An American in Paris

Diane Johnson, whose novels limn the cultural differences between France and America, talks about our "abiding fascination" with the French and their country


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When an avalanche in the French Alps claims the life of Adrian Venn, an older expatriate Brit living in France, the characters in Diane Johnson's newest novel, L'Affaire, must suddenly weather their own avalanche of events, set off by cultural disconnects among Americans, British, and French. From the outset, there's doubt cast as to the cause of the tragedy: Was it low-flying American war planes on their way to "meddle" in the Middle East, as the French believe? Was it a careless British skier shouting with abandon? And who stands to inherit Venn's fortune: His British children from his first marriage? His grown-up, illegitimate French child who has suddenly surfaced? His current, (much) younger American wife and their child?

Johnson assembles the large group of potential heirs in the Hotel Croix St. Bernard in Valmeri, France, where most of the characters are viewed through the eyes of Amy Hawkins, the charmingly earnest yet naive Californian who witnessed the avalanche. When the group gets down to affairs—both business and romantic—the characters enter a minefield of conflicting national traditions and their own, intransigent perceptions of each other. Suddenly, everyone is a possible threat (though still, in the end, a possible lover), and a modern-day comedy of manners ensues; who will sleep with whom, who will inherit what, and who will chip away at the thin veneer of customary French civility and politesse maintained by the multicultural heirs at the hotel?

In the tradition of such international novels as Henry James's Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady, Johnson's L'Affaire tells a light-hearted tale of a young, wealthy, independent-minded Americaine as she "enlightens herself" abroad. The third of a loose trilogy about Americans in France (the first two were the acclaimed bestsellers Le Divorce and Le Mariage), L'Affaire, like its predecessors, weaves a Jamesian plot of Americans encountering the formal mores of French society. Yet in all three works, Johnson puts a contemporary twist on the old form—Johnson's Americans are extremely modern women. Within the social, political, legal, and sexual realms, each woman faces French culture head-on, bucking tradition's niceties when it suits her, and ultimately choosing her own fate rather than passively accepting it.

Diane Johnson is well-placed to write about the conflict between French and American cultures. For the past several years she has split her time between California and Paris, spending nine months in France and summers in America. The novels that have sprung from her years living abroad are her best-known works, but Johnson's interests and pursuits are wide-ranging. She is a true woman of letters: an essayist, a travel writer, a biographer, a literary critic with a Ph.D. in English, a journalist, a short-story writer, a screenwriter (her first screenplay was for Stanley Kubrick's The Shining). Pick a genre, and you'll find a gem. Still, Johnson told me, "I guess if I could only write one thing, I'd stick with novels. But I'd hate to not be able to express my opinions on things."

I spoke with Diane Johnson by phone from her home in San Francisco about her new work and her admiration for foreign culture.

—Cara Feinberg

Diane Johnson
Diane Johnson   

Though you've written many different types of books, you are best-known for your fiction about American expatriates in France. What is it that captivates you about French culture?

I'm interested generally in other cultures and the way Americans fit into them. It just happens that I'm in France because of my husband's work. That said, I find French culture fascinating in that it represents such an ideal for Americans, at the same time that we like to denigrate it. There is this kind of abiding fascination, so I think I'm lucky in having found this very good subject.

What do you think spurs this "abiding fascination"?

You know, I ask myself that a lot because there are so many books written about Paris, and they always get sent to me. I get about two galleys a week now of somebody's book appreciating Paris. They're all very nice, and they all get published and they all sell, because we are fascinated with Paris. In some sense, it's what we would like America to be like. It's a model of beauty, convenience, civility, and even safety. These are all things we don't have. Alas, we often sacrifice the beauty of our cities. I sound a bit preachy now, even a bit like Edith Wharton, who wrote about the same subject: what a scandal American riverbanks were, compared to the beauty of walking on the Seine.

Has living in France made you feel differently about American culture?

Yes, it has. There are things I absolutely love about America: the food in San Francisco, many things about the city itself, and obviously, my family and friends. But I've come to resent the automobile enormously. We've ruined our society by making things only accessible by automobile and not organizing our cities the way European cities are. The parking problems and the road rage make driving a nightmare, at least in California. Too bad our politicians don't travel or aspire to learn some of these things.

That's the other thing I've learned from being over in France: how reluctant Americans are to look at any other society and profit from what they see or might learn from it. It's as though we have a national closed mind. It's partly because we're brainwashed from childhood to believe that this is the best place, the freest society. It's not any freer than most European societies, and it certainly has a lower standard of living. Why we can't face that, I don't know.

How are those entrenched American beliefs different from French national pride?

French national pride is more generally about their culture; they feel they are more reasonable, their food is better, they're more civil. They're just proud of all the features of their society. Americans are more self-critical in some ways. But we don't seem to get anywhere with reform. There are so many conflicting political interests that prevent anything from happening. I'm always struck by that when I come back to the U.S. The educational dialogue can't seem to happen, because of identity politics. In France there's none of this group identity politics. The French have a different attitude than we do about assimilation. For instance, take Emile Abboud [a French character of North African descent in L'Affaire]. He's the most fiercely proud Frenchman of them all. There certainly are unassimilated North Africans who are stigmatized or discriminated against, who live in ghetto-like situations in suburbs of Paris and other cities. But the emphasis in schools is to assimilate, so that each child, no matter where he or she comes from, is told about Napolean and French history.

Do you feel as if you've assimilated there?

I still feel like a stranger. I wouldn't say I'm an expatriate, because I still feel very American and I really live in America. It's where I vote, and where I am for several months during the year. I feel like a visitor to France, not exactly like a tourist, but in that intermediate realm, even though we have a lot of friends there now—French, American, English, Dutch.

Your novels are based on very keen cultural observation, and your characters address and confront many national stereotypes. What type of research went into creating these people?

I think all novel writing is, to some extent, autobiographical, even if it's just your own experience of the people whose stories you're telling. There's certainly a strong autobiographical element to my writing, but it's more about my perceptions than about a specific event I've experienced. I don't really know anyone who was caught in an avalanche, but my sister-in-law's cousin was killed in an avalanche in Sun Valley a few years ago, so I know that it can happen. There are little links like that that enable you to imagine.

As for cultural stereotypes, I guess what people say is that there is always some truth to them. It's very clear to see what goes on between the British and the French. They say the very same things about each other: be careful and count your change, people don't bathe very much, and that it's very unsanitary in the other country. Whatever it is they say about Americans, of course, they don't say to me, so it's easier for me to take in what they say about other cultures.

In all three books in your French trilogy, you tend to depict Americans abroad as naive, well-meaning, and somewhat meddlesome. Are they?

Yes. That comes from observation, really. I've seen a lot of examples of that—of our optimism and naiveté. It was all completely typified by the Iraq War. The French saw that as very, very American, to just assume that we could go in and fix things. I think it probably is a national quality that we possess.

I imagine, though, that you started this book before the Iraq War.

Yes, before 9/11.

Your depiction of politics and the French view of American foreign policy, then, is amazingly prescient. It could be France today. For instance, after the avalanche in L'Affaire, the French immediately blame American military planes that are heading to "meddle" in Middle Eastern conflicts.

I know, isn't that eerie? I've noticed that most writers, or novelists anyway, encounter this. You work over a period of time, and then things have a way of coming true over the course of the novel. The original inspiration for the avalanche in L'Affaire was the American plane about five years ago which brought down the ski tram in Italy. That was in the back of my mind. It was an American hot-shot pilot who was flying way, way below the legal limit and cut the ski tram cable, killing ten or fifteen tourists. All of the ensuing development played right into my hands.

What did the events leading up to the Iraq War mean for you as an American living in Paris?

Well, there was a good deal of antiwar sentiment, not only among the French but among Americans in Paris. If you'd been in Paris during 9/11 and its aftermath, of course you were shocked, but you weren't subject to all the flag waving and nationalism of America, so you could be a little more objective. Also, you didn't risk being stigmatized as a traitor if you didn't believe in the war in Iraq. In fact, one of the most outspoken communities against the war consisted of Americans in Paris. Of course the French supported and applauded them. But even if you didn't protest, it was by no means a liability to be American. The French have said consistently that they are not anti-American, they are just anti-Bush.

You must have followed the news avidly, both American and European, during the 9/11 aftermath. Did press coverage in France and Europe differ from American news?

During the Gulf War, there was a great deal more graphic and less cheerful coverage on the European networks. We could compare them because we get CNN, MSNBC, British networks, even al Jazeera. I was fascinated. I spent a lot of time just comparing them. Ours was very jingoistic, even on the most judicious of them: CNN. Of course, al Jazeera was too, but in the opposite direction. On the BBC, for instance, you saw more accurate depictions of the disasters as well as the upsides of what was going on. They were a little franker. I think it was the BBC that started saying that the rescue of Private Lynch really was nothing like what you saw on American television. In general, the other European stations were more candid, I guess. In that sense, you feel like you're getting more information over there. In fact, sometimes we were shocked at what people hadn't heard in the U.S. There was a little boy with his limbs blown off in Baghdad when an American bomb landed and killed all of his relatives. Somehow, he came to the notice of the BBC, and that story was one that they followed for a long time. Yet CNN just did not dwell on this type of story, or the negative sides of the conflict.

In this heated political climate, how have the French and English reacted to your novels?

The French have not been particularly enthusiastic, I would have to say. The English, however, have liked them. My books have always come out and done relatively well in England. They haven't seen L'Affaire, though, which is the only one in which there are English characters.

I was warned that the French would be a little distant about what they might take to be criticism of themselves, although it actually isn't. But they don't like people making observations about "The French." I hope that will change when the film version of Le Divorce is released in France, because there's space to make them laugh about themselves and the Americans as well. It hasn't opened there yet, but it will in October.

What did you think of the film?

I liked it. I think it's a lot of fun, and there are inevitably these visual things that you couldn't put in a book that, I think, enlarge it: the wonderful food and scarves and the look of Paris. I liked all the actors and I think I was lucky with this interpretation rather than some other.

You were not the writer on this screenplay?

No, I wasn't.

You've written a screenplay before, though, haven't you?

Yes, I wrote the screenplay for The Shining all those years ago. And since then I've written a couple that haven't really come to anything.

Had you ever written a film before The Shining?

No, I hadn't, actually. Stanley Kubrick was interested in making a horror movie. One of the things he was considering was my novel, The Shadow Knows. Ultimately, he decided to make the Stephen King story instead, but in the meantime, we had hit it off. It really was a stroke of luck. It was a scary movie, but not in a tacky way. It's an artful film, thanks to Kubrick, who was a great genius.

I'm very impressed with Jim Ivory as well, the director of Le Divorce. I know that sounds like Hollywood talk. But he's so un-Hollywood, like Kubrick. I consider that a great compliment. He works entirely outside the envelope of Hollywood with all of its culture—whatever one wants to call it. He's very true to his vision of the art of the thing, very obsessive about being true to the tale.

He's known for choosing very un-Hollywood stories to begin with—a lot of Victorian novels and literary works.

Yes, like Howard's End and such.

It makes sense, then, that he'd be interested in your novels. Your writing has often been compared to these types of authors—Henry James, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen.

It's very flattering. I can't claim to deserve it. It's been very... well, a blush comes to the cheeks. But those are the writers I admire.

Did you have them in mind when you began writing?

I certainly had James in mind when I set out to write Le Divorce, because I was thinking of a kind of anti-James novel in which the Americans would be the wicked bringers-of-trouble and the French would be the naive and good people. But that shifted a bit by L'Affaire, because Amy Hawkins is, in a way, a prototypical Jamesian hero: the naive and optimistic American.

Did that shift come as a result of the time you spent living in France?

Yes, I think so. As I was there longer, I began to see the Jamesian types. I think my view is also true—that Americans have brought much mischief to France—but I can see the Jamesian side too.

How would you differentiate your characters from those created by James and Austen and other writers with whom you've been compared?

Well, I certainly have a much simpler literary style. I think the characters, though, could certainly be in a Jane Austen novel. That is, Amy could be Emma. Emma had those meddlesome qualities. But in the long run, you hope that the characters will emerge from their tradition. You can't get away from traditions, but you hope that the characters you create will acquire their own complexity and dimension. I hope that's true. But, if it isn't true yet, I hope to write better and better novels. You know, you never quite succeed in your own mind.

The writer's perfectionism shines through.

Well, yes, but it's also the perfection of the idea that you had before you started, compared to what you end up with. It's never quite the same as the vision.

Your work has often also been categorized as "feminist literature," largely because it often centers on young, independent women. What do you think of this label?

Well, I don't like labels, but I certainly wouldn't claim not to be a feminist. I think any nice woman is, in some ways, a feminist. But my novels are not on any type of particular feminist crusade. I'm a woman, and so naturally I write from a woman's point of view. That's based more on literary grounds, not ideological.

As for my characters' independence, they are no more or less independent than French women. French girls are quite independent too. In some ways actually, I think that the status of women is quite a bit higher in France than in America. I think it's a subtle thing, but French men admire the things that women do more than American men do. And Americans have this gap, to quote a recent book, where the men must sit and watch football and not do "un-manly" things. French men cook, and they'll stop and look at store windows to look at women's clothes—I've seen this over and over again. They're interested in fashion as well as food. They have a higher regard for domesticity in general. French women work in high numbers, and they probably have the same problems with pay gap and such, but they've been working longer. There's a tradition here of women running stores and boutiques. I think if I asked a French woman, she'd probably disagree and say "French men are totally pigs." But from what I've observed, they're less chauvinistic.

What is next for you?

I love writing about France, but I suppose I probably should move on to more general European issues. I find that these days France doesn't strike me as exotic. I've been there seven or eight years and it's beginning to seem relatively normal. I'm beginning to see they're right in a lot of things that struck me as odd or wrong at first. I'm beginning to accept the way they do things, and to think they're right to eat dinner at 8 o'clock...

That said, I'm going to write a small book about Paris next. National Geographic does a series of writers on cities, and I will be doing one on Paris. Then I suppose I'll go on writing novels, though I don't yet have one in mind. It's necessary to take a break.