a few of them the expensive, prestigious Pleiade complete-works editions, but never went so far as to invite me for a cup of coffee or glass of wine in her part of the apartment.
Even more damning was her boasting of having been classmates with Edwige Feuillere, a great stage actress we both admired. But, I was told, not to expect an introduction to the great lady. I assured her I wasn’t thinking of anything like that.
On the other hand, consider the genuine friendship that evolved with Simone Danloux, the charming proprietress of the delightful bookstore Librairie du Pont Neuf on that lovely Seine bridge. True, I was a faithful client, who spoke commendable French and spent much of my Fulbright Fellowship money there, but it went beyond that, as we always chatted like best of friends.
And something else. In France at that time quite a few genteel young women earned a living by artful bookbinding. French books overwhelmingly come in paper covers, and the purchaser has them bound at his expense in buckram or leather, often in very imaginative bindings—I still have a few of them.
Well now, at Simone’s store I met and ordered some bindings from her favored relieuse, Arlette Duparquier. I met her only a couple of times but was bawled over by her stunning looks, unassuming intelligence, and enchanting personality. To this day I recall her name and person, and wish to hell I had invited her out for a meal or what the French call un verre, a glass. She lived in a distant town but came in often enough to accept an invitation from me. Why in hell didn’t I do it? I can attribute it only to shyness, to having felt too unimportant, too unworthy, to do so.
I did have an affair with an American girl, Marty, an American ballet dancer, June, and later with a French girl, Jacqueline. Departing France, I left Jacqueline the legacy of my favorite French poet, of whom she had never heard, Stephane Mallarme. In the only letter I ever got from her, she informed me that his stuff left her cold until she came upon his one love poem, the one to Mery Laurent. I think Jacqueline entertained the notion that I’d be back for her, which never happened.
But to get back to the French. What other nation has produced a marvel like the croissant? The crescent-shaped breakkfast pastry, but the one that is feather light and flaky, not what passes elsewhere for a croissant, the firm and heavier thing that is really the Austrian kipfel, merely a breakfast roll in crescent shape. There are also French and other bakers who produce the correct thing, but in a straight, non-crescent shape, with the excuse that it is easier to spread butter and jam on it without staining one’s fingers and tablecloth. Somehow, though, that doesn’t feel right.
Historically , Dan Bilofsky writes in the Times, the shape was suggested by “the Ottoman emblem, to celebrate the defeat of the Turkish forces that ended the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683.” But he continues “some food historians say the kipfel appeared in Vienna as early as the 13th century.” What pastry, I wonder, will the defeat of the ISIS forces yield?
Charm, like the croissant’s, is something very French, which is exuded par excellence by French women. Take for instance my one meeting with that greatly gifted and enormously charming French film actress Anouk Aimee, whom you may remember from “A Man and a Woman,” “La dolce vita,” and “8 ½.” Or else from any other of her 70 plus films under some of cinema’s greatest directors.
I was walking in Times Square one late afternoon when whom should I bump into but Anouk Aimee and her then husband, Pierre Barouh. I can’t recall who first addressed whom, but we stopped briefly and she asked, concerning a matinee they had just come from, “Quest-ce que c’est que ‘fiddler’?” I replied, “Violoniste,” and her face lit up like a klieg light as he laughed and said, in the most musical French, “Ah, didn’t I think so?” The French, and not only the women, can say the simplest things unforgettably.
This is true not only of pretty actresses. Thus my friend Bill Hedges was
a fellow Fulbright somewhere in the South, the Midi, as the French call it. I used to call him on the phone to chitchat, often and quite lengthily. His landlady, whom he described as a jolly, corpulent, outspoken, middle-aged woman, would usually first pick up the phone and came to refer to me as “le roi du telephone,” which I rather liked, and which, email notwithstanding, I may still be.
Then again, there was that reception at New York’s French Consulate at which I noticed a very attractive young woman looking somehow lost. I accosted her and she turned out to be a beginning film actress with a rosy future named Audrey Tautou. I sat next to her at the dinner (there were such things in those days), and we enjoyably exchanged views about movies, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not. She gave me her address to which I later wrote a jovial letter, identifying myself—even then—as the vieux monsieur she had chatted with, but never got an answer. By then, she had become a star.
A tribute is due, too, to a French diacritical mark: the circumflex. The aigu (acute) and grave are common enough in other languages as well, but the circonflexe (as Keith Houston in the Times of February 20 entertainingly informs me) figures, besides French, only in Romanian, Portuguese, Turkish, Slovak and Vietnamese-- languages rather beyond my purview. In French, though, it is a jauntily pointed cap sitting pretty on top of various vowels, lengthening or darkening their pronunciation. It was near-extinct before the Academie Francaise resuscitated it, and serves mostly as replacement for a discarded S in such words as bête, cout, and huitre, but thriving in English as beast, cost and oyster. It serves other purposes as well, like differentiating between du (due) with, and du (of) without circumflex. In French, it derives from circumflexus, the Latin rendering of the Greek perispomenos (bent around). And sometimes it is just there for no good reason, as in paraitre.
In popular English parlance, French stands for elegance, as in dry cleaning, cuisine, couture, pastry, cuffs, heels, windows, doors; and somewhat more equivocally in dressing, toast, fries, bread, and French kiss. But because of British jealousy of France, there is also the negative French leave (although based on an old French custom) and the now obsolete French letter (condom) and French pox (syphilis).
Most interesting of all is the euphemism “Pardon my French,” an apology for potty mouth, which surely derives from Americans’ equating French with erotic, as also in French kiss. If so, all I can say is “Vive la France!”