Jim Holt

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 10 1999 10:00 PM

Jim Holt

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This is a slightly ticklish moment for an American to be in Paris. Last week the French foreign minister made a speech in which he called the United States a "hyperpower" that not only dominates the world militarily, economically, and culturally but threatens to usurp its very "mental identity." The euro, which the French chauvinistically expected to rubbish the dollar, has been dropping against the greenback ever since its debut in January. The French film industry's attempt to strike back against Hollywood with a would-be blockbuster of its own--the comic-book extravaganza Astérix et Obélix Contre César, which cost $49 million and features a cast of literally thousands, including Gérard Depardieu and Roberto Benigni--has been a resounding critical flop. Then there is Monica Lewinksy. I had come to Paris to escape her--only to find myself being brought to book at every dinner party for the supposed sex-crazed puritanism of my compatriots.

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Last weekend I was a guest in a château in Picardy. It was a very grand château. During the war it had been commandeered by the Nazis as their military headquarters in northern France. My host held the titles both of count and baron. I had recently met him and his wife at a party in an opulent apartment near the Eiffel Tower. It was a party at which everyone seemed to be both an aristocrat and an international banker, at which some of the wives were American (especially from Kentucky, which has a French connection that I was previously unaware of: Louisville was named after Louis Quatorze, and then of course there is Bourbon weeskee), and at which absolutely no one was smoking.

So anyway, I went to this castle in Picardy, attracted by the count-baron's charming offer of hospitality and also by the fact that, his mother being the proprietress of a Bordeaux château that produces a second-growth Paucillac, the wine drinking looked promising. Over the weekend we opened a bottle from the 1949 vintage. The fruit had died. Then we opened a bottle of '64. The fruit had died. I was also amazed to discover that French aristocrats eat as badly as American suburbanites. There are few things more disagreeable than pork-fat spread on one's toast at breakfast.

Still, the life of the chatelain has its attractions. I had a wonderful time rummaging through old parchment documents signed in the very meticulous hand of the Sun King and walking with the gardien de chasse through the marshy hunting grounds. The echo-delay time in the capacious room where I took my bath was approximately 4.3 seconds, which made for excellent singing. Yet I found that I had not entirely escaped the Parisian coolness toward America. At luncheon the count-baron pointedly explained to his children in my presence that the American contribution to world cuisine consisted of "cans and plastic." Then his wife announced that every great scientist of the 19th century was French. When I mentioned the names of Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell as possible counter-instances, there was a noticeable drop in temperature at the table.

That evening, as we were having drinks, one of the farmhands came into the château to show something to the children. It was a caged rooster employed in local cockfights, complete with the grotesque razor attachments with which the creatures are urged to tear each other to bloody shreds. "Do you have cockfighting in America?" one of the children asked me. "Well, actually it's outlawed, because people think it's cruel," I replied. "Yes," added their father gelidly, "in America cockfighting is forbidden, but gunfights between men are permitted."

It was good to get back to Paris. Earlier today, browsing in a big bookstore on Boulevard St. Michel, I noticed an oddity on the shelf: A French paperback edition of Finnegans Wake. I have never read this book, but there are three things I know about it: 1) It is written not in English but in a mad language that Joyce made up. 2) The first word in it is riverrun. 3) The last word is the humblest in the English language: the. Could such a thing really be translated into French? I picked it up and turned to page one to see how riverrun was rendered. Bizarrely, it had become erre revie, followed by a big fat footnote. My curiosity was piqued. How did the translator handle the final the of the novel? The possibilities would seem to be le and la, but since Joyce gave no indication of what might come next, the choice between the two looked utterly indeterminate. Did the translator exercise his radical Sartrean freedom? Did he flip a coin? I turned to the last page. There was the answer at the bottom: l'.

Brilliant.