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.