Diane Johnson: An American in Paris looks at life, love, and manners
Life has changed a bit for Diane Johnson since the 1997 publication of her novel Le Divorce, a social comedy about a young American woman in Paris. Le Divorce was a National Book Award finalist and won a California Book Awards gold medal for fiction. Nothing new about that. Johnson's novels have always garnered critical acclaim.
"But nothing ever sold," Johnson says matter-of-factly. "Before Le Divorce I don't think I had ever sat on an airplane next to somebody who, if they extracted from me the information that I was a novelist, would have read any of my novels. And now they have. They've read Le Divorce. It's just amazing to me."
Because of her husband's work, Johnson is also spending even more time in Paris than at her home in San Francisco. "It's easier to write in Paris," Johnson says. "My setup is a little better. I have a study, and some other amenities that I don't have in San Francisco. And, of course, in Paris I don't have to drive, which is like getting three extra hours of life a day." It's hard to know exactly what influence these happy alterations in her life have had on Johnson's newest novel, Le Mariage. A new confidence perhaps? An expansiveness of spirit? A certain boldness in plotting? Whatever the explanation, Le Mariage is much shapelier, more textured, and even funnier than Le Divorce.
Very broadly speaking, Le Mariage concerns two marriages: the impending marriage of American journalist Tim Nolinger to Anne-Sophie d'Argel, an antiques dealer in Paris's flea market and the daughter of the famous French novelist Estelle d'Argel; and the fraying marriage of Clara Holly, the beautiful, American-born former actress, and her husband Serge Cray, the great reclusive film director, who is developing a movie about America's paranoid right wing.
Our story opens with a murder in the Paris flea market and an international search for a purloined medieval manuscript. It moves on to an escalating confrontation between the Crays and the local mayor over traditional hunting rights in France, a confrontation that lands Clara in jail and in the proximity of the handsome French banker, Antoine de Persand (whose brother was murdered in Le Divorce). It ranges to an ice storm in Oregon, where Clara's mother has apparently been kidnapped by members of the lunatic fringe. And it returns to France for a prenuptial confrontation and a marriage. All of which affords Johnson ample room to romp and cavort and dispense an alarming amount of insight and wisdom about marital relations and cultural attitudes.
"I'm interested generally in the subjects of cultural differences, Americans abroad, and expatriate life," Johnson says. "One thing that is fun for me about living in France is that there are social norms here. They are much harder to perceive in America. But France is a smaller country, it's more stable, it has less social fluidity, so it has social norms. If you are interested in writing comedies of manner, a society where there are manners and norms is a necessary precondition. Hence it plays more into my hands than the more fluid, on-the-road kind of society of the United States."
Johnson is, of course, treading in Henry James territory here. In Le Divorce she makes overt references to James by naming her main character, Isabel Walker, after James's heroine Isabel Archer. "I revere Henry James, but his books always turn out wrong when you think of it. Like in The Ambassadors, which is my favorite of his books, the Americans all go back to their duties in America. In Le Mariage I was playing off that. I looked to French literature—Colette in particular —as a kind of reflex to James. In this case, as Colette would have them do, these characters will go on with their love affairs."
Thus the fictional Clara Holly ponders the words of Colette: "'Vice is bad things done without pleasure.' Does that mean that pleasure is virtuous? She thinks so."
Our ability to find pleasure is one of Diane Johnson's many topics in this novel. "I don't want to sound overtly unpatriotic, but sometimes I do feel that America has kind of missed the point of daily life. We passionately throw ourselves into food fads, for example, but there is no real, ongoing, deep-seated understanding of food and the goodness of food. Or, for another example, the whole argument about the National Endowment for the Arts embodies the trouble Americans seem to have with the pleasures of culture."
Of course it's never quite as simple as these either/or distinctions in Johnson's fictional world. One of the enduring pleasures of Le Mariage is how frequently—and hilariously—our expectations are upended. When the sophisticated Anne-Sophie winds up in Lake Oswego, Oregon, in an ice storm, for example, she is delighted by all that she sees. She admires the kitschy, overstuffed TualatInn where they are forced to stay, praises the organization of American rush hour traffic, and looks forward to visiting Taco Bell.
This characteristic enthusiasm for American kitsch is curious to Johnson. "I should tell you that I have no imagination at all. I just notice things. And one of the things that I've noticed is that French people are full of praise about things that they certainly wouldn't want in their own country. Las Vegas, for example. They love Las Vegas. And that's very infuriating to this American."
The fervency of Johnson's assertion calls to mind her comic description of Anne-Sophie's novelist mother: "Like most novelists, Estelle d'Argel was a bourgeois with moderate habits and intemperate views on many subjects."
Which returns us to the subject of Johnson's life as a novelist, and the playful delights hidden within the generous architecture of Le Mariage. "Some of my description of Estelle I wrote to make my children laugh," she says. "The part about Anne-Sophie's mother writing really shocking things, for example. My children were quite old before they would even read my books.
"But the part about moderate habits is, I think, true of novelists in general. The nature of being a novelist means you have to spend all this time indoors quietly writing. It takes a certain amount of stamina, so novelists tend to be rather sensible. You just can't be drunk or stoned all the time. That," she says, laughing, "is left to the poets."
Alden Mudge works for the California Council for the Humanities.