Wednesday, May 22, 2013

So Frenchy! (At the Cafe)

 How many cafes are there in Paris? 
(views from the top of L'Arc de Triomphe and along Canal St. Martin)

     So what did Mark Twain do his first night in Paris?  Shall we all say it tous ensemble?  He went to a cafe.  And there, doing what people in Paris do best, he almost sounds as if he too fell in love with the city.  In The Innocents Abroad, he writes nearly convincingly about how much he enjoyed his sortie with other American tourists from the Quaker City.  But could Twain be laying it on too thick?  Is he serious or poking fun?  And if so, who's his target?  The French?  Himself?  All concerned?  You can judge for yourself in this passage:
...then we went out to a restaurant, just after lamplighting, and ate a comfortable, satisfactory, lingering dinner.  It was a pleasure to eat where everything was so tidy, the food so well cooked, the waiters so polite, and the coming and departing company so mustached, so frisky, so affable, so fearfully and wonderfully Frenchy.  All the surroundings were gay and enlivening.  Two hundred people sat at little tables on the sidewalk, sipping wine and coffee; the streets were thronged with light vehicles and with joyous pleasure-seekers; there was music in the air, life and action all about us, and a conflagration of gaslight everywhere!
     Now, whenever I read something, I look for the places where there's some sort of change: in point of view, time frame, tone.  And I tell my students to do the same, because that's where readers find the best clues about what's really going on with the writing and, often, with the author's attitude. 
The cafe inside the Musee d'Orsay
      So, as a small experiment,  I read the passage above to my 24- and 21-year-old nephews, who happened to be visiting us in Paris.  I asked them, along with my husband and two teenaged sons, to raise their hands whenever they heard the tone change.  When I came to the word "mustached," hands started to go up into the air. By the time I got to "so frisky," everyone's hand was up, and by "so Frenchy," they were all waving wildly like excited first-graders who know the answer to the teacher's question.  
     Why?  My nephew nailed one reason: hyperboleTwain may start out convincingly with the "comfortable, satisfactory, lingering dinner" but he piles too much description on as he goes along--and that, I think, results in his readers detecting a change in his attitude about the French, toward irony. What's more, Twain's language moves so fast, from one exaggerated phrase to another, that it's hard to stop from following along with him.  His audience has no time to react, to think about what he might be burying in his language.   "Tidy...well-cooked...polite"? That's complimentary.  But "frisky"? That starts to sound as if he's taking about a small animal.  And "wonderfully Frenchy?": like some cute but strange small animal.  Then, after another convincing stretch with people "sitting at little tables on the sidewalk sipping wine and coffee," he reverts to an oddly alarmed note with "conflagration."
     There's also the matter of repetition.  One, two, even three uses of  "so" might work for emphasis.  But seven--which is what Twain has here?  Surely he's shifted into parody, taking us along with him.  When it comes to words, the same rule generally applies as with commodities: the value goes down as the quantity goes up, and vice versa. 
    By now you're probably thinking, Thank god I never had to take a class with that woman.  But I bet if I gave you the same experiment, your hands would go up--and stay down--in all the same places.  Which brings me to the question of persona, or the character a writer creates to tell a story.  I'm hardly the first person to notice that he's a master of it, especially in his early travel writing when he's still establishing himself as a new and original voice on the nineenth-century literary scene.  Twain carefully constructs a guy from somewhere out west who marvels at the things he sees, but can also be baffled and even repulsed by them--just as the readers of his day might be.  So naive, so unpretentious, so Americany!  
     Almost forty years ago, another Twainiac named Mark K. Wilson pointed out that much of Twain's humor lies in how he sets up this character only to poke fun at him in a deadpan way.  "[T]he joke appears to be on the teller himself, or rather on the naive persona whom the artist creates to tell the story; and to mistake this persona for the artist behind him is to miss both the artistry and the humor," Wilson writes ("Mr. Clemens and Madame Blanc: Mark Twain's First French Critic," American Literature, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Jan., 1974), pp. 537-556).
      And I agree, but only to a point.  Another literary critic--yes, a  French one--famously argued that, as much they might try, authors can never completely suppress the contradictions and values in what they write. Jacques Derrida was the father of deconstruction, an elaborate and analytical approach to writing that comes close to creating an entire philosophy of meaning, although the term is now also used popularly just to mean analyzing or looking closely at something.  For Derrida, all writing was unstable: it couldn't be controlled by any writer, even one with a persona as brilliant as Twain's.
     So, yes, Twain really does like some things about cafes, and therefore about France in general, his first night out thereAnd, yes, he's deliberately creating a persona of an American abroad to build an audience that identifies with him. But, yes too, behind that persona he's already starting to find the French alien and odd, and to head toward a full-blown bias against them. 
     If you're counting, that's three "yeses"--four fewer than the number of Twain's "so's."  

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