Several years ago, at a trade show dinner in Winston-Salem, I had the great pleasure of meeting Jon Mayes, one of the wonderful book reps who works so tirelessly to sell my work and that of many other authors to independent booksellers.
As we were about to part ways after that first meeting, Jon said, “I always ask everyone I meet the same question: ‘If you could go back in time, where would you be, and which time period would you choose?'” The following essay was written as a meditation on my reply: “In Paris, during World War II.”
I think it might be true that novelists are always – consciously or unconsciously – writing under the influence of that most unreliable of all first-person narrators: their child selves.
Flannery O’Connor once said that if you survive a Southern childhood, you have enough material to write about for the rest of your life. Surviving a Midwestern childhood has given me a warehouse of inventory to work with as well.
* * * * *
It must have been my parents’ idea – signing me up to take French lessons after school, at a time in the history of American public elementary school education when enrichment programs weren’t necessary, because we had singing classes and art classes and even elective instrumental classes (piano OR Tonette!) as part of the regular curriculum. No foreign language classes, however. This was the Midwest after all, in the mid-1960s.
By the time I was in 5th grade, it’s possible that my father was starting to regret his decision to embrace all things American, thus raising his only child in a staunchly unilingual household. No daughter of his would start kindergarten speaking Greek-accented English and be ridiculed and ostracized and called the n-word because of it. (To this day, my Greek vocabulary consists of: How are you? Fine, thank you. Dolmades. Spanikopita. Kiss.) Maybe Dad decided that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for me to learn another language – just not his language.
Or maybe the nudge came from my mother, who was also in her own way engaged in the process of separating from her origins. My grandmother spoke German; so did her younger sisters Clara and Ruth and Alvina and Mildred. When I asked Mom about this, she informed me that there was “low” German (which is what regular, common folks used) and “high” German (which was spoken by educated people and in the bible). I somehow knew not to ask which version was spoken by my grandmother and great-aunts.
Do you speak German? I asked.
A little, she answered.
This was exactly how she replied to my question about childbirth, which was probably posed around the same time:
Does it hurt?
It was clear in both exchanges that those two words, a little, formed a locked door, highly fortified. I either had to storm that barricade, or imagine what was behind it. At eleven years old, already indoctrinated to be compliant and polite, I chose the latter. I shut up and wondered what my mother wasn’t saying. This kind of thing is excellent training for anyone aspiring to a career as a novelist. Say what you will about Parental Transparency in Child Rearing: the truth is, nothing stokes the fires of a child’s imagination like parental taciturnity.
Given all this, it’s logical to assume that my parents encouraged my early study of French – a language that had no familial associations for either of them.
French was the language of kings and high culture. It was exotic. It was beautiful. It was worldly. Although my parents were to travel to France many times in their future lives – as well as to England, China, Russia, Greece, Spain, Holland, and New Zealand, to name a few – at this point the farthest they’d ever ventured from their Midwestern roots (and I’m not talking about miles here but about something less measurable) was when they went to New York City in 1960, to be contestants on “The Price Is Right.” (I still have the black-and-white photo of them flanking Ed McMahon. They look completely star-struck.)
Whoever steered me toward my first extracurricular experience (I suppose it’s possible that it was my idea; I truly don’t remember) I soon loved taking French lessons because:
- It made my parents very happy; this meant that peace reigned in our emotionally volatile household, and our three-person country remained – at least for short intervals – a demilitarized zone, and
- After-school French was taught by my school’s prettiest teacher. Her unlikely name, Miss Pardee, could have been an alias, a sly reference that old lyric, how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?
Not only was Mlle. Pardee the prettiest teacher at our school; I soon noticed that she became even prettier when speaking French, especially when pronouncing the vowel “u” as in une soeur. I can still see her demonstrating the way to achieve this sound: she would draw her lips wide, into an exaggerated version of the wide-mouthed Nebraska smile, and begin repeating the sound eeeee as she gradually moved her lips forward, into the rounded, kiss-inviting shape of an ooooo: an “e” on the inside, an “oo” on the outside. It’s an inspired way to teach the sound, brilliant really, and thanks to Miss Pardee I’ve never lost my ability to pronounce it like a native.
I still also have pretty decent French “r”s. I don’t remember how Miss Pardee taught those, but I know I owe that facility to her as well.
* * * * *
I’ve been thinking about the words “courage” and “resistance,” the fact that they’re spelled the same in both English and French. It is only in the voicing, in the placement of the syllabic stress, that they differentiate:
COUR-age becomes cour-AGE; re-SIST-ance becomes re-sist-ANCE.
I love the way this linguistic flip-flop makes those words conclude with a committed bang instead of a whimper.
My 1964 College Edition Webster’s defines courage as: “the attitude or response of facing and dealing with anything recognized as dangerous, difficult, or painful, instead of withdrawing from it; a quality of being fearless or brave; valor; pluck.” Among several definitions for the word resistance are “opposition of some force, thing, etc. to another or others” and “the organized movement, often underground, of resistance to a government or occupying power regarded as oppressive and unjust, as in France during the Nazi occupation.”
In any marriage, I suppose, there is the potential for children to become artillery in their parents’ marital wars. As the only child of a mother and father whose relationship swung wildly between two extremes, that of combatants and that of paramours, I experienced a perplexing range of roles within our family, at some times wielding great power, at other times wielding none at all. Generally I chose withdrawal over confrontation, passivity over opposition. My parents’ battles were on a grand scale; there was no way my petty complaints could rival their Sturm und Drang.
So I laid low, taking the role of wary, watchful civilian instead of soldier, assuming an identity that had the greatest guarantee of contributing to familial peace: I smiled, aspired, excelled, and achieved – becoming in every way I could think of the opposite of rebellious.
Once in awhile I did the one thing that was guaranteed to incite a mild testiness in my fashion-conscious mother, wearing a favorite dress twice in the same week. And I committed at least one act of theft during this era: I still have the Advanced French textbook I filched from school, with phrases like Je suis tres fatigue… and Merci Dieu pour la Vendredi demain! penciled into the margins in big balloon-y letters – the kind we used to make pep club posters.
But mostly my courage was a paltry thing; whatever resistance I expressed was so muted or muttered that it was barely noticed.
By the time I was sixteen years old and a sophomore in high school, I had established myself as a good girl by anyone’s standards: straight “A” student, classical pianist, fluent in French, junior class president, babysitter, virgin. My best friends were bright, funny, geeky, artistically-inclined and athletically-challenged girls, also beloved by their parents for their goodness. We were glad to have found each other and formed a tribe. None of us defined our eras’ ideals of beauty; none of us got dates to the prom. On Fridays and Saturdays, we had pajama parties. We wore our odd-duck, dateless status as a badge of pride.
Whenever any of my folks’ friends bemoaned their kids’ misdeeds – academic failures, curfew violations, drinking, smoking, drug use, sexual escapades – my parents remarked with pride (and within earshot), “Oh, we never have to worry about Stephanie.”
I may have chafed inwardly at that sentiment – and what it implied about my character – but there were great rewards in abiding by the status quo. One such reward came in April of 1971, when my parents pulled me out of school and took me to Paris.
For those ten days, I became the unofficial guide and translator for my parents and their traveling companions: a group of University of Nebraska alumnae, all of whom were my folks’ age (forty-something) or older. I helped them order wine and snails, locate the bathrooms, get directions to museums. I taught them all to say “Where is the bar?” and that became a standing joke, the kind of shorthand that fellow travelers rely on in years to come to summon the espirit de corps of a particular shared experience. It was surely during this trip that I began contemplating a future career as a UN interpreter. (If my translation skills made Mom and Dad this happy, imagine how much I could accomplish toward achieving world peace!) It was also during this trip that my parents took me to my first opera.
The national opera house was closed for renovations, so we went to the Comedie Francaise, a much smaller and more intimate venue, and saw a production of La Boheme. During the curtain call, the actors remained frozen in place – Mimi on a chaise, her eyes open in death; Rudolpho kneeling beside her; a stunningly beautiful stage lighting effect that made it look as if a gentle snowfall was cascading over the scene.
On our last night in Paris, my mother and father and I had dinner in a dark, cavernous restaurant next to the Sienne. Our waiter told us that this spot had been a covert gathering place for members of the French Resistance.
I certainly didn’t experience any kind of epiphany at that moment, but as a result of that trip, I did fall in love with France – and, over time, with a corresponding idea (and it was of course a highly romanticized one) of who I might have been had I lived in Paris during the German occupation.
Would I have behaved in the setting of a real war the way I behaved in the hostile country that was our family, i.e. with fear, passivity, and compliance? Would I have risked my life to meet in a place where, thirty years later, my mother and father and I enjoyed a meal and reminisced from a safe distance about the sacrifices of the good soldiers of WWII?
I’m still asking those questions, still wondering if I’d be able to violate the boundaries of the impeccably obedient behavior I cultivated so successfully throughout my childhood.
I long ago lost my French fluency – if not my accent, thanks to Miss Pardee – and I haven’t set foot in France since 1978, but my love affair with all things French continues to this day. I sent three characters from my first novel to my adopted country, and for the many years I worked on that book, a map of Paris was tacked up on my office wall so that those characters and I could walk the streets together.
The echoes of that 1971 trip with my parents are still with me; and I like to think that my father timed-traveled back to our night at the opera when he died, while listening to the final strains of a recording of La Boheme, at the exact moment Ruldopho cried, “Mimi!”
I said at the beginning of this essay that my answer to Jon’s question surprised us both; and yet, having examined my enduring love affair with France and French language through the lens of personal family history, my wanting to go back in time to the German occupation of Paris seems almost inevitable.
Anne Tyler once said that one of the joys of writing fiction is the way it allows one to live many lives. To imagine myself in France during the occupation is to imagine a self very far removed from me indeed.
A novel I’ve had in mind for many years and that I hope to write one day will involve a Jewish-American soldier fighting in France during WWII. I don’t know much about him yet, but I do know this: he’ll be brave, and at some point he’ll find himself in a cave next to the Seinne River in Paris, among members of the French Resistance.