Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Dreaming in French": the American girl in Paris

I started this blog about a month after I returned from studying abroad in Paris. The transition from living in one of the world's most beautiful cities, with its elegant and easily navigable Métro system, to living in a suburban subdivision, was not an easy one to make. I felt terribly bored, and terribly lonely, and burst with thoughts that I had no way of sharing with anybody. Thus, a blog was born. For this and for many other reasons, I definitely feel like my time in Paris marked and changed me as a person... yet perhaps not as much as it did for the three women discussed in the book Dreaming in French...

Dreaming in FrenchDreaming in French by Alice Kaplan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Dreaming in French" is more analytical and scholarly-minded than its romantic title would suggest. It's a study of how three important mid-century American women were shaped by spending time in Paris in their early twenties. The women are considered as individual personalities, but also as stand-ins for the different types of young women who tend to become attracted to French culture: Jacqueline Bouvier the aesthete, Susan Sontag the intellectual, and Angela Davis the revolutionary.

In the case of Bouvier, author Alice Kaplan does her best to sift the facts from the myths that have sprung up around this glamorous, Francophilic first lady. Still, I disagree with some of Kaplan's conclusions. She unearthed a French translation that Jackie made of an American pop song, and claims that it shows Jackie's special sensitivity to the poetry of the French language, but, in my opinion, it seems like a fairly literal and schoolgirlish translation job.

Of the three women, Susan Sontag kept the most extensive diaries and journals from her time in Paris. This is good, because it enables Kaplan to use Sontag's own words to tell her story, but it also made me wonder if I shouldn't have just read Sontag's journals (which have been published as "Reborn") instead.

I really didn't know anything about Angela Davis before reading this book, and I found her story fascinating. Kaplan makes a convincing case for how living in France awakened Davis' social consciousness; and then, how Davis became a cultural icon among French people (to a much greater extent than in the United States).

I myself spent a semester abroad in Paris (in 2007) and enjoyed reading about how the day-to-day experiences of these three illustrious women were similar to and different from my own. Still, I realize (and I think Kaplan does, too) that the profound effects that Paris can have on a young woman's psyche, may be too personal and intimate to be dredged up by an academic historian. Kaplan bases this book on primary-source documents: letters, diaries, newspapers, interviews, transcripts. But no primary source can convey the feeling of what it's like to ramble around the Latin Quarter, or sit down to dinner with a French host family, or, indeed, to dream in a foreign language.

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