I hadn't known that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis pronounced her own name in the French way: zhack-LEEN. Nor that in 1957 Susan Sontag left her husband and young son and took off for a year-long, super gay Paris love affair, nor that Angela Davis was engaged briefly to Manfred Clemenz, a handsome German exchange student. Gossip is one of the key pleasures—but far from the only one—to be found in Alice Kaplan’s absorbing new book, Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis.
Some American students of French see the language as a desirable way of representing and expressing themselves—perfecting themselves, even. Others see French as a way of broadening their understanding of the world outside, or a ticket into the life of the mind. For two of Kaplan’s three imposing subjects—as for Kaplan herself, as she described with candor and charm in her earlier French Lessons—the former purpose seems to have been paramount, as French offers a way of instantly remaking oneself.
All three of Kaplan's subjects spent a student year abroad in France; the book traces the influence of French language and culture on these soon-to-be-world-famous fabulosas. Light and fun as it is to read, Dreaming in French flirts, in appropriately Gallic fashion, with deeper questions: Why is the study of French connected so deeply in the American mind with sophistication? Exactly what is missing in American culture that our young women sought (and continue to seek) in France? (I say “young women” because the vast preponderance of French majors at American universities are women—a consistent 80 percent over the last two decades, according to David Laurence, director of the Modern Language Association's Office of Research.) Kaplan took a tentative stab at answering these questions in French Lessons. “Why do people want to adopt another culture? Because there's something in their own they don't like, that doesn't name them.” This remark suggests a deep-seated personal insecurity or “cultural cringe,” a dissatisfaction that knowing French might somehow resolve.
There is a huge divide between what Americans think of the French language and culture and what is experienced in that ancient and ever-evolving country by its natives. There’s a lot to be learned from fantasylands, though: from the chinoiserie of the Brighton Pavilion as opposed to real Chinese architecture, or from exported Hollywood ideas of America as opposed to the real thing, or from the romanticizing of young Americans in Paris.
Even now, French film, literature, and culture are touchstones of sophistication, signifiers for Americans between one another of something formal and elegant, something outside our own ways. (They also signify snooty, un-American superiority, but even that code acknowledges something in the traditional positions of the two cultures.) A familiarity with the films of Godard. To say Huis clos instead of No Exit. And the French fantasy of America and the American fantasy of France join to form an interface through which the two cultures connect.
I, too, was once a French major, visiting France for the first time the summer after high school. I was as dazzled by the beauties of Paris as any American teenager could be; I immediately bought a black beret and took to smoking Gitanes (cough), yakking in cafés, and drinking rough red wine like a native, or so I hoped. But never did I feel that French, or France, was something to escape to, as Kaplan and her subjects seem to have done. My beau idéal for France was to understand French movies and French phrases in English classics. Also, menus. By contrast, Jacqueline Bouvier fled a dull, stultifying upper-class upbringing for Paris; she wanted to be more than Queen Deb. Sontag was apparently feeling pressure to live as a heterosexual, an obligation that promptly deserted her once she arrived in France. The brilliant Angela Davis was always going to leave racist Birmingham, Ala.