Sunday, February 10, 2013

What the French Think of Twain: Take 1

"Twain?  Shania?"
                 --Chehla, HSBC Passy branch

So, if Twain hated the French, what do they make of him? Ca depend, as they say here.  It depends--on who you ask and what their place is in French society.  Many people, perhaps even most of a certain generation and background, will recognize his name and those of his two most famous characters.  Huck et Tom?, they'll respond with a smile.  Others, not so much.
But before you start to get huffy about the idea of a "place" in society--so defensively Americain--let me point out that things aren't so different in the U.S.  Take the recent hit, Les Miserables, in all its reiterated, cash-cow glory.  Some people know only the blockbuster movie version now out in such wide release that you can catch it, in English with French subtitles, in theaters throughout Paris, including one in my own neighborhood.  Setting aside the irony and absurdity of such a cultural moment--a Hollywood hit of a Broadway musical of a French classic playing en englais avec sous-titres en francais--the people familiar with the movie surely comprise a bigger group than those who've seen Les Mis. on stage.  Still fewer--and here the number must really dwindle--will know that it was originally a great, and hugely successful, 19th-century French novel.  And if you asked the average American--whoever that "mythical beast" might be, to use James Thurber's immortal words about the unicorn--who Victor Hugo was, well, you'd be likely to get a blank stare, until you added, Les Miserables.  The same, I suspect, is true about Twain for most of the French: Huck and Tom might draw a grin of recognition.  But Twain himself?  Not necessarily.  (By the way, he could certainly have told you who Victor Hugo was.  In letters he and his future wife Livy wrote during their courtship, they passionately discuss Hugo and other internationally known writers and artists of their day.  Ah, the pleasures of nineteenth-century sublimation!)
But I'm getting off topic, as Twain himself used to do.  What happened when I asked my first real live French person who Twain was?  I was reminded yet again that we all live in cultural bubbles of our own making.
It happened in the seizieme, or the sixteenth arrondissement, a neighborhood at the western edge of Paris known for its well-heeled residents, embassies, museums, and mansions.  The offices of the Fulbright and Franco-American Commission are also there, on a side street one block up from the river with a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower when you turn the corner.  Up a long, stone flight of double stairs and down another fashionable street is the Passy branch of the HSBC bank, with which Fulbight has an arrangement for accounts for visiting scholars and students.
My first day in Paris, I headed all the way across town to open my bank account.  My apartment is on the border of the 11th and 20th arrondissements, on the eastern side of the city, in what the guide books and tourist websites describe as the old revolutionary, working class part of town.  Because it was my first day, it was snowing, and I was not only jet-lagged but getting a flu, I sprang for a taxi to make sure I got to my bank appointment a l'heure.  The cab ride was like being in a flip-book as I moved from one neighborhood of Paris to another, ascending the social ladder as I went.  At the HSBC Passy branch, I was met by a well-spoken--in French and English--woman named Chehla, who reminded me of a young Brooke Shields.  We chatted as we filled out endless forms; she told me was French of Algerian descent, recently married and the mother of an infant son.  We talked, too, about Woody Allen and how much the French love his movies.  I asked her if she'd seen Take the Money and Run and, when she said she hadn't, I told her about the scene where his character, Virgil no less, tries to rob a bank but instead gets into an argument about handwriting.  He shoves a note across to a teller, who looks at it quizzically.
"I'm pointing a gub at you?" the teller inquires.
Woody defends his handwriting with trademark neurosis.
No, no, gun. Gun.  See? That's an n, not a b, an n. 
But nothing doing.  The scene ends with a crowd of bank employees bickering over Virgil's note.  "Abt natural?"  "Gub?"
Even when he pulls back his jacket to reveal the real thing, he gets  an officious snub. 
"You'll have to have this note initialed," the teller tells him.
So, gub it is (and gub it shall for me forever remain.)
 [If you haven't seen the movie, it's worth watching--repeatedly.  I myself could start every day with it, that is if I had more time to squander than I already do. Clip ]

But back to ChehlaSince she and I were already laughing together about Woody Allen, I took the opportunity to ask her about Twain, who was, to say the least, another famous American humorist.  
"Connaissez-vouz Mark Twain?" I said.
"Qui?" she replied.
"Mark Twain."
She thought for a moment, then shook her head.

"Huckleberry Finn?"
Another pause, then another, "Non."
She thought for a moment, clearly wanting sincerely to be helpful.  
Then she said with a hopeful smile, "Twain--Shania?"
It was my turn to shake my head.
I told her Shania was a singer not a writer and asked what American writers she did know.  Melville?
Faulkner?  Fitzgerald? Morrison?
Non, non, non.
But, she explained, she hadn't studied literature, only economics.
I thought some more and gave it one last try.
Her face brightened.  
Oui! Hemingway.
Like I said, the biggest shoes to fill.  

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