Trois Femmes, Une Cité: Alice Kaplan's "Dreaming in French"

By Sadie SteinMay 1, 2012

Dreaming in French by Alice Kaplan


Everything about Paris caused me to fill with grand emotion.  Perhaps it was lust, not in the pornographic sense but in the desire to know, to see, to feel, to become a part of the arches and the trees in the park and the smoke in the cafes and the dead rabbits hanging in the window of the butchers and to cross the wide streets and to know that something momentous was going to happen to me soon.  I ached from the desire to shed my skin and become ... what?

Anne Roiphe



THE VERY "WHAT" ANNE ROIPHE POSES in her memoir Art and Madness is at the center of Alice Kaplan's Dreaming in FrenchThe Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. The American girl in Paris is a trope as iconic as the three subjects of Kaplan's book, though it's a somewhat unexpected triumvirate: their primary commonality would seem to be a certain transcendence to a cultural shorthand — to personae so identifiable as to make for lazy Halloween costumes. But in examining each woman's relationship to postwar Paris, Kaplan arrives at larger common themes: not merely of experience, but of what it meant to be an American, and a woman, in the 20th century.


This is not new territory for Kaplan, whose memoir French Lessons provides an object lesson on the transformative powers of France's capital.  But the Paris she explores in Dreaming is, on the one hand, that of 10-franc meals, existentialists, and food shortages, while on the other, the territory of Vincente Minnelli and Elaine Dundy. The Paris Kaplan's subjects experienced in the 15 years marking their respective visits is the one that would form American impressions of what it meant to be French — and more to the point, an expatriate — to this day.


Each woman, as Kaplan demonstrates, came to Paris with an objective in mind: crafting a distinct identity. For each, it was not so much what Paris could teach them as how it could confirm the preconceived notions of self each had deliberately formed.  In Jacqueline Bouvier's case, the "foreign royalty" aura that would complicate her public identity and prove so central to her glamorous mystique was rooted in a much humbler truth. While family lore painted the Bouviers as aristocrats, they were in fact shopkeepers from the South of France. And yet, when Bouvier traveled to France on a 1949 semester-abroad program, it was not to explore her origins; rather, it was to confirm her place in the highest echelons of French society.  While the Paris that greeted Bouvier and the rest of the Smith contingent under whose auspices she traveled was still crippled by wartime austerities, she lived in the still-grand apartment of an ancient family with good connections. What's more, due to her family's intercession she quickly found herself traveling in even higher social circles, surrounded by the children of dukes and barons. 


While Bouvier's French, both spoken and written, was good, and while she and her fellow students made a point of not communicating in English, it was still, as Kaplan explains, "schoolgirl French" — that of the diligent student rather than one who's truly lived in a culture. As she explains,


The American students were what the French call encadrées, literally "framed," taken care of and kept in line when they weren't keeping themselves in line.  There were many places the Smith girls couldn't go and wouldn't have gone — they weren't among the drunken young women standing on tables and stripping at the Tabou bar, whose photos showed up in France-Soir.  They weren't living in cut-rate hotels.  That didn't mean their lives weren't changing.  Experience, that year, took place just as much through their imaginations, and through spectacle, as it did through their deeds.


Sontag, by contrast, was living in a cut-rate hotel when she left her husband and son behind in America to study in Paris in 1957. She came in search of Bohemia, and found it.  Living with her lover, Harriet Sohmers, haunting the cafés and joining the expat intelligentsia, Sontag built a Paris that fit her preconceptions as clearly as it did Jacqueline Bouvier's eight years earlier.  Surrounded by Beats, by Gauloises, by the legacy of existentialism, and the beginning of the formalism that would capture her imagination, Sontag found, in her Paris, an escape from the conformity that she fought in America. 


Sontag's background was not that of boarding schools and French lessons; not for her the "schoolgirl French" of the Smith contingent.  An autodidact, Sontag drilled herself rigorously on the rudiments of French, plunged into the world of New Wave cinema, analyzed the vernacular subtleties that separated the speaker from the student.  And yet, for all this, Sontag appears to have made little effort to engage in culture beyond that of the expatriate.  As she would tell a reporter a decade later, "I came to Paris in 1957 and I saw nothing ... I stayed closed off in a milieu that was in itself a milieu of foreigners.  But I felt the city."


More striking is Sontag's seeming disengagement from the political turmoil of 1957 Paris. As Kaplan points out, her journals, filled with the minutiae of her disciplined French study and the vagaries of her love affair, make no mention of the Algerian crisis. Even as Sontag and Sohmers were forced to flee the city in the face of riots, she remained almost willfully locked in her American bubble.  Paris, at this point, was about taking what she needed from it, not learning the new and uncomfortable.  In her intellectual pursuits too she brings no sense of relativism. Strikingly, to the modern student, this groundbreaking intellectual brought a chauvinistically American viewpoint to her studies of French theater and literature. (Not that inviolate strictures wouldn't be a constant in Sontag's career.)


Of the three women Kaplan profiles, it was only Angela Davis who actually "studied" at the Sorbonne.  Among the most advanced students in her junior year abroad program of 1963-64, Davis, a French major, was fully immersed in the actual life of a Parisian student.  In other ways, too, her break with her past was probably more dramatic. Where Bouvier and Sontag had sought the veneer and liberties of Paris, for Davis, coming from segregated Alabama, the shift in freedoms was a literal one. 


Paris had for decades been a refuge for African-American thinkers; one of Davis's former roommates remarks to Kaplan that their French host family was far more open to Davis than to her own Jewish background.  But that sort of contradiction was not unique; the contrast between the "tolerance" Davis experienced in Paris and the evident racism Algerians encountered on a daily basis was not lost on her.  Davis was aware that, to many French, the African-American was a romanticized figure; the outrage of the French press following the Birmingham bombings was a stark contrast to their silence on the question of French atrocities towards dissidents.  Davis was, from the outset, less able to romanticize her time in France - perhaps, given the violent realities of growing up in the American South, she had lost that capacity. 


By the same token, Davis was more capable, it seems, of appreciating the experience of France for what it was, rather than what she wished it to be. Kaplan writes that, upon her return to the States, Davis "maintained her specialization in French and completed her senior essay," 'The Novels of Robbe-Grillet: A Study of Method and Meaning." Davis's intellectual affinity for the French Left was more profound than Sontag's. Whereas the latter's relationship to prevailing intellectual dogma was largely adversarial, and Bouvier's far more circumscribed, Davis was able to read Camus, Proust, and Robbe-Grillet in the original, and engaged with contemporary ideas before they were translated. As a burgeoning Communist, she must also have found the more open dialogue of the Left quite refreshing.


That Davis would go on to become a cause célèbre of the very thinkers she studied is perhaps less surprising than inevitable; she was far more a direct product of the French intellectual system than were Kaplan's other subjects. Six years after that junior year abroad, the quietly intense student-turned-fugitive-political-radical was embraced by the French Left.  The fact that her French was fluent hurt not at all; the fact that her references included the writings of Guérin and the French revolutionary tradition, even less. 


In America, Davis is perhaps not as readily identified with French culture as are Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Susan Sontag.  In the former's case, of course, her tenure as First Lady became a careful balancing act of the cosmopolitan influences that made her so alluring, and the wholesome, homegrown image voters craved.  People may have loved that she charmed de Gaulle, but that she had Oleg Cassini copy Paris creations and introduced into the White House French Empire antiques, to some, may have been less palatable.  In the third act of her career, she became an editor who focused on French subjects, and after her death her largely French library was auctioned off.  Whether she fell in love with the realities of French culture or whether a part of it was linked to her own family mythology, Kaplan does not venture to say.  What is known is that she became a celebrated international figure, whose death was sincerely and widely mourned in France.


Sontag's connections were, for her, less fraught and more direct. For many years she was involved with the French filmmaker Nicole Stéphane and divided her life between New York and Paris.  As a proponent of the avant-garde, and more specifically of formalism, she doubtless felt at home on the intellectual Left, and in later life her French became fluent enough that she both spoke regularly to French media and had an active hand in translating her own work.  As a film critic, she was always rooted in the New Wave tradition, and whatever her ultimate leanings, her early influences were indisputably rooted in French modernism.


Of course, none of these three was French, and therein, perhaps, lay a great deal of their appeal, of their ability to straddle the two cultures and each craft slightly different iconographies.  Intellectual, sophisticate, radical. These were words synonymous with each woman's French influence.  But by the same token, their active admiration for French culture was doubtless attractive to the tastemakers of that country, particularly in the face of widely perceived American Puritanism.


The title of Kaplan's book — as well as its pretty cover — is in some ways misleading, as Dreaming suggests passivity.  Three more active, engaged, and empowered women it would be hard to find, and certainly there are few figures in American culture that crafted their personae with the same level of care or success.  But in another sense, it's spot-on. The early years during which these future icons planned their ultimate transformations, willfully forming themselves and imposing their own dreams on the real Paris, were crucial.  "France secured them," writes Kaplan, and it's true. Whereas Bouvier's, Sontag's, and Davis's realities were ever shifting, their dreams of what France was — and what they could be —would remain unchanged.


LARB Contributor

Sadie Stein is deputy editor of the Paris Review. She lives in New York.


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