These lines from Michael Curtiz's Casablanca, a powerful and beautiful film about the complexities and contradictions surrounding France's role in World War II, evoke a nostalgic view of the past. In the midst of all the horror and loss, at least we´ll have Paris. Yet, between these lines other questions lurk —Who will always have Paris? And which Paris will they always have?
Eunice Lipton's disturbingly delicious book, French Seduction, brings such questions to the surface through a story about her own equivocal love affair with France. A meditation on seduction, betrayal, and loss, Lipton takes the reader on an aesthetic and emotional odyssey in a book that is part memoir, part travelogue, part art history, and part ethnography. Descending into the caverns of memory, Lipton explores the desires, tactile pleasures and rich sensualities that make her love of places and people and things at once compelling and frightening.
“Darling go to Paris. You'll be happy there, you'll see,” her father says, setting young Eunice's fantasy in motion. Already smitten with her father, an opinionated, arrogant man given to unpredictable rages, whose own fantasies about Paris began, at fifteen, when he left Riga, Latvia for America a decade before other Eastern European Jews disappeared into what Hannah Arendt once called “holes of oblivion”--the concentration camps of the Holocaust's Final Solution—Lipton takes up his suggestion. “My Dad loved conversation and nice clothes and Paris, and I loved him. So when I am nineteen, I save my money and board a student ship to France.” And so begins a journey of many decades, a ronda of an affair with France that circles and repeats and descends and circles again until, almost from exhaustion, it reaches a moment of bittersweet reconciliation.
She puts Paris in her mouth with the first flaky croissant she consumes “in a room near the Boulevard St. Michel” and devours Paris with her eyes, gazing with forbidden pleasure at the stained glass windows of Notre Dame. With each bite and sly look she begins to possess something longed for, without quite knowing yet what to call it. “My father hates churches. `Anti-Semitin,’ he spits out. But Notre Dame is one of the great sights of Paris. I can't not go in...France, as something of my very own, begins in the sweet beauty of this church.”
Yet France is also a place laced with memories of betrayal, at first personal—a boyfriend has an affair while Lipton is away in Provence on a research trip one year; the first time her father visits her in Paris, “the first time he's ever been to Paris,” he is disgusted by the hotel Lipton has chosen for him—and then more political. Lipton discovers, or, more precisely, remembers: anti-Semitism, anti-Arab, anti-African, anti-immigrant, anti-homosexual sentiments are abundant in the past and present of France. “I am haunted by my own Otherness in France.”
Nonetheless, in 1999, Lipton and her husband, the artist Ken Aptekar (some of whose iconoclastic paintings become motifs in Lipton's narrative) decide to move to Paris. “The reader will certainly laugh, or pity me, when I say that my experience, in Provence and then in Paris afterward, probably cinched my decision to move to France...Seduction and betrayal, I'm afraid is a trajectory I call home.” Why does she decide to live in France? What is she looking for? The four middle chapters of the book explore in compellingly evocative, sensual prose several answers to this question, some more deeply probed than others.
On one level her desire for Paris is fundamentally sensual, animal appetite. Walking the streets she observes being “ravished by the loveliness in the city, entranced by the tracery of balconies, the proud slope of mansard roofs, the winding streets...the balletic leap of bridges across rivers and canals.” In contrast to the color-drenched but tasteless landscape of food in America, in French markets, “indoors and out, peaches, pears, apples, roasting chickens, barbecuing pork, silver, white, red, and blue fish from all the rivers and seas of France heave themselves at you.” As do people. “My social life is lived across my body in a way I could never have imagined.”
An art historian who appreciates rich visual detail, Lipton uses her acuity of sight to mine language for words that can make you hear and smell and want to touch and taste a place, be among its things and people, as well as see them. At the same time, Lipton wonders, and wants the reader to wonder, what all this pleasure is all about. For Lipton, the answer is primordial: “France is that invitation to live. Maybe even, finally, to have my mother.” To have her mother, perhaps. Without becoming her. Or her father.
If there is an implicit voyeurism and watchful attentiveness that all writers engage, this narrator manages, for the most part, to implicate herself in these observations. Punctuating her own pleasure in viewing with acknowledgments that a certain `blindness´ has sometimes gotten her into trouble, or imaginatively putting herself into the scene, Lipton explores the dangers of pleasure. For the most part.
In a chapter entitled “Tease,” Lipton confesses to an unconventional weakness for the eighteenth century Rococo paintings of François Boucher. “I take a long deep dive into these unruffled summer days and linger where Boucher's girls leap into one another...” Even the excesses in Boucher's portraits of Madame de Pompadour entice her. “The Marquise is anchored in a sea of turquoise taffeta studded with pink roses and bundles of wide satin ribbons. She pokes her pink shod feet out from under her petticoats. The fingers of one hand push into thick folds of fabric...”
And yet, all is not well; there is a trap door in the middle of the eighteenth century. “But the effort of the display, the fierceness with which Pompadour carves a place for herself at court, feels sad to me...She is not herself...she is a display.” Instead of the “a subversive world of sexual egalitarianism” women's power in the eighteenth century seems to be what one historian called an “optical illusion.” “There it is,” Lipton observes. “I was tricked. Or I tricked myself.”
And there is a trick also at the heart of this narrative, one that Lipton largely controls, but which sometimes controls her. “How can one live with both feelings, loving a culture and knowing that it doesn't love you?” she asks and again, for the most part, plumbs deeply for answers.
In two chapters at the book's literal center, Lipton rereads the canvasses and historical tracts recording the cultural and political history of France's aesthetic and political identity. As she does, shadows protrude onto the landscape, darkening all that sunshine and dulling all glory and complicating Lipton's love affair with France: there is a horror almost too awful to imagine underneath and behind all that beauty and national honor.
Beneath the surface happiness of Impressionism's “glorious, carefree paintings” lurked the “disturbing circumstances that produced them.” Lipton traces a line from them to the virulent anti-Semitism that fanned French collaboration in World War II and continues it into late twentieth century Paris, where the “dangerous classes” exiled outside the city “are now becoming dangerous and for good reason.”
In Renoir's and Degas's anti-Semitism she discovers elements of treachery that recur in the interstices of the gloriously “Roaring 20s” indicating “something already in the French that could take them to bed with the Germans.” Ruined by the World War I, in which “every family lost someone,” Lipton claims that their depth of loss led the French into a dangerous nostalgia and shifted the national mood to one “xenophobic and hostile to outside influences.” And so Lipton asks again: “Does France love me? Or will she betray me again, as she did in 1940?”
At this point, the story shifts almost completely to indict France as a country whose image has been tarnished. No longer the cultural capital of art, riddled by a moribund economy and incoherent politics, Lipton thinks the French are confused and frightened by the multicultural society they have become (always were?) and are unable to take responsibility for their history. “The French are sick in their soul, and that is why their culture is dying. Their lying history is strangling them to death.” Some Parisians have yet to have Paris.
Still, Lipton chooses to stay. And just when the reader shouts “Why?” Lipton returns to the question of her father. “I know why I came here,” she says in the last paragraph of the book. “I wanted to forgive my father.” The answer is too glib, unsatisfying. Lipton's nuanced writing makes us want more.
Beneath the surface beauty of her prose lies an unsettling, subterranean trick. Her clever weaving of history, art criticism, and memoir makes the reader question the question of betrayal that Lipton has said is at the heart of the book: what betrayal motivates her quest? Her father's betrayal of his brother by failing to give their parents the letters he wrote from Spain while fighting in the Spanish Civil War? Or his betrayal of Lipton herself? “How can one live with both feelings, loving a culture and knowing that it doesn't love you?” The same question can be asked about one's parents. In the end, it's not one with which Lipton has fully grappled.