Magazine article The Spectator

Femmes Du Monde

Magazine article The Spectator

Femmes Du Monde

Article excerpt

Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis by Alice Kaplan Chicago, $26, pp. 289, ISBN 9780226424385 As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries, 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag Hamish Hamilton, £18.99, pp. 523, ISBN 9780241145173 At the end of Dreaming in French, in 'A Note on Sources', Alice Kaplan terms her narrative 'this piece montee', which is the only time she neglects to supply an English translation. From a scholar of her eminence - she is a historian and critic of French modernity, a professor at Yale, and the acclaimed author of The Collaborator, The Interpreter and French Lessons - such neglect must surely be deliberate.

The term was new to me, and the best I could manage was 'assembled piece', which in the context seems to be just a pretentious way of saying 'book'. So I looked it up, as Kaplan probably hoped her more ignorant readers might, and I am glad I did. Pieces montees are those sculpted confectionary centrepieces at banquets, which achieved their apogee in the kitchens of Antonin Careme (1784-1833), who was chef to Talleyrand, the Prince Regent and Tsar Alexander I, invented the toque, and is reported to have said that, as architecture is the noblest art, so pastry is the noblest form of architecture.

Dreaming in French is indeed an elaborate confection. A typical piece montee includes spun sugar, marzipan and nougat, while the raw materials of Kaplan's book are the lives of three American women - Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis - all of whom actually merit the most grossly overused adjective of our time ('iconic'), and have accordingly often been reduced to their images: 'a sheath dress and a double strand of pearls, a mane of black hair with a white streak, an afro and a raised fist'.

All of them spent a year studying in Paris, keen 'to embrace a new language and master a highly coded way of life', and all succeeded, becoming in the process 'translations of their American selves'. And all later returned, and had a impact on France.

At the same time, they were of course wildly different - a Catholic debutante from the East Coast, a Jewish intellectual from the West Coast, and an African-American revolutionary from the South - and so, too, was the France they encountered during their sojourns.

Bouvier was, in Kaplan's happy phrase, an 'imaginary aristocrat'. Her paternal grandfather was a New York lawyer who claimed descent from French royalty (though bouvier means something like 'cowboy', and his traceable ancestors were Provencal shopkeepers); and, however inaccurately and improbably, Jackie was brought up to believe that she sprang from ancien regime aristocrats who supported the American revolution.

She was educated at Vassar, which had no provision for study abroad, so she joined a group from Smith for her year in Paris (1949-1950), when the city was drained by the German occupation, shamed by Vichy collaboration, exhausted and filthy. Her landlady was the aptly titled Comtesse de Renty, who with her husband had been a member of Alliance, the right-wing Resistance group;

he died in a slave labour camp, while she survived Ravensbruck. Jackie - or Jacqui - was accepted at her own estimation by the young aristocrats of the Faubourg SaintGermain, and enjoyed riding to hounds.

Asked what had been her most embarrassing faux pas, she recalled having declared 'J'ai monte a poil' ('I rode naked'), rather than 'Je l'ai monte a cru' ('I rode bareback'). …

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