Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When Americans Die, They Go to Paris

A couple of nights ago I went to see the movie Revolutionary Road, which was both excellent and thought-provoking. And one of the thoughts it provoked was how amazingly persistent the allure of Paris has been for Americans through the years.

The movie (and the book by Richard Yates on which it's based) centers on Frank and April Wheeler, a couple in 1950s suburbia who recall their youthful yearning to be "different" and "special," and think a move to Paris will solve all their problems ("People are alive there," marvels Frank, who visited the city while in the Army). Ernest Hemingway and "the lost generation" made it their mecca in the twenties. The comment that serves as the title for this post is attributed to Oscar Wilde and presumably was uttered sometime in the late 19th century. And as I'm discovering as I research my second novel, even back in the early 19th century some Americans scorned their own country and revered Paris (as well as other parts of Europe) as the source of all things good, beautiful, and sophisticated.

The two 19th-century women whose lives I'm researching lived in Baltimore, then a relatively new city that some of its inhabitants considered a cultural wasteland. As the acid-tongued Baltimore belle Betsy Bonaparte put it, “The men are all merchants ... Beyond their counting-houses they possess not a single idea... The women are all occupied in les details de menage and nursing children; these are useful occupations, but do not render people agreeable to their neighbors.” Like the Wheelers, Betsy was convinced she was special and different; she once said she was never destined to spend her life in Baltimore, and at another time remarked that she preferred death to a life spent there. As a result, she fled to Europe as often as she could, and Paris was one of her favorite haunts. (Not surprisingly, she wasn't too popular with her fellow Baltimoreans!)

The other woman I'm writing about, Eliza Godefroy--a bluestocking who devoured the works of Madame de Stael and other French philosophes--yearned to go to Paris as well, complaining in a letter to a friend that her French husband refused to return there (presumably because he had painful memories of his imprisonment during the Revolution). Ultimately she did end up in France, but not Paris--her husband managed to get an ill-paying job in the provincial town of Laval, which wasn't quite the same. (It's an industrial town, the French equivalent of, say, Akron -- but unlike Akron, it has a beautifully preserved medieval center with an 11th-century castle.)

I can certainly understand the attraction. Every time I go to Paris I fall in love all over again with its beauty. Perhaps it's not the mecca for young Americans who feel special that it was in the past (where do they go now -- Beijing?), but plenty of them still go there -- my son is there right now for example (and he really is special, if I say so myself).

But of course, moving to Paris -- or anywhere else -- isn't necessarily going to solve anyone's problems. Betsy Bonaparte discovered that even in Paris she suffered from ennui (after all, the French invented it!). And it's clear that a move to Paris wouldn't have made Frank and April Wheeler's lives any easier -- they probably would only have realized how truly American they were.

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