About the Author
Alice Kaplan is the author of French Lessons: A Memoir, The Collaborator, The Interpreter, and Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, and the translator of OK, Joe, The Difficulty of Being a Dog, A Box of Photographs, and Palace of Books. Her books have been twice finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards, once for the National Book Award, and she is a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She holds the John M. Musser chair in French literature at Yale. She lives in Guilford, Connecticut.
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"Let's get her to say it." My sister was ambitious for me.
"She's only three." My brother was the skeptic.
"Come on, I think she can do it. Come on!"
"All right, all right, let's see if she can do it."
"OK, repeat after us: 'Everything I like is.'"
"Everything I like is."
And on it went, ending with the three big words: "illegal," "immoral," and "fattening."
Getting my sister and brother's attention, winning a place in their games, was the biggest challenge. In an ideal world, my sister would let me sit on her bed when her friend Jane came over. My brother would let me watch Perry Mason with him; together we would guess who did it. I couldn't believe my luck when they decided to teach me a saying. The two of them together! The saying was immortalized on a piece of knotty pine one of them had brought back from camp: "Everything I like is either illegal, immoral, or fattening." The words were burned on the wood with a special tool you got to use in crafts class. The words were written, not just printed, with curlicues on the ends of letters, and a flourish underneath.
I didn't know what "illegal" meant. I didn't know what "immoral" meant. I had a clue about "fattening," but I didn't know what it had to do with "illegal" and "immoral." I figured if I could learn to say it, my brother and sister would let me in on other games. "Everything I like is either illegal, immoral, or fattening. Everything I like is either illegal immoral or fattening." I said it again and again until I was dizzy and all the words dissolved into one word, "everythingilikeiseitherillegalimmoralorfattening."
"Not bad." They had a glint in their eye.
My parents gathered around. I performed the sentence for them, with my brother and sister standing proudly by. My father laughed loudest.
It was the biggest language thrill produced in the house since my brother had learned the Tom Lehrer song "Fight Fiercely Harvard" and explained to his elementary school teacher that a football was a spheroid. ("Throw that spheroid down the field and fight! fight! fight!") The teacher had called home to report my brother's astonishing vocabulary.
"Well kids, let's hope it doesn't turn out to be true." My mother made the exit line so she could get started on dinner. The rest of them scattered.
I was left standing in the living room, contemplating my success. Daddy laughed. He understood. What a miracle. I didn't even understand the sentence and it still worked! My father looked just the way he looked when other adults came over for dinner and they talked in the living room after dinner, and he would lean back in his wing chair with his legs crossed, and guffaw. I amused him, as if I were a grownup. All it took was saying grownup words.
When I started to talk on my own, I couldn't be stopped. When I was in first grade, my sister's friends could hardly stand to ride to school with me in the car. I was loud and unrelenting. I liked to run my own bath water while I sang the song of the rest of my life, endless verses with my own lyrics: I would rule the world, I would sing on a stage, I would travel the seas. My father liked to listen to me sing.
Listening now to my childhood as the French professor I've become, what I hear first are scenes of language. Two Yiddish words came down to me from hearing my mother talk on the phone with her Jewish friends. She used a word for incompetency, "shlemiel," and a word for wild nonsensical ideas, "mishegossen." I heard just enough Yiddish in childhood to imagine a world of awkward, foolish people with wild plans that turned to buffoonery. Yiddish sounds, in and of themselves, were tempting, full of vulgar but thrilling possibilities, like "oy" with its diphthong you could stretch in your mouth for as long or short as you wanted. My grandmother, Ethel Yaeger, had a longer version of "oy": "oy vey ist mir." She mumbled it under her breath. There was also "Gesundheit — ist besser wie krankeit," a ritual sentence she used if one of us sneezed ("it's better than sickness"). There was "Gut in himmel," part acknowledgment of the power of God, part anger at whatever inconvenience He had caused.
The words stuck out too much for me to use at Northrop Collegiate, the private girls' school I had gone to since kindergarten. They made me feel funny, "oy" especially. "Oy" was in the same category as swear words, satisfying and ugly. I liked to say it to myself. "Wherever did you learn to say that," my mother asked, in mock shock, when I punctuated a sentence with "oy." When I got to college I heard people "oying" and "oy veying" with great ease, loud and clear. They sounded brazen to me.
I grew up half a block from a city lake in an old Minneapolis neighborhood populated by prosperous Republicans with names like "Colby" and "Dorsey" and "White." My parents hadn't migrated with others of their generation to the middle-class Jewish suburb, St. Louis Park, because my father wanted to be near a lake. Our house had been built in 1914 for people with servants. There were front stairs and back stairs, a bell button buried in the dining room floor, and on the wall of the dining room, an English hunting scene. There was an eight-burner restaurant stove with a griddle for pancakes, and a butler's pantry with the cupboards painted cream outside and mandarin red inside. There were five bedrooms and a library for my father, and a clothes chute, and a separate garage with a big lilac tree, and a rock garden for my mother. She had a garden smock and gloves and would climb around out there while my father was at work. In the spring the lilac bloomed and the smell came into our house, the smell of our prosperity.
The previous owners had left a set of papers on the radiator in the dining room, which my parents found the day they moved in. It was a detective's report assuring the old owners that although we were Jews, our general comportment was in line with the gentility of the neighborhood. Was the seller stupid enough to leave the report by mistake, or did he want us to see it and to understand our social responsibilities? Did it prove that we belonged there, that we were the "exception"? This episode sat in the back of my mind as I grew up. I watched us. We were on trial, being upright for the neighborhood.
We were so American. It seems now that no one will ever again have that sense of being American that we had then, in the time between the Second World War and Vietnam. It was the time of our father's success and our growing up.
We spoke American in that house: I can't reproduce this language, but I know exactly what I mean by it. It was American more for what we talked about than how it sounded, although it is amazing to think that in one generation, a language could become so native, so comfortable, so normal, with no sense whatever of its relative newness: my parents were, after all, the first ones in their families to be born into English.
"Mom, why did you only go out with Jewish boys?"
"My god, I didn't even think about it. That was our world, we had no choice. You've got to understand, things were very different then. At Douglas School they said that Jews smelled like garlic. We Jewish students sat together in grade school, in high school, and at the University of Minnesota. Why, we even had our own table at the library. It was so limiting!"
The world had kept her at one table in the library. She wanted our world to be different.
My mother still corrects my English grammar, in speech and in writing: "'to whom,' not 'to who'"; "'effective,' not 'affective'"; "'he did well,' but 'he is good.'" She corrects the number of times I use "very." She is against waste in language. Her sentences are short and blunt, yet ripe with innuendo and the promise that more is being said than meets the ear. Now I write in the staccato Midwestern style she taught me.
I could depend on each of my parents to utter fixed expressions in certain circumstances. My father brought the law home from work. "Don't make a federal case out of it," he would say. My mother would say — an expression from around town, Irish maybe — "the jig is up!" When she and I would come home from shopping for shoes, or a winter coat, or a new school uniform, she'd open the back door of the house and peek around the corner into the kitchen and pronounce us "home again, Finnegan." I liked the satisfying sounds, the click of the words over her palate, in "jig" and "Finnegan."
Our dinner table was the place to learn language etiquette: what to say, what rhythm, when to step in, when to keep out. Our table was civil and civic. Dinner was at the same time every night, and it took forty-five minutes. Levine Blue served the meal in time to get the last bus home to the north side of town, where my father had grown up in a Jewish neighborhood, now a black neighborhood separated from us by a freeway. My father sat at the head of the table with his back to the kitchen door, still in his work suit, brown, light brown shoes with the little holes up by the toe. My sister was across the table from my father, eating fast so she would be excused early. I was next to my mother and across the table from my brother. My brother and I were fighting under the table with our feet to see who could press the servant's button under the oriental rug.
Then my father cut the meat. There was pot roast cooked to a soft gray in onion soup mix and standing rib for occasions. Sometimes there were Swedish meatballs and only rarely my father's favorite, tongue with Spanish rice, which the kids weren't expected to eat. My father led the nightly discussion on current events. He asked my brother questions. My brother could name all the members of the Cabinet except the postmaster general by the time he was nine. My father went to get the World Almanac from his study. He read from it, to make sure my brother knew all the names, and the spelling. My sister was fishing the last tomato out of the wooden salad bowl, down at her end. She wanted to go upstairs to her room and listen to an Elvis record on the hi-fi and read fashion magazines. She had a dressing table full of lipstick and brushes and combs and colognes. If I behaved right she would let me come in and watch.
I loved to hide in that house. I hid under the grand piano, to watch the argyle socks of my sister's dates. I crouched on the staircase, to watch my parents' parties. I hid behind the couch. Everyone had an activity I wanted to observe.
After dinner, my father sank into the wing chair with a newspaper and smoked L&Ms. A corner of the living room belonged to him, consisting of the wing chair, a table with a chess set on it, and a grand piano across from the table. He sat in that chair and rubbed one hand through his sandy gray hair and leaned his cheek, freckled with white stubble, against a quilted upholstery fabric of green song larks. I can hear the ice clinking in his glass, one of the gold and black glasses they'd gotten as anniversary presents with "Sidney and Leonore" printed on it. He put the glass down by the chess set next to his ashtray and picked up his cigarette and breathed in, a deep sigh of a breath.
My family had made the transition from diaspora Yiddish to American English in a quick generation. You couldn't hear the shadow of an accent, unless my grandmother was around.
Until I heard Risa, a recent Russian immigrant who gives manicures at the Paris Health Club in New York City, I had completely forgotten the sound of my grandmother's accent. I was going there weekly, to the salon, to offset the strains of my untenured teaching job in the French department at Columbia. "Let me see those hands, darling." I closed my eyes and surrendered my hands. Risa laid her hands on mine, deftly scraping away at excess cuticle. It was my grandmother's soft hands, her voice, too. It was Nanny! Her "r" had the same lilt as Risa's, more of a gargle than a roll. There was throat in her voice, too, "acch" sounds and spit. Her "a"s turned into "e"s: "Ellis," not "Alice"; "fess" instead of "face"; "nels" instead of "nails," like Risa's.
My grandmother lived on Fremont Avenue in West Minneapolis in a post-Victorian block of two-family duplexes and brick apartments bordered on one corner by the reform temple, Temple Israel, and on the other by the Red Owl Supermarket. It was a quick walk to pick up sprinkles for sugar cookies or some bridge mix or to go to services. "Don't get in a car with any strangers, don't go with strange boys!" She would give me a lesson when we walked alongside some innocent blonde grocery boy, wheeling the cart to 2410 Fremont Avenue for his twenty-five-cent tip.
Danger was at bay inside her house. Every surface, from the gray nubbly upholstery of the chair next to the window, to the green silk with gold thread covering the couch, to the gray-green oil painting of my glamorous Aunt Helen, spoke of familiarity and comfort. Only books were missing. Three books perched timidly on a built-in bookshelf dividing the dining room from the living room. One of them was a biography of Pola Negri, the star of silent film. My Aunt Stella had worked for her. We knew that Pola Negri lost her stardom when talking films came in. No one in Hollywood liked her accent in the movies, so she retired. I picked up the Pola Negri biography every time I went to my grandmother's and looked for my Aunt Stella in the index. I wished Nanny would get some different books. I suspected she couldn't read or write but I didn't want to ask. She had an acute sense of propriety, for herself and for anyone who was Jewish. "It's a shame for the people" was Nanny's line about any Jewish person who committed a crime, lapsed in behavior, or called attention to themselves.
There were some topics you couldn't bring up around Nanny. The social security form she had to sign remained untouched for months on her coffee table. She had never voted. In her mind an evil force, bigger than the Red Owl, bigger than the Temple, lurking, perhaps, in the Social Security Administration or the Registrar of Voters, was waiting to send her back. Back to Trask, Lithuania, where her mother had hidden her in the closet so the Cossacks wouldn't rape her.
Looking at a photo of my grandmother when she was my age, thirty-eight, I see that she looked like me. The same lines from her nose to her lips. Low forehead. Full cheeks. A Victorian pompadour, a heavy bodice swathed in gauzy fabric, a high neck. When she was eighty, our family snapshots show her in her pink wallpaper brocade, holding herself primly, her lips pursed disapprovingly.
"Who's that boy? Don't you go with any boys. You don't know what they're going to do with you."
"Nanny, stop it!"
I made fun of my grandmother's warnings. They came out of nowhere. Sometimes I thought she was making a joke. Then I would look at her up close and see the trembling around her mouth, the tightening of her jaw. She was terrified.
My parents thought it was a good idea to have people other than family members around Nanny. Around outsiders, she would hide her fears so as not to shame her people. After Nanny moved out of the Fremont Avenue duplex, I took my friend Valerie Golden to visit Nanny's new apartment on this theory. Valerie was the other Jewish girl in my class at school. She understood about Nanny. "You can't come in girls, they're coming for me. Not safe, not safe." Nanny's vowels were fast and choppy. Her tongue was clicking against the roof of her mouth as she talked through the door. It barely sounded like English anymore. Valerie and I never even got her to open. Her sociability had stopped working.
For eight years she languished in the Sholom Home, on thorazine. The Sholom Home nursing facility, serving the Jewish community, was located in a no-man's-land between the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. You had to follow the freeway signs for "The Midway: State Fairgrounds" to get there. The false promise of those freeway signs annoyed me.
At Sholom I could hear the foreign din as soon as I walked in the door. Old people sat in groups and spoke Yiddish. There was a singular quality to the sounds of the Sholom Home that disturbed me: they were familiar, although I couldn't understand a word.
Nanny didn't sit with the others. She sat in her room on her Victorian chair from Fremont Avenue, rocking and wringing her fleshy hands. A fuse had blown in her head, making it impossible for her to control which language she was speaking. The languages from her past — Russian from the school she had attended in Lithuania, Yiddish from home, Hebrew from the synagogue — came up like bile. She had gotten a prayer book as a gift from the Sholom Home administration. She wore it around her neck on a chord. She picked it up and closed her eyes, started in on a prayer, looked up at me, and "recognized" me. "Oh my, I don't know what I'm saying, Ruthie" (Ruthie was my aunt); then she stiffened and went silent. The next words she spoke were in Yiddish. The mode of each language was in place: her Hebrew sounded incantatory, ritualistic; Yiddish was conversational, emotional. The change from one language to another, from ritual to conversation, was all the communication she could produce.
Excerpted from "French Lessons"
Copyright © 1993 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Before I Knew French,
The Last Summer at Wildhurst Road,
Part Two: Getting It,
Boarding School in Switzerland,
Part Three: Getting It Right,
Part Four: Revisions,
In Search of the French "R",
Guy, de Man, and Me,
The Trouble with Edna,
Note on the Text,