On the French Women Literature Industrial Complex
I think what so many books get wrong is they focus on performance over embodiment. Follow the rules religiously — sip leek soup and maybe red wine — until one day you awaken, perfectly coiffed, with strong opinions on both bread and interior décor. Je ne sais quoi in 10-step form except, ironically, the French (mostly) don’t do religion and tend to eschew self-help. If French is the language of logic and reason — Molière, Descartes, Pascal — it should follow that minimal makeup alone won’t make a woman French any more than forgetting the word for “cucumber” makes her Spanish.
Still, American Publishing — is it the Brooklyn ladies? — hasn’t gotten the memo.
It took me over a decade before I learned to say “Bonjour.” I was fluent at that point — the habit itself, of saying “hello,” just hadn’t yet occurred to me. I’d open conversations in that typically American way. “I was wondering,” “excuse me,” “can you tell me?” (“How to get downtown,” “is this the right exit,” “what you think of this hair color.”) Then one day I said “hello” — inadvertently acknowledged the humanity and presence of a person before me before launching into whatever else I had in mind — and an entire world opened up all at once. Friendlier, more openly playful.
It took me another decade still to even attempt Quiche Lorraine.
What’s the culinary equivalent of two left feet? For years, that’s how I presented in the kitchen.(Alison Roman, bless her heart, absolutely saved me.)
Here’s what I did learn from a French woman: the cooking part comes later. First, one must learn how to eat. Start with the leek soup, sure, but build from there. Study the difference between apple pie and Tarte Tatin. Down enough Champagne that you actually prefer it unadulterated on Sunday morning, sans le jus d’orange. But most importantly: adopt an entire vocabulary around food. Learn how to reprimand a man who goes into the kitchen for seconds at three in the morning when you served him dinner at nine. Learn how to flirt with the waiter when you ask for dessert.
Attempt to pronounce the items on the menu correctly, sure. Except what they don’t tell you is: a French menu will always bewilder. There will always, always be an ingredient or a preparation style you won’t understand.
It’s the words, is what I’m saying — the thing that unlocks a mindset ostensibly similar and yet so different from our own. To learn French is to learn everything you were taught is unimportant or even sinful. Pleasure, sloth, indulgence, art. It forces you to define yourself, whoever you are or feel yourself becoming, in direct relation to it. For or against — just to grapple with it, either way.
Which is why — for so many American young women — French becomes an essential ingredient to coming of age.
In other words, it’s not about the leek soup directly but rather understanding the vocabulary of women who crave it. Learn what a leek looks like, and how it feels, and how to describe its unique aroma when you chop it. Americans love that expression: “now, you’re speaking my language.” But are you really?
Pop quiz: describe a leek in 1,000 words.
There is one book, I think, that actually gets the French. How to Be Parisian (Wherever You Are). Some Americans rated it two stars on Amazon because they don’t speak French, and the language — the humor, in translation — went right over their head.
TL;DR If you really want to be French, I think you have to start by getting your vowels and consonants all mixed up — by speaking it, thinking in it, dreaming it. Until you reach that threshold where your center quite literally shifts and you feel yourself become, for all intents and purposes, someone else.Because you’re speaking through a different filter, with different expressions of emotion and intonation at your disposal.
You’ll be that woman who “smokes on her way to the countryside for a bit of fresh air.”
And that’s the goal, really: paradoxes, contradictions.
Out of body experiences.
To be fair, Pascal might advocate for minimal makeup just in case.
I have so many thoughts on this interview that I won’t yet share here because it’s insider baseball (pun semi-intended) and I haven’t had the chance to collect myself and really I’m still more of an outsider to this whole professional literary world but, I’ve gone down the rabbit hole and read some of the think pieces related and oh my. Best literary drama since Cat Person, maybe with the exception of Bad Art Friend.
Julie of “Julie and Julia” died last week of cardiac arrest, per The New York Times. I loved the movie based on her blog/book. Related: Does this trend of sudden death have anyone else on edge? Just me? Who else has showed up twice to their doctor in one month with subtle I-think-you-could-call-it-chest-pains and an extra dose of post-COVID anxiety?
I wrote last week about a young woman I mentored in French, Eliza. She’s in the thick of it right now — grasping the reality of what lies before her and Josh, as opposed to dreams they had ahead. Your prayers and thoughtful words have meant more to her than you can know. Josh has made it through a series of major reconstructive surgeries but is still hospitalized and likely will be for some time yet. If you so have it in your heart to donate, you can do so here. There is so much more I wish I could say on this public forum, but I’ll just say every cent given to the young couple is being spent with purpose. If GoFundMe isn’t your thing, you can also take out a paid subscription to this newsletter and I’ll pass it on via CashApp. 100% of November proceeds will go directly to them. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU.
On a much lighter note, thank you, Mary Tabor, for plugging Catalectic in your own Substack, Only Connect. I love making friends through literature and am so honored you’ve invited me as a guest writer. Santé !
I was super sad to hear Julie Powell die. Never followed her blog, but the movie based on her story was always an inspiration.