Friday, August 10, 2012

Expat Lit: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Rosecrans Baldwin disent "il ne faut pas pousser mémé dans les orties"

Alright. Confession time: I love France. I love Proust, I love croissants, I love Francoise Hardy. I love Midnight in Paris and the way the French can’t pronounce hard h’s. There are even a few real live French people I happen to like quite a bit that I met during my time at UNC. 

It’s weird, I know. I hope that you can still respect me, at least a little bit.

By virtue of my interests, it follows that I also really like books about France, especially those written by folks who (like me) weren’t born with the “je ne sais quoi” but have to trek over and put in some time abroad to earn it. There are three people I’ve read during my twenty-something years on the planet that have chronicled this search for baguettes and the right striped shirt quite aptly: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Rosecrans Baldwin.

You might have just read those first two names, waved your hand dismissively at your computer screen and said, “Wow, Linnie, really obscure picks you’ve got there.” But bear with me. I’m going to try to get to the root of why these two famous expats and one less-famous expat have been so successful at chronicling life abroad where others have failed. Really failed –gag-inducing-Cinderella’s-castle-portraits-of-Paris failure. I’ve picked up certain books, gotten halfway through, and then wanted to chuck them out a window when the description of a stranger on the metro seemed eerily similar, in its voyeurism and sap, to a passage from 50 Shades of Gray

Thankfully, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin spare you the saccharine, the superfluous.  In A Moveable Feast, you get typical Hemingway: spare, sparse prose that might seem dry for an instant, then wallops you over the head with its beautiful phrasing and wordplay when you aren’t looking. Hemingway’s style works perfectly in his account of life with one of his many wives (I can’t be bothered to look up which one, in fact) and among his famous friends. Seriously, who else could get away with calling Gertrude Stein a boorish oaf? Where some of his works have their moments of coldness or detachment, you can pick up on his fondness for the city almost instantly here. 

There’s a characteristic that unites all three of these books (two of which are outright memoirs, the other of which draws heavily on Fitzgerald’s real life) – Paris (or France, in Fitzgerald's case), the beloved subject, is still liable to the same jibes and criticisms that all of the characters and events receive. It might still be sacred, but these writers aren’t scared of getting a little blasphemous, a little ornery.

I don’t want to bore you with the classics. They’re just good, ok? Just read them. We sell them at Flyleaf.

Know what else is good? Paris I <3 You But You’re Bringing Me Down. Rosecrans Baldwin’s now a Chapel Hillian, but his account of life in Paris was thoroughly enjoyable. I laughed out loud in the non-metaphorical internet way, and ended up typing out entire sections to send to friends in emails and Facebook posts. After too many years of French classes and francophilia, I ate up all the weird colloquial phrases and tales of weird city folk like candy. And there’s lots of oddity to take in. The French phrase in the title of this post means “Don’t push grandmother into the nettles.” Still figuring that one out. I don’t even think Rosecrans himself employs that one too often.

Who knows what draws us Americans to that city of light. I know I’d do a lot of things for a great pastry, or a chance to bump into Sofia Coppola on the street. But if you, like me, can’t afford to hop on a plane with your Louis Vuitton luggage… might I suggest a great book?

1 comment:

  1. I came to Flyleaf to hear Rosecrans read from his book. I read every book about France that I can get my hands on and I do manage to push through even the ones that are too "everything-is-perfect-I'm-fabulously-rich" just because I hope to glean something from them. His book is one of the best I've ever read. I am unashamedly a French-France lover. I make absolutely no apologies and neither should you. It is a great country full of people born with that je ne sais quoi that many of us envy. And they speak perfect French and put up with my less-than-perfect French and "cute" accent. What's not to love?