Tuesday, September 1, 2009

That Summer in Paris

Fiction-writing often seems to be a ventriloquist's game, the writingwriter throwing a voice into a narrator with varying degrees of credibility. Perhaps as with ventiloquism, we are swayed to find the act more convincing if the dummy's appearance and demeanour reflects that of the puppeteer on whose knee it sits. After all, it's difficult enough for a middle-aged man to throw his voice from his own larynx to the artificially-moving lips of a large doll without having to make that voice belong to a young girl. Similarly, any writers working across an age or race or gender gap must research meticulously, imagine broadly, and craft thoughts and words carefully and subtly if they want their readers to relax their reservations and consider openly the propositions being made.

Abha Dawesar, the author of That Summer in Paris, is a relatively young female writer whose 3rd-person narrator claims knowledge of the thoughts and feelings of both a young female writer on the brink of her career and an aged Nobel-winning male writer, as well as numerous other characters of both sexes, young and old. She writes so well and raises such engaging questions about writing, life, love, and sex -- the latter as a nexus, really, for the former three -- that I was willing to accept her narrator's representation of these characters, except at several points where the ventriloquism was simply too obvious. I love her thoughtful imagining of old age, the limitations that Prem is facing as his body fails to keep pace with his still very active and capable mind. Having always imposed a physicality on his writing, demanding of himself that he write while standing at a high lectern, he has, for example, begun to find that process "arduous [feeling] his body getting slower and slower each day as if it were preparing for the full stop."

I'm intrigued by Prem's reservations about writing sex into his novels, his conviction that sex "only worked, was only good, when it was fluid, but words were all about fixing" and that "Moreover sex, unmediated by language and the morality necessarily innate in language, was the only way to have it. The spoken word was more fluid than the written; it could be modified with new words and adapt itself to the situation." Remembering back to words he used with an early love, Prem raises a provocative question: "Were words the opposite of sex?" How close Prem's thoughts are to Dawesar's, how obvious the ventiloquism, doesn't matter to me here because I'm busy with an entertaining question.

Similarly, I am captivated by the relationship between Prem and his friend, Pascal, the way they discuss their love lives and sexual activities (or lack of) with each other, on a foundation of trust and understanding that has been decades in the making. I'm much less interested in their rhapsodizing over female body parts, not because I'm prudish, but rather because here is where the ventriloquism reveals its weakness. When the two men talk about the beauty of female genitalia, I don't feel as if I've learned something about how men think, but rather I wonder whether Dawesar has got it right. How could she know this? If the implicit claim that men speak this way is to have any weight, what is the authority on which it is based? I'm suddenly very aware that the voice coming out of the narrator's lips is that of a young woman, and the information the narrator presents is thus based on research or a writer's imagination. Fair enough, but just as when an older male writer envoices a female protagonist, my willingness to suspend my disbelief is lessened, particularly since our thoughts about sexuality might reasonably be assumed to be tied to our gender.

These are not the only places in the text where I find the narrator's representation of the characters' thoughts weak. Besides wondering how closely these characters' response to sexuality mirrors that of "real" men, I found suspect the music Prem and Pascal listen to on their road trip. Composers' names get thrown about -- Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, followed then by specific pieces which might be included on any introduction to classical music: Symphonie fantastique, Saint-Saëns' Le carnaval des animaux and Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé and then Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. It sounds to me, in other words, more like the Music Menu a young, admiring writer might attribute to older learned and cultured male writers than what those of us who have been listening to classical music for decades and decades might actually choose to play.

I find the discussion of art sometimes reflect this kind of gap as well, although while there's a hint of Art 101, Dawesar seems to have a stronger base of her own knowledge here. I love the description of Prem's progress through the Orsay, the way that the museum's floorplan influenced his perception and appreciation of the paintings so that "one painting led to the anticipation of another. Rousseau's magnificent blades of grass in the forest made him anticipate Gauguin . . . [which] prepared him for Seurat's Cirque." I've only been through the Orsay two or three times, but Whistler's Mother made sense to me because of its placement in a sequence, and I envision paintings in the context of the museum layout.

And, of course, I enjoy travelling through the various museums and galleries in Paris. Dawesar's Paris is a well-observed, beautiful city of specific streets, parks, cafés, and, above all, of art. Visits to the Panthéon, the Rodin museum, -- and especially the Musée Zadkine, one of my own recent discoveries -- are convincing, gratifying, and a charming way to visit or re-visit the City of Light.

Overall, though, as much as I admire this novel and did enjoy reading it, I wonder if it's the gap between my age and the author's which alienates me from it -- is it my place in an older generation of feminists that makes me question the eroticism so many have found in this book? While there are undeniably erotic scenes -- the cheese-tasting is a wondrous melding of food and sex -- I find it hard to understand why a young woman would want to repeat the age-old theme of older man-- younger woman. I understand that part of the attraction here is for the older man's writerly abilities, especially as this text is so concerned with writing, but having tired decades ago of those male writers who fill pages with the young women who lust for their charms, I'm -- what, bemused? puzzled? disappointed? -- to have a young woman writing that yes, this is exactly what young women want. To have the male fantasy appear as a young woman's fantasy, and to read over and over that this is erotic -- I must admit this makes me feel much as I do when my young students tell me that we don't need feminism anymore because we've achieved equality.

Finally, I wonder what motivated Dawesar to imagine this story -- why is it easier or more desirable for her to imagine a young female writer having an affair with an old man (an old man who, in his 60s, had an affair with two teenagers simultaneously; whose childhood and adolescence were marked by an incestuous relationship with his sister, whose son he may have fathered) than to, for example, imagine what that female writer's old age might have looked like. I suspect that the latter is much less interesting for reasons which might suggest that we shouldn't throw the feminism baby out with the bathwater anytime soon.

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