My first French literary gathering involved translations from the English.
It was held at the Café de la Mairie just opposite Place Saint-Sulpice, overlooking the beautiful fountain before the Saint-Sulpice church.
The Café de la Marie has Tuesday-night readings – les mardis littéraires de Jean-Lou Guérin, as they’re called. I was invited there by a woman my friend Edmund White had introduced me to, Isabelle, a Parisian psychologist with a literary bent and a PhD in English literature.
I’d met Isabelle the week before for lunch near the office where she maintained her practice, on the Rue du Temple, not far from the Arts et Métiers metro stop. She had wanted to practice her English in addition to speaking French with me to help me improve. Her plummy voice lingered over vowels as if she were savoring the choicest of them plucked at their ripest from her own orchards. She practiced that most accommodating of courtesies when speaking to someone new to a language: She appeared, or pretended, to understand what I said.
She shared a few friends with Ed – who has a wide circle of literary friends in Europe and the U.S. One of them is Jean Pavans, who is the brother of a noted French writer, René de Ceccatty, whom I would later meet with Ed at a small literary lunch. (It was literary in that it consisted of three writers plus one snooty books editor at Le Monde. “Why is this Jonathan Franzen considered good?” the books editor demanded of us, and although by the time of that lunch my French had become good enough to respond to her question, I still couldn’t provide an answer.)
Anyway, Isabelle thought I’d like to attend this lecture and reading. On Henry James. Featuring her friend Jean Pavans, who was an expert on the writer and who had just translated some of his stories. He’d be lecturing in French on an American writer to a French audience and to this one American journalist manqué whose French remained suspect.
But, as Isabelle said, “Je pense que cela peut vous plaire et cela sera l’occasion de nous voir et de prendre un bon bain de français!”
Well, she had a point. It might be pleasant, it would be nice to see her, and although I expected to immerse myself in French, I feared I’d ultimately drown in a bath of it.
That showery Tuesday evening, I met Isabelle at the café. I had remembered meeting Jean Pavans for lunch at a house that Edmund White had rented in a little town in the Maritime Alps called La Tour.
Upon our entering, Isabelle introduced me around a bit, and the editors and literary types there were very sweet about my ignorance of their language. I saw Jean Pavans and introduced myself to him, but he had already recognized me when I walked in, and remembered our having met a few summers earlier. He asked why I was there, kindly, or perhaps humbly – and nodded in approbation when I said that I’d settled here for a few months to learn the language, an explanation in French for my presence in Paris that I’d practiced over many days during my classes at Alliance Française.
But when I attempted to say something to Jean in English, he froze. I thought that perhaps I should have expressed myself using the sideways diction of James, deflecting meaning to demonstrate something profound about our intellectual duplicity. But then I remembered what Ed had told me – that many renowned translators actually don’t have a very good conversational command of the language from which they translate. So Jean and I smiled at each other, without further words being said or misunderstood, and I took a seat.
I was used to New York book parties, where people stood around and muttered hello and looked for the exit. Or book readings, where fans or just those looking for diversion find a seat, listen to a few passages and hope to slip away unnoticed.
Here, a waiter came up just as Jean began speaking, and dozens of people in the packed room raised their hands for drinks as he asked, “Combien de vins rouges, combien de vins blancs, combien de bières,” etc., which was of course important business to attend to before getting down to the evening.
The fluttering of hands and the raising of glasses gave it an air of farce before the serious business began. But then Jean spoke, and an actress with a deep smoky voice began to read from one of his translations, and the crowd calmed down and listened, even as the waiter plinked down the glasses of wines or beers on the tiny tables around which everyone was crammed.
I understood a lot more than I expected – mainly because I already knew enough about James, and what Jean was saying about him. Of course, I couldn’t repeat a thing, but I was happy that finally the words had begun to sound individualized and not simply a blur of romantic buzzing.
The evening lasted two hours, unlike in Manhattan, where a party like this is more about who’s there and how can I network and is there a better party I should be going to and everything’s over after about 45 long minutes.
People gave Jean their respect and they asked questions (fairly obvious ones regarding Proust and James; it all comes down to Proust in France). But everyone Paid Attention.
Toward the end of the questions, and as people began to disperse, I rehearsed something I might say to the actress who had read from “The Aspern Papers.” I hadn’t yet reached the point where I could utter something in French off the top of my head, so even my simple five-word compliment took a little memorizing.
I noticed her, standing in the doorway to the café, as I departed. She was holding in one hand a lighted cigarette – it was evident that her voice had matured through countless inhalations – and in the other a glass of wine.
I took a breath and said, “Vous lisez très bien, madame,” and she looked at me with mock astonishment and genuine relief, as actresses do.
“Merci, monsieur,” she said, taking a delighted puff.
I walked home then, along the Boulevard Raspail, under the gray literary mist of a drizzly Parisian evening.