It is with reluctance that I undertake to write about my year in Paris. I am nagged by a fear of disloyalty to my French friends—living and deceased—and to a country I have known longer and better than any except my own. Yet I suspect that what I have to report may be of interest beyond a merely personal experience: such has been the reaction of those with whom I have conversed about it since my return. I am also conscious that my credentials for writing about Paris and its inhabitants are somewhat special and that my attitude falls into the category neither of the once-fashionable francophilia nor of the currently-raging gallophobia, though it partakes of the first and may help to explain the second.

I first visited France with my parents in 1924 at the age of eight. I have returned since then at approximately two-year intervals—the longest absence being that between the outbreak of war in September 1939 (when I was doing my Ph.D. research in the Archives Nationales) and the moment almost exactly five years later when I arrived in Paris in the wake of the liberating armies. None of these stays, however, was more than a few months in length, and before the age of twenty I never succeeded in getting out a full sentence in the French language. Subsequently, I became fluent in French and was able to teach in it without difficulty last year. Yet no one would take me for a Frenchman. Thus, while I have gradually come to know the country well—and to know it over an extended period of time under different regimes and in widely varying capacities—I have always experienced it as an unmistakable foreigner.

I returned to Paris last year with my memories neatly arranged in superimposed layers: first in time came the resplendent city that to a boy’s imagination was still bathed in the special prestige of a military victory only a half decade in the past, an impression reinforced by subsequent fleeting visits to the place I was instructed to admire the most among the capitals of Europe; by 1936—now free of parental supervision—I discovered my personal vantage-point in cheering for Léon Blum and the Popular Front; and three years later there was the misery of seeing an unhappy people set out to war, and the excitement (undercut by a guilty feeling of desertion) of slipping out of Le Havre on the last ship to sail for America from the Channel ports—sentiments that could finally be reconciled when I succeeded in returning in the guise of a liberator and found myself in the September sunshine admiring the Parisian girls, their skirts billowing around their waists as they glided on their bicycles down the Champs Elysées, then blessedly free of traffic.

Once again France and the French had acquired in my mind a peculiar and incomparable prestige and one that somehow survived the more ambiguous impressions of ten postwar visits. Yet as I searched my memories last year, I came to the realization that what was happy in these recollections almost invariably had nothing to do with Paris. It was of motoring or bicycling in the countryside—or of visits to friends in some provincial retreat—or even the only-partially French experience of a year’s wartime residence in Algiers. And in this sense my last and longest visit a year ago ran true to form; the sole period of sustained contentment my wife and I enjoyed was an extended Easter weekend in the valley of the Dordogne. Of Paris itself our dominant impression was of pervasive sadness.



Why “triste”? The myth of “gay Paree” dies hard. Among all the trials of an excessively studious year, the hardest we found to bear was the reaction of fellow Americans who would roll their eyes salaciously at the notion of the glorious time we must be having. In fact in its external rhythm our life was not notably different from what it might have been at home—Sunday afternoon at the theater, one evening a week at a restaurant, and another dining at the homes of French friends and acquaintances. I add these trivial details to suggest that we did not lack Parisian contact and entertainment; we did not have the experience of so many American academics who spend their sabbatical year cut off from the French and driven back on their own countrymen for society. Yet even in our relatively favored situation we found our social life thin: nothing seemed to add to anything else; each evening was a separate event—one might almost say performance—which bore no relation to those that came before and after.

This gave an initial key to the feeling of tristesse : our French friends, we found, led isolated lives, and of necessity ours was the same. There is of course supposed to be a tout Paris, where everybody of public prominence sees and is seen by everybody else—apparently a very trying ritual—but the people we knew did not belong to it. Nor did they live in a university community such as exists even in the big cities of America, for example around the University of Chicago or on Morningside Heights. They were scattered all over Paris, each family holed up in the apartment that served as their fortress against the outside world. Within its walls they struggled to surmount the practical problems of life—recalcitrant landlords, inefficient Spanish servants, traffic bottlenecks, and above all, an income inadequate to the crushing cost of living. Knowing all this, we found our pleasure in an evening’s entertainment constantly undermined by a realization of the strenuous feats of improvisation our hostess had performed in order to make her dinner party possible.



These dinners were usually complex, full-course affairs. The effort to maintain a traditional standard of entertaining under radically changed circumstances epitomizes why life for the Parisian intellectual class is so hard. And the same, I suspect, is true of a number of the city’s professional milieux. Currently the Parisians are living in a state of only half-conscious social transition; and since they are not fully aware of what is going on, they suffer simultaneously from the drawbacks of the type of society they are leaving and from those of the new social mores that are not yet fully developed. They strive against increasing odds to maintain the old leisurely forms and ceremonies while doing their best to conform to what they think of as a dynamic contemporary style. But the traditions become more and more taxing as there are fewer and fewer servants and amenities to support them, while the “modern” behavior in its turn lacks the simplicity of life and the amiable directness that in our country have become second nature. Lunch is the symbol of the new social incoherence. A generation ago the two-hour break at noon made sense: the French professional man could go home and restore his energies at the emotionally reinforcing family table. Today he must brave the traffic, and his wife must labor over a hot meal, all rather rushed, and still at three o’clock he finds himself desperately glancing at his watch as his car or bus inches back to his office. Fewer and fewer men in fact go home; but the regular restaurants are expensive, and the quick-lunch establishments lack the atmosphere of easy, good-natured hurry that an American normally expects.

Wherever he has his lunch, the Parisian works a longer day than the New Yorker. (Whether if his job were more efficiently organized he would have to work that hard is another matter.) And at the end of it he is even more exhausted than his American counterpart. (Ereinté, épuisé, crevé—the variations on the past participle are legion.) When the weekend comes, his only idea is to escape the city. The weekly exodus from Paris is without parallel elsewhere, and the Sunday evening return is sheer nightmare. I find it hard to believe that this kind of holiday is truly restorative—particularly since it often does not begin until Saturday noon. What impressed me most about the Parisians was that they were perpetually unnerved—à bout de nerfs—at the very end of their tether and ready to snap at any moment.

Under these circumstances it is not surprising that old-world courtesy has gone out the window. Where one lives on such narrow margins of time, money, space, and energy, and where the anticipation of a weekend elsewhere alone enables the individual Parisian to get through his punishing day, an absence of politesse is only to be expected. People do not look for courtliness on Madison Avenue—why should they demand it of Parisians? 1 think it is because we who have known France for a long time were trained to different expectations. I remember one of my teachers at school insisting that in French it was impossible to say simply “yes,” “no,” “hello,” or “goodbye”: “Oui, madame”—“au revoir, monsieur”—the title of address was the essential accompaniment to every such casual remark. Recent experience has proved that in Paris at least this is no longer true, and the absence of the carefully-learned formulas rings on my ears more brutally than similar lapses in my own language. Sometimes, in a malicious effort to keep the French on their toes, I would wait at the door of a shop repeating “Merci, madame, au revoir, madame,”Until the lady in question recalled her manners and delivered herself of the charmed words for which I was angling.

Which is all to say that my own notions of Parisian behavior were behind the times—just as the language I spoke was free from the anglicisms against which my teachers had warned me and which are now accepted features of colloquial usage. A certain brusqueness, a conscious defiance of the traditional rules of speech—these are aspects of the new dynamic style. And this would be quite acceptable (although unnerving to foreigners like myself whose image of France was formed a generation ago), if it were consistently followed. The corollaries to “modern” behavior should logically be a flexibility of mind and a disregard for cultural frontiers. But such is far from being the case. What struck me most about the Parisian intellectuals I encountered was the tenacity of their cultural provincialism. I had experienced it—mostly at second-hand—fifteen or twenty years ago, but I had imagined that in the meantime things had changed. Indeed, I had set out to write a book that would chronicle the transformation. But the book took on a new ending as it gradually dawned on me that the intellectuals of Paris, with rare exceptions, still seemed incapable of reading works in foreign languages and were still behaving as though their own thoughts and writings were the natural center of the universe of letters.



In all other comparable countries—Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the Low Countries, Scandinavia—such provincial responses are quite unacceptable today. (And my impression that this was so proved correct when in Turin, the first city we visited across the border, we found a welcoming openness and an absence of posturing in intellectuals whose eminence was just as great as that of their Parisian counterparts.) Why should the French alone be so defensive and truculent about their cultural values? There is of course the influence of de Gaulle—but I do not think that this has been crucial, and besides, Americans have said quite enough in denigration of the General and his works. The French intellectual’s provincialism goes deeper and is more pervasive than the political regime under which he happens to live, reflecting the unique situation of his language and the culture associated with it. Again a reminiscence for illustration: at one Parisian dinner party I remarked experimentally and with feigned innocence that in view of the catastrophic falling-off in the study of German, the French should congratulate themselves on the fact that their language had held its own as the second most influential of those in use throughout the world; my remark fell just as flat as I had anticipated.

For French intellectuals linguistic second rank is not enough. I would point out to them in vain that the world position of English was a source of national pride neither to the British nor to ourselves: it was a convenience which had been unintentionally acquired, and which was the preserve of no particular nation, since it was a distinction shared among so many. But for the French the situation of their language is quite otherwise: it is theirs and theirs alone to defend and if possible to enhance. The other “franco-phones”—half the Belgians, a third of the Swiss, the embattled Québecois, the elites of Black Africa—really don’t count; the constant references to them in the Parisian press have a faintly patronizing tone that reveals the underlying reality. Nor is there any other linguistic culture-group—not even the Spanish—that seriously tries to challenge the dominance of English. The situation of the French is without parallel in the world today: they alone are resisting the vast homogenizing process (of which the English language is merely the accidental vehicle) that contemporary technology is wreaking on the cultures of the world.

The tourist, Henry Adams remarked, is the great conservative. And as a cultural conservative by temperament I should be inclined to wish the French well in their effort to hold back the tide; I should hate to see the day—which may in fact be not far off—when it will be unnecessary for Americans to learn foreign languages, if only because it would prove so many of my own efforts to have been in vain. Were the French intellectuals simply taking a stand for the traditional values, they would inspire both respect and sympathy. But here we come round once again to the question of an old and a new style and an uncompleted social transformation. In the intellectual sphere as elsewhere the two ways of doing things reinforce each other’s negative features to the detriment of both. The new brusqueness when combined with the old rigidity of concepts produces assertions that are at once sweeping and elliptical. In their effort to be up-to-date, the French intellectuals have arrived at an insolence of manner which makes their former supercilious self-confidence seem benign by comparison.

While the elements of one-upsmanship in Paris are the same as in other cultural capitals, its ravages are more pronounced. And the conversation-stopper is more lapidary and delivered with a tone of greater authority. Some inner compulsion seems to drive the Parisian intellectual to have a fixed opinion on every subject and to insist at all costs that he is right—even at the cost of being wrong. One night I cited to an assembled company a few lines of verse that I was having trouble in locating; another of the guests volunteered the name of the poet in a tone of total confidence, to which the rest gave vigorous assent. I was grateful for this assistance until I stumbled on the discovery that the information I had been furnished was incorrect. It had apparently never occurred to my French acquaintances to say that they were unsure or even perhaps that they didn’t know. To have done so, I suppose, would have been taken as a sign of weakness.

The notion of intellectual life as a gladiatorial arena is by no means confined to Paris, but it is there that it reaches its supreme perfection. Despite the ferocity of this combat, certain reputations seem to enjoy the imprimatur of le tout Paris and are temporarily secure. Such is that of the film director, Jean-Luc Godard. Having once blurted out that I had found Godard’s latest effort bad in all respects which I cared to name, I was told that he was a sacred cow who could not be judged by the usual standards. My informant, characteristically enough, was associated with Le Nouvel Observateur, the weekly which epitomizes the current combination of traditionalist assurance with a smart contemporary tone. Much of its reporting is thorough and responsible, but its reviews are maddeningly in-groupy and allusive, and their style hermetic, repetitive, and pretentious.



Whatever happened to the French style we were taught to admire as a model of grace and clarity? I shall venture a guess: on the philosophical side, the assault from Germany—the example of the three “H’s”: Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger—has given a special prestige to a certain clotted portentousness; from the world of journalism has come the practice of inordinately rapid writing. Together, these two influences have produced a loss in feel for the language, and plain sloppiness of expression. At one time French writers did not require the aid of copy-editors: today the latter’s absence is the most serious weakness of the Parisian book business. Deliverance from trying to keep up with publications such as Le Nouvel Observateur contributed to my sense of relief on leaving Paris. I should add in all fairness that in common with so many returnees from France, I have found the New York Times in its current condition of decadence no substitute for the magisterial Le Monde.

If your status in the intellectual pecking order is unclear—as mine was—it is advisable to identify yourself fully when making a phone call to someone you have never met. Indeed, it is best to write before trying to telephone at all. A sufficiently high-sounding identification is the only sure protection from a complicated runaround or flat rudeness on the part of secretaries and underlings. In Paris, the discourtesy of the young can be breathtaking: it is more painful than elsewhere since it is more conscious. But what grieved me most about so many of the young people I met was their lack of humor and their vulnerability to intellectual simplifications. I had occasion to attend two public peace meetings in the course of my year abroad. The first was in London: here, where I was one of the speakers, I was impressed by the cordiality of the audience and its understanding of the delicate position of the American away from home who feels obliged to attack the policy of his government. At the second meeting, in Paris, I found a totally different atmosphere. Suspecting what was going to happen, I had very wisely declined to speak. But the reality surpassed my forebodings as one orator after another gave vent to the crudest and most violent hatred of the United States, to which a predominantly student crowd responded with noisy and rhythmic approval.

Not all French students were as strident as these. Some I encountered were fully sensitive to both intellectual and personal nuance. I recall with gratitude the sympathetic attentiveness of the class I taught at the new suburban branch of the University of Paris in Nanterre, and in particular the student who hastened after me at the end of my second lecture to forestall any possible hurt feelings by explaining that it was not the local custom to applaud every time. I also remember the kindness of my departmental chairman, who had acquired abroad a quite uncharacteristic notion of his responsibilities to a visitor. But Nanterre itself was as bleak as any newly-established offshoot of an American state university. Built on the treeless site of a former army camp, lacking such amenities as libraries and cafés, it offered at least the precious advantage over the Sorbonne of sunny lecture rooms in which it was possible for every student to find a seat. On Fridays I would join the crowd of surprisingly docile young people who filled the commuter train from the Gare Saint-Lazare to the special university stop just short of Nanterre called (quite literally) “La Folie.” At Saint-Lazare this station was identified soberly enough as “Les Facultés.” But at the stop itself some cultivated wag among the employees of the state railways had pointedly labeled it “La Folie—Complexe Universitaire.”

Whether within the Parisian university system or outside it, I found the usual generational gap taking a curiously inverted form. The young and those in early middle age seemed to suffer from the pervading tristesse. It was only among the sixty-year olds that I rediscovered the playful merriness I had earlier thought of as characteristic of the Gallic temperament. The most enjoyable social evening I can recall was one enlivened by the wit of a wartime associate of de Gaulle—now relegated to obscurity—who told us without bitterness or malice what it was like to work for so exacting a boss. And the most engaging new acquaintance I made was with a man of similar age, the son of a leading statesman of the 1920’s, an eternal gamin whose fund of political anecdote spilled over without reserve or arrière-pensée. Both of these men lived on memories, it was true. Yet they had kept their verve and their sense of life as innocent fun: it was these qualities that I missed in the stiff careerism of their juniors.

So it is perhaps only natural that our happiest memories of Paris should be of quiet nostalgia or unexpected touches of kindness. After a few weeks we settled into a perfectly bearable petit train-train of existence; we learned how to reduce to a minimum the humiliations and the emotional bruises that seem to form the inevitable accompaniment of contemporary Parisian life. We knew what places to avoid and returned to those where we had been treated well. We discovered that on Sundays—with most of the cars out of the city—walking along the avenues or the quais could still be a joy. We located one of the few remaining bus lines on which it was possible to ride as before on an open rear platform. We even found a cafe that served us a quick lunch with good humor—where our habits became so familiar that we would be greeted at the door with our waiter already proclaiming our order to the bar: “Deux ballons de Muscadet—deux.”



The image that lingers longest in my mind is of walking home after a matinée at the Comédie Française past the splendor of the Louvre and over the Pont du Carrousel in the soft Parisian twilight. Or perhaps it is of a Saturday lunch in the country and visiting a small château in the company of my oldest and best French friend, a lady wracked by repeated family tragedy. The restaurant was unpretentious, the château equally so, and before the day was over a slight rain had begun to fall. But the entire afternoon was suffused with sympathetic memory and a sense of holding on to something precious that was in danger of slipping away. After all she had been through, my friend was saying, she needed to be enveloped by douceur—that untranslatable word which combines sweetness and gentleness. And around the three of us, my friend, my wife, and me, the atmosphere of douceur which had eluded us all year miraculously gathered.

It will be quite a while before I go back to Paris—and then only briefly, to see a few old friends whose ranks have been thinned by premature death. La douce France—“the pleasant land of France”—where did it vanish? I think I can explain, but the sadness is still with me.



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