From Benjamin Franklin to Ernest Hemingway, American expats have felt compelled to chronicle their sometimes simultaneous fascination with, and consternation at, the City of Light. More recent variations on the moveable feast motif include Adam Gopnik's musings on parenthood and other novelties in Paris to the Moon (2000), David Sedaris' hilarious Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) and Edmund White's wittily meandering The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris (2001), and the genre shows no signs of abating.
Alice Kaplan, author of French Lessons: A Memoir (1994), revisits the student-sojourn scenario in Dreaming in French, this time through a Bildungsroman(ish) "triptych" of three exceptional women. They can be seen to typify, Kaplan argues, "the aesthetes, the bohemians, the political activists", and each encountered a particular, and shifting, cultural and political milieu - post-war rationing and vile Turkish toilets juxtaposed with high-society gatherings for Jacqueline Bouvier (later Kennedy Onassis) in 1949; hotel rooms, lesbian bars and beat cafes for Susan Sontag, revelling in sexual self-discovery in 1958; and the relative openness towards African-Americans abutting racism run rampant in the wake of the Algerian War that confronted Angela Davis in 1963. Kaplan's attention to detail - the sound of church bells, soot-black buildings - deftly contextualises the process of unfolding into "translations of their American selves". Yet intriguing inconsistencies remain unplumbed, rendering the desires and assumptions that prodded her subjects' engagements with France to some extent elusive.
While Sontag and Davis produced copious personal outputs - journals, correspondence and in Davis' case, an autobiography - most of Kennedy's papers remain inaccessible to scholars, and her interviews with Arthur Schlesinger Jr, conducted several months after her husband's assassination, were released as Kaplan's book was going to print (ouch). Acknowledging the limits imposed on her work, Kaplan valiantly wrings insights out of celebrity biographies, interviews and the elegant prefaces that Kennedy wrote as an editor. An extraordinary photo of a 19-year-old Kennedy, effortlessly chic in a black strapless gown and pearls, presages the allure she would radiate as First Lady. Kaplan precisely gauges the charisma: "she doesn't look arrogant so much as removed, outside regular time". She contemplates the subsequent "genealogy of her clothes", her triumphant return in 1961 ("I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris," quipped the President) and her predilection for French subject matter at Doubleday, thriving in a vocation embraced at 46 years old, after Aristotle Onassis' death. How then to make sense of her remark to Schlesinger that JFK "didn't like the French, and I loathe the French"? Kaplan but briefly queries whether it was a disavowal of her past, an attempt, perhaps, to disprove suspicion that she was "too French and too international".
Sontag's eventual pre-eminence as a writer, cultural theorist and forcible critic of US foreign policy seems an inevitable trajectory, catalysed by her assimilation and transmission of French avant-garde thought. Having left a son and an improbable marriage to take up a fellowship at the University of Oxford while a doctoral student of philosophy at Harvard University, Sontag ditched academia to reunite with a former lover, Harriet Sohmers, who was living in Paris. There she found a "zone of intense sexual freedom", and she fell for French as passionately as for Sohmers, absorbing French writing with a prowess perfected via vocabulary lists tailored to her nonconformist lifestyle, scrupulously arranged by topic - keeping clean, sex, insulting sobriquets. Yet how do we reconcile her later efforts to rally writers in support of Salman Rushdie, or her residence in Sarajevo during the siege, with her silence in 1958 about the Algerian crisis dividing the nation, her seemingly wilful obliviousness to the French policy of torture? Kaplan does not speculate, only notes that Sohmer's diary vividly detailed the chaos engendered by the French military takeover of Algeria that May.
Davis' study-abroad experience, by contrast, was marked irrevocably by world events, as the bookish undergraduate learned of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the death of four girls from Birmingham, her birthplace. Kaplan's account of Davis' emergence as a theorist of revolution and of the astonishing, wrenching, complicated aftermath of the tragic shootout in California in 1970 is riveting. Although she curiously skirts the intensity of Davis' epistolary love affair with the imprisoned George Jackson, she effectively highlights the rallying of support for Davis by French leftist intellectuals, Jean Genet, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida among them. Writers Davis had studied and then lectured on were now galvanised by her cause: an indelibly French education had somehow come full circle.
Beautifully written, Dreaming in French is an incisive exponent of expatriate literature.
Anne Hogan is director of education, Royal Academy of Dance. She was formerly lecturer in English literature and director
of alumni relations, American University of Paris, and co-founder of ACM Ballet Theatre in Paris.
Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis
By Alice Kaplan. University of Chicago Press. 2pp, £17.00. ISBN 9780226424385. Published 20 March 2012