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C'est La Vie!

July 19, 2007 By:
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When French Seduction appeared in my office several months ago, I very nearly let out a shout of pure joy. At last, here was a writer who was going to tackle French culture and society head on and reveal the whole naked truth. And, perhaps best of all, the writer, Eunice Lipton, happened to be Jewish, and her expertise was French culture and society.

Lipton's three earlier books all dealt with the French art scene, and her titles tell the whole story: Alias Olympia: A Woman's Search for Manet's Notorious Model and Her Own Desire; Looking Into Degas: Uneasy Images of Women and Modern Life; and Picasso Criticism, 1901-1939: The Making of an Artist-Hero. With her fourth book, Lipton does not seem quite so sanguine (though, in the Degas title, there was doubtless a hint of some disquiet brewing). As her newest subtitle announces, she's chosen to describe An American's Encounter With France, Her Father and the Holocaust.

The subtitle is a bit misleading, though; as the work begins drawing to a close, you assume that all three strands mentioned will be drawn together in some conclusive way -- or that somehow Lipton's father knew something central about how the French had really acted after their country was overrun by Nazis, and he'd blurt it out in the concluding pages. But that's not actually the case. The three elements do have lots to do with one another, but not as much as the subtitle suggests.

The title, though, couldn't be more accurate, more succinct or more evocative. Lipton, from early childhood, was a sucker for all things French, and that's what makes her the perfect writer to wrestle with the complex problem of French xenophobia and the country's complicity during the Nazi occupation. Her credentials are also perfect for the job at hand. She's from a working-class background, with perfect leftist politics all in place. By choosing to get a Ph.D. in art history, she was both rebelling against the strictures of her upbringing while fulfilling the liberal internationalism of her forebears -- the same liberalism she saw so clearly reflected in the French philosophy toward life, art and politics. (What else is all that "liberté, egalité, fraternité" business that all Francophiles so willingly swallow hook, line and sinker?)

She indicts her father, lovingly, for instigating this full-blown seduction. The first line of her book reads: "My father whispers, 'Darling, go to Paris. You'll be happy there, you'll see.' " Who could resist, even though Lipton was well aware that her father had never himself been to the place that he was touting, that he was nothing more than another hopeless romantic, seeking to fulfill his dreams, even if it had to be done vicariously through his daughter.

As Lipton writes, tellingly: "My dad loved conversation and nice clothes and Paris, and I loved him. So when I am 19, I save my money and board a student ship to France. I write him postcards all summer long, every couple of days or so, sometimes more. I tell him how much I miss him. I report on the sights. 'Dear Daddy, Try to imagine this Byzantine structure,' I write him about Sacré Coeur in Montmartre, 'amidst one of the poorest sections in Paris. Very incongruous! Nancy and I came back to the hotel and had a small supper of oranges, bread, cheese and wine. Delicious! I'm resting now, so I'm thinking of you. All my love. ... '

"My whole life, I will write to men I love this way, even if they live just across town, or, now, in the case of my husband working in his studio, just across the courtyard."

That Sense of Touch

French Seduction has the intimacy of one of those letters -- a bit on the extended side, of course -- but an explanation to the world, nonetheless, as well as to the men she loves, about how she let herself be seduced, and then about what she learned over the decades after living intimately with all things French.

Lipton begins by laying out how the seduction proceeded, cataloguing each step in the process; this pretty much takes up the first half of her narrative. After the suggestion is planted in her ear by her father, it stays buzzing there until she makes her way to Paris during her student years, during which she becomes an ardent fan of the city's ways and means. She characterizes its denizens -- also lovingly -- as incessant sensualists.

"The French always seem to be touching something -- each other, a cigarette, a wine glass. Their hands are busy and beautiful. Sometimes I think they can't tell the difference between your body and theirs, that what they need is endless stimulation and connection." It doesn't matter where you are -- the bank, the Métro, especially -- this bodily connection never ends, she notes.

The city itself is a parade of sensual delights -- sights, smells, sounds, tastes. "I come to Paris like a mongrel sniffing her way across the Atlantic," writes Lipton. "When I arrive as a student, the first smell that startles me is body odor. No smell is so repulsive to Americans. Soon, though, it joins the parade of all the other smells -- coffee, butter-drenched pastries, peanuts spinning in sugar, perfume.

"In New York, I put my broccoli on the table. Very green, but flavorless. Then there's orange for carrots, and red for peppers. Or blue cheese that's blue but only tastes of chemicals. Forget the bread. Food in America is like the color-drenched pictures in a child's dictionary. Just color. Then I move to France, and all those flat forms and saturated hues pop up out of the page and regale me with their textures, aromas, tastes.

"In markets, indoors and out, peaches, pears, apples, roasting chickens, barbecuing pork, silver, white, red and blue fish from all the rivers and seas of France, heave themselves at you. Flowers of every size and color dare you to touch them, bury your head in them. Sour and intimate aromas thicken the air in the cheese shop, as ancient odors of churning milk come strangely close to bodily smells. It's only food, I say to myself. Take it easy. But I can't. Ken [Lipton's husband] and I look at each other ecstatically and laugh. And laugh and laugh. What a nice life."

All this ever-present sensuality, Lipton notes, is what makes the French so naturally sexy. It's simply everywhere -- touching, eating, making love; as Lipton argues, these are all parts of the same thing, and no one needs to be in a hurry. One thing is just a prelude to another. Americans, on the other hand, are Puritanical by comparison and obsessed with sex.

Having established these oh-so-French qualities, Lipton then begins using art -- her expertise -- to guide most of the rest of her investigation into things French. Because of her impeccable leftist politics, she's forced, rightly, to admit that the "insouciance" found in 18th-century French painting was built upon an extraordinary squalor in French everyday life that was an undercurrent that led to the Revolution. And when she moves on to the beauties of Impressionism, she has to admit that behind all the colors and sensuality lies the Dreyfus Affair, and the heart of French anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

And when she's forced to look really carefully at Degas, both his life and his work, she has to admit that he was a lout whose favorite paper was the anti-Semitic rag La Libre Parole.

With each step she now takes, she is forced to acknowledge that all this pleasure and carnality has been purchased at a great price -- to the poor, women, Jews and all the other outsiders. When she comes to the pre-World War II decade, the xenophobia is almost overwhelming. She's forced by circumstance to ask herself the fundamental question every Jewish Francophile has had to face at some time or another: What would life have been like for me in the period leading up to Vichy? She ticks off some of the horrors of the Holocaust, and doesn't shy away from the wretchedness of French behavior in those years.

She does this all as the book is drawing swiftly to a close, and so you expect in the last few pages something truly dramatic, some revelation or grand insight -- or that Lipton will be forced to make a decision, to choose in some way between the French and her past, as both American and Jew. But French Seduction, for all its "truth," pulls its punches in the end. It's something of a tease. She takes us to the edge of the abyss, and then she turns and heads the other way, so that the book ends up seeming to be a justification for why she continues to live in France, despite abundant evidence that might have opened up a whole new direction in her life.

 

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