Marriage Admits Impediments
The great European novelists of the 19th century often took marriage as their topic. For Tolstoy, marriage was a lonely affair; for Flaubert, a tragic one. In America, it was a different case. Readers would be hard-pressed to find more than a casual reference to marriage in Melville. The 20th century, in turn, produced very few great novels of marriage on either continent, so concerned with the individual were that period's novelists. Yet if Diane Johnson's excellent new novel, Le Mariage, is any indication, church bells will be ringing loudly again in the 21st century.
It is appropriate that Johnson should be the one to return to the hallowed state of matrimony. An American who divides her time between San Francisco and Paris, she writes with the sweep and understanding of a modern Tolstoy, skillfully penetrating into the minds of each and every one of her characters. But Johnson's sense of humor is distinctly American: Her characters suffer from comedic bouts of self-consciousness; her plot never misses a chance to delve into the bizarre, even ludicrous elements of the modern world.
And Johnson is no stranger to the material. Her previous novel, Le Divorce, a modern comedy of manners that centers on the breakup of a Franco-American union, was a 1997 National Book Award finalist. This groundParis, the clashing of old and new cultures, and the vicissitudes of married lifebelongs to Diane Johnson.
Le Mariage is essentially the story of the events leading up to the marriage of Tim Nolinger, an American journalist living in Paris, and Anne-Sophie d'Argel, a beautiful young French woman who sells equestrian art at the flea market. Nolinger is the quintessential dispassionate American: He is a contributor to two American magazines, Reliance, a conservative journal, and Concern, a liberal one. When asked how he manages the contradiction, Tim simply shrugs, "I can see both sides" (though he uses only his initials, TAN, in articles for the liberals). Anne-Sophie, on the other hand, is a picture of Frenchness.
As the novel begins, Tim has been tipped off to a case involving a medieval manuscript stolen from the Morgan Library in New York, somehow linked to a mysterious murder that takes place in the first few pages. The case leads him to make the acquaintance of Serge Cray, a famous American film director living in seclusion outside of Paris, and Cray's beautiful wife, Clara Holly, an actress from Oregon. The Crays' marriage is in the last stages of decline. Their passion for each other, such as it may have been, has cooled, and Anne-Sophie and Tim look on them with fear and anxiety, thinking and rethinking their own imminent nuptuals.
The sequence of couples is complete when Delia and Gabriel, vacationing Oregonians who are somehow mixed up in the stolen manuscript/murder case, arrive. Gabriel disappears, and Delia, who walks with a limp, joins up with the two married couples, lending the lethargic air of an immovable tourist to their increasingly chaotic affairs. The Crays get drawn into an internationally publicized hunting controversy; Clara Holly falls in love with her neighbor; Serge Cray becomes obsessed with Delia's ties to the Y2K secessionist movement in Oregon, about which he plans to make a film; Tim and Anne-Sophie struggle to find an apartment; and Gabriel is arrested. Meanwhile, the wedding date is fast approaching. (Le Mariage is welcome comic relief for frantic wedding planners: Nothing could be more stressful than this one.)
Johnson negotiates her complex plot with mastery. There are no dead subplots in the novel. With the grace of a Tolstoy, she tends to each of her character's inner lives. We are privy to Serge Cray's artistic turmoil, Clara Holly's desperation for her lost youth, Tim's pragmatic self-haranguing dread, Anne-Sophie's linguistic concerns (which lead her to read Henry Miller, hunting for words like "horny" and "fuck"), and Delia's innocent self-righteousness. Johnson writes with what can only be called, considering her subject matter, joie de vivreshe clearly loves Paris and all the people and situations it contains.
Perhaps this is what lends her novel its 19th-century qualities; like Tolstoy and Flaubert, Johnson has the broad mind of a writer who loves and is interested in all classes of people. Like Tim, she can see both sides of every situation and doesn't balk at portraying them all.
Johnson also has a great feel for the contemporary French milieu, particularly for the Americans who live in Franceprincesses from Cincinnati, rich expatriates, art collectorsall of whom are trying to live like the French yet secretly believe themselves superior to them. Johnson writes with a knowledge of these situations that can only be firsthand, yet readers who have never crossed the Atlantic will know immediately how to regard them. Like others in the long tradition of American expatriate writers in Paris, Johnson has used her dual allegiance to escape the pitfalls of both cultures and produce a book that portrays each one with severity, perception, and humor.
J. P. Silverstein lives in Marfa, Texas.
About the Author
Diane Johnson is the author of the bestselling novel Le Divorce, a 1997 National Book Award finalist, as well as 11 other books. She divides her time between San Francisco and Paris.
In the end, it's Johnson's insights that account for the charm of these books ... Her novels, of course, retained the characteristic mixture of earthly sensuality and astute judgments about human nature that had made her reputation."April 10, 2000
New York Post
At her best - and 'Le Mariage' is certainly that - Johnson's juggles a cleaver plot and complex characters with both wit and soul."April 2, 2000
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Even more knowing and perceptive than Le Divorce, Johnson's second novel about American expatriates in France is another wickedly clever comedy of manners. Her amused irony infuses this story of two romantic relationships. Good-natured Tim Nolinger, an easygoing journalist of mixed American and Belgian ancestry, is engaged to adorable Anne-Sophie d'Arget, who runs a boutique selling equestrian memorabilia in the Paris flea market. When Tim pursues a story about a stolen medieval manuscript called the Driad Apocalypse, their lives intersect with those of a former American film star, Clara Holly, and her husband, famous and reclusive director Serge Cray, who live in a ch teau in the suburbs of Paris. Peripheral characters include Anne-Sophie's mother, a cynical Parisienne novelist whose romance novels contain platitudinous advice about love that her daughter takes seriously; various members of the American community in Paris; the villagers of Etang-la-reine, who resent the rich property owners from the States and whose anger about the loss of their hunting rights triggers a plot against the Crays; two visitors from Clara's hometown in Oregon, and the members of a millennium cult there, who are pivotal in the drama of the purloined papers. What will be even more satisfying to Johnson's fans is the appearance of a character from Le Divorce, the dashing Antoine de Persand. In six degrees of separation, everybody is connected, yet the coincidences are artfully managed. Johnson's crisp manipulation of the engagingly convoluted plot is rooted in her central theme of French misconceptions about Americans, and vice versa. As exemplified by Holly and Cray, even those who share the same culture habitually fail to estimate the other accurately. Johnson's barbs are sophisticated and sharp, her amused irony is easily maintained, and her finesse at narrative is as fine tuned as her cultural sensitivity and her instincts about human behavior. As the novel ends, it is not surprising that le mariage of Anne-Sophie and Tim seems doomed by misunderstandings, but an adulterous liaison between two other characters conveys the mesmerizing passion of true love. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Like Henry James and Edith Wharton, Johnson's most recent novels (Persian Nights, Le Divorce) have explored the cultural misunderstandings between the sophisticated Old World (Iran, France) and the brash yet na ve New World (America)--but without the tortuous Jamesian prose and with a contemporary satirical wit. Her latest, Le Mariage, is a delightful companion, rather than a sequel, to the National Book Award-nominated Le Divorce. Set again in Paris with a few overlapping characters, the plot revolves around two couples--Tim Nolinger, an Belgian American journalist engaged to the very French Anne-Sophie, a dealer in equine collectibles; and the very beautiful American Clara, a former actress married to the reclusive film director Serge Clay. Thrown into the entertaining mix is a stolen illuminated manuscript, a murdered flea market dealer, Y2K cults, an adulterous liaison, and of course Johnson's perceptive and witty insights on love, marriage, and Anglo-French relations. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/99.]--Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Johnson, one of our most astute cultural critics, is
conveying a message about the anything-goes
dishevelment of modern life . . . A splendid
entertainment, decorated with speculations of a
The New York Times Book Review
Like Jane Austen, Johnson delights in the worldly rituals surrounding courtship and marriage, but she is just as interested in the far-reaching legal consequences of marital unions and disunions, and in what laws can reveal about the cultures they are enlisted to defend.
&151;The New Yorker
From the Publisher
"Splendid entertainment... Johnson is one of our most astute cultural critics." The New York Times Book Review
"A comic novel in the classic manner, with smart style, piquant suspense, and dog-earingly epigrammatic prose." San Francisco Chronicle
"A witty romp." Elle
"Johnson whips love and marriage into a frothy souffle...delicious." Entertainment Weekly
"Like Jane Austen, Johnson delights in the worldly rituals surrounding courtship and marriage...she is a philosopher as much as a novelist."The New Yorker
"Rich, nuanced, and highly satisfying." Glamour
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 3: Anne-Sophie
The agreeable Tim Nolinger was the future son-in-law of the well-known French novelist Estelle d'Argel (Les Fruits; Doric, Ionian; Plusieurs Fois), engaged to her daughter Anne-Sophie. What a misfit the two of them, Estelle and Anne-Sophie. Her daughter's fiancé did not quite please the worldly and practical Estelle, who had greater ambitions for Anne-Sophie, had hoped for a count or a promising politician, or a future Academician, or at the least a sports figure-if from a respectable sport like tennis. Or at least someone French. Tim did play tennis, of course, but only as a form of recreation.
Anne-Sophie, a concern to her mother, was the American community's ideal young Frenchwoman, trim, confident, flirtatious, cheerful, enterprising, with her little shop. After attending Sciences-Po, she might have assisted a government minister or become an attaché de presse at a publishing house, but drifted instead into dealing in horsey artifacts, a hobby since girlhood. Anne-Sophie's stand, Cheval-Art, formerly belonged to a Monsieur Lavalle who, as he aged, spent less and less time there and over the years had pretty much turned the business over to Anne-Sophie, especially the bookkeeping and the buying; he would come in occasionally on Monday afternoons to take a turn at the stand. Their association had begun when she was still at school, and hung about, little by little betraying a knowledge, remarkable in a jeune fille, of Niderviller horse figurines and antique tack. At first her mother had mistrusted Monsieur Lavalle's intentions regarding Anne-Sophie, but she needn't have, for Lavalle was altogether gay.
Anne-Sophie, at home in her small apartment on the rue Saint-Dominique, was preparing to bathe. Rosy and compact, her breasts the little pink-tipped breasts of a Boucher nymph, she brought to mind a particular picture in the Musée du Luxembourg. Nipples just peeking out of the suds. Perhaps a polished toe surfacing at the faucet end. Anne-Sophie lined up the stuff she used for her elaborate baths: bath oil, soap, shampoo, rinse, crème de gommage, razor, pumice.
But tonight she felt too devastated, and at the same time excited, to unscrew the tops and embark on the long, absorbing ritual which might lull her mind into a sense of the ordinary after the shocking events of the day. These she wanted to keep a keen memory of, for Tim, when she met him at the princess's party. His journalist instincts would prompt questions she wanted to be able to answer. She had noticed everything, she thought, in case Tim should ask something specific, like "What was the guy wearing?" Gray shirt, blue knitted gilet, blue knitted tie soaked in blood! When it came to Tim Nolinger, Anne-Sophie had a Frenchwoman's sense of vocation-but she was also an expert in hunting prints and a very good businesswoman.
Anne-Sophie had from her novelist mother Estelle two versions of maternal lore on how to lead life. On the one hand were the lessons of the real life Anne-Sophie saw being lived by her mother and father, her brother and herself; on the other was the general philosophy she found expressed in Estelle's works, which represented a reality at once more sophisticated, more cynical, and more exacting. For instance, the comtesse Ribemont in Against the Tide says, "Never make a man feel guilty," whereas at home, her mother had often ignored the countess's principles by snapping at her husband, "You might have called, I've been frantic," or "Where have you been?"
Of the two, Anne-Sophie had concluded that the countess was probably right. There had been nothing really wrong between her parents, just a certain detachment Anne-Sophie found disappointing. Daily life could be led more beautifully, more passionately; Anne-Sophie had therefore patterned her behavior and beliefs on things her mother had written. "Pay attention to the petits soins," Madame Godchaud, the worldly grandmother in Plusieurs Fois by Estelle d'Argel, tells her granddaughter who is about to be married. The little details of grooming. That meant obsessive depilation and having dainty lingerie. So Anne-Sophie was careful of the petits soins both by nature and by the study of her mother's works, whereas in life Estelle had never mentioned such things, beyond the usual admonitions about clean underwear.
Patterning yourself after books can make you seem rather literal-minded, unable to figure things out for yourself, so Anne-Sophie was taken by some people to be too literal-minded. And someone interested in horses, in the common mind, was bound to be earthy and simple-a girl cannot be both horsey and flighty. So Anne-
Sophie was misunderstood as a sensible outdoorsy girl, when in fact she also had a yearning for luxe and frivolity.
She clamped her mirror between her knees to keep it out of the suds and worked on her eyebrows, but her mind wasn't on them. She was thinking of the gruesome sight she had seen that day in the flea market.
The reception was at the undeniably grand rooms of an elderly American, the princess Dorothy Minor Sternholz, married to Blaise. Sternholz was not a French prince, of course, but something more easterly, perhaps Lithuanian or Czech, his a flimsy, distant title more imposed on him than claimed. (The French love titles, their revolutions notwithstanding. For that matter, Americans do too.) Blaise Sternholz the prince, the publisher of a sporting newspaper and a member of the International Olympic Committee, had been raised in the Sixteenth Arrondissement and had never been to Lithuania. Dorothy was a permanent fixture among Americans in the City of Light, and had notable art works acquired during a period before her marriage when, on the evidence of a number of paintings she posed for, she appears to have known quite a few French artists quite well.
The American community in Paris was something of a world unto itself. Americans there had their charities, their futile long-distance involvement in American politics, their periodic attempts to disseminate American wisdom, thought, and literature to France as in the days of Tom Paine, their English-language cooking classes, their music, their American Church and American Cathedral, their knot of French friends, their effusive celebrations of the slightly has-been American celebrities who turned up here, their embassy presided over by someone amusing sometimes-the new ambassador being viewed warily after the radiant hospitality of the last one-and the special store where they could buy their peanut butter and popcorn. Perhaps there were no natural contradictions between the French landscape and the Americans who inhabited it so diffidently, but it often seemed that Americans would do well to stay out of what they did not understand. Or was it they who brought the harm?
Arriving at Dorothy's party before Tim, Anne-Sophie embraced the Americans of her parents' age assembled there. Everyone kissed her in the French fashion. Especially intent kisses from Olivia Pace's elderly husband, the rich Robert Pace, did not escape her, nor his squeeze of her hand; he was what the French call a vieux beau. Dorothy crossed to give her the usual two kisses. The princess's affection for Anne-Sophie stemmed in part from fellow feeling. Whereas Anne-Sophie's real mother was so unlike Anne-Sophie that she had never understood her, Dorothy did. Anne-Sophie's interest in horses put her in mind of her own interest in sports, and she often remembered the sense of unfeminine deviance and marginality that went with it, though Anne-Sophie was French femininity itself. Dorothy prided herself on being a great expert on French attitudes and culture, knowledge largely gleaned from her husband, whom she had met as a member of the U.S. Olympic rifle team forty years before.
Anne-Sophie raised her delightful chin, slightly dimpled like a child's, and gazed around the room for people more amusing to talk to. Disappointment. The usual suspects, and no other French people except the hopeless Madame Wallingforth. With despair she scanned the pretty rooms in deep salmon pink, curtained in green, candelabra of French vermeil, oil paintings of American subjects, especially barns and petits bateaux, large sofas in lime green, growly Anglo voices, that tall red-eyed anthropologist, and the pretty secretary or whatever she was, about whom, always, many rumors, the usual drab professor in bow tie and the plump wife-was this a reception for one of the bow ties, a famous economist or historian, was that it?-someone who had written a book, another book, about France? Zut, they produced them endlessly, anglophones and their books. Even Tim threatened to write one.
"Your reprehensible Tim telephoned to say he'll be late," Dorothy told her. "He's stuck in a taxi from the airport."
"Tant mieux, I'll have revenge then before he gets here." Anne-Sophie laughed and made a beeline for the good-looking black actor Sam Strait.
Reprinted from Le Mariage by Diane Johnson by permission of Dutton Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Diane Johnson. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.