Good Reading : November 2004
16 goodreading because she’s likeable and well- mannered,’ says Diane. ‘I share many of her attitudes.’ Her French women are independent but don’t seem to have been affected by American-style feminism. ‘For many French women “feminist” is a derogatory term but they’re confi- dently feminine. I think this is to due to the outlook of French men, who are more interested than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts in women’s fashions, cook- ing and other domestic matters.They don’t go to male clubs and spend hours in front of television watching sport.’ But France has a large-circulation sports daily, L’Equipe, and soccer, rugby and tennis have a big following, I point out. ‘There aren’t great gaggles of men following them to the exclusion of females,’ she replies. ‘There’s not the same yobbishness.’ I ask how much of herself is in the novelist Estelle D’Angel of Le Mariage, who ‘like most novelists … was a bour- geois with moderate habits and intem - perate views on many subjects’, who ‘had a dim view of human character natural to her and to novelists in general’ and who ‘as an intellectual and a novelist, was naturally also a person of unusual pes- simism, even malice, qualities that had worsened with age’. ‘I don’t consider myself malicious. To a degree they were jokey comments written for my children, who’ve been embarrassed to have a novelist-mother.’ Some people find it odd that Le Divorce precedes Le Mariage and they are followed by L’Affaire, rather than it being marriage, affair, divorce. ‘They’re not a series – they’re sim - ply linked by the titles, which can be understood in English and French, by the milieu and some of the characters, but that’s all.’ Iaskherifshewas satisfied with the film of Le Divorce, which came out in 2003, even though she did not work on the script. ‘I enjoyed it − lively and funny. Jim Ivory is scrupulous about being faithful to the literary text.’ In Le Mariage she contrasts the ‘crampedness and crabbiness’ of books, which are ‘clumsy’ and ‘flat’, with the cinema screen ‘so infinitely wide, as expansive as the mind’. ‘Well, they’re the reflections of Serge Cray, the film director,’ she points out. ‘I’m a novelist and don’t regret not being a director but I’m very interested in the film world. Serge Cray has something of Francis Ford Coppola and something of Stanley Kubrick as the reclusive gen- ius – there are details from Kubrick, for instance the Labrador guard dogs. Coppola had me write a screenplay for a film on curing AIDS which didn’t come to anything, and I wrote the screenplay for The Shining.’ I ask if there is a Parisian equivalent to the gym where she writes in San Francisco. ‘Usually I go from 10 am to 1pm to the Mazarine Library at the Institut de France, which is only two minutes away, and write longhand rather haphazardly − scenes before I find how they fit together because I have only a rough outline. For L’Affaire I didn’t even have that because there were a lot of characters with several stories criss-crossing. A novel takes about two years. ‘We’ll have to go, I’m afraid,’ she says at that point. ‘I have to participate in a round table discussion on families in France and the States at a political sci- ence institute. I don’t know why they asked me − I hate these things. Come along if you can bear it.’ On the way Diane says that she is about to finish a brief book about Paris commissioned by the National Geographic. She admits it is difficult to say anything fresh on the subject but has con- fined it to her Left Bank Saint Germain des Prés quarter. It is a district of antique shops, art galleries and art students. Her street consists mainly of 17th-century, four-storied buildings.The building oppo- site was the birthplace of Edouard Manet in 1832. On the corner, across from the Seine, several of the Bonaparte family lived. During his visits Jorge Luis Borges stayed at a hotel in the first cross street; Oscar Wilde died there in 1900. Diane shares the round table with a sociologist and a historian, both French, and is brave enough to read in French a scene with a French divorce lawyer from Le Divorce. She disclaims sociologi- cal knowledge of families, stating that a novelist works by ‘observation and eaves- dropping’ rather than research, but she has reviewed studies of families for the NYRB and holds her own in the discus- sion. Referring to same-sex marriages, she says that ‘things are getting very weird in the States’, and concurs that French tax laws are more supportive of blood relations and French social welfare provisions provide more help for families. ‘In the States,Thanksgiving is the only time many extended families come together,’ she says. ‘We’ve rhetoric about family values but no decent family policy.’ She takes a hammering from stu- dents and teachers who ask where she found the French who people her novels. Comments range from ‘I’ve never met anyone like those people’ to ‘even if we go to a country house, we don’t have formal dinners there’ and ‘there are ever more people with good PhDs who can’t afford even to buy an apartment’. ‘I was writing about the people who lived next door and their friends,’ Diane explains. ‘And I know comparable people in the States. Now I realise more fully it was a restricted circle.’ In any case, she does not write soci- ology but social comedies. Diane Johnson’s L’Affaire is published by Michael Joseph, rrp $35.00. Le Divorce and Le Mariage are published by Vintage, rrp $22.95 each. author profile With Le Divorce I wanted a variation on Henry James in which the Americans would be the mischief-makers and the French naïve. Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts in the film version of Le Divorce.
December January 2005