The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CLASSIC EXPAT WRITING: The French as Dostoevsky Saw Them — Saul Bellow

Renting an apartment in Paris was not a simple matter in 1947, but a good friend of mine, Nicolaus, had found one for us on the right bank, in a fussy building. I had brought a new Remington portable typewriter, which the landlady had absolutely demanded as a gift. She had to have the rent in dollars, too. Francs would not do. It was a steep rental. Nicolaus, however, said the apartment was worth the money. He knew Paris, and I took his word for it. Nicolaus spoke French perfectly. People from Indianapolis take to French quite naturally; I have observed this time and again. He was a perfect Frenchman, carried a pair of gloves and drove a French car. He was annoyed with me when I asked my landlady how one disposed of the garbage in this apartment. “In France,” he said to me severely, detaining me in the chilly dining-room, “no man would ask such a question. Garbage is not your concern. You are not supposed to know that garbage exists. Besides, ordures is not a nice word.”

“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry. I suppose I shouldn’t have asked.”

The landlady now brought forth her inventaire. An amazing document! A catalogue of every object in the house, from the Chippendale chair to the meanest cup, fully and marvelously described in stiff, upright, copious letters. We started to go through the list, and moved from Madame’s room, a flapper’s boudoir of the ‘twenties, backwards to the kitchen. Madame read the description and displayed each article. “Dining room table. Style Empire. Condition excellent. Triangular scratch on left side. No other defect.” We finished in the kitchen with three lousy tin spoons.

“Ah,” said Nicolaus, “What a sense of detail the French have!”

I was less impressed, but one must respect respect itself and I did not openly disagree.

As soon as Madame left, I turned a somersault over the Chippendale chair and landed thunderously on the floor. This lightened my heart for a time, but in subsequent dealings with Madame and others in France I could not always recover my lightness of heart by such means.

Depressed and sunk in spirit, I dwelt among Madame’s works of art that cold winter of 1948. The city lay under perpetual fog and the smoke could not rise and flowed in the streets in brown and gray currents. An unnatural medicinal smell emanated from the Seine. Many people suffered from the grippe Espagnole — all diseases are apt to be of foreign origin — and many more from melancholy and bad temper. Paris is the seat of a highly developed humanity, and one thus witnesses highly developed forms of suffering there. Witnesses and sometimes, experiences. Sadness is a daily levy that civilization imposes in Paris. Gay Paris.? Gay, my foot! Mere advertising. Paris is one of the grimmest cities in the world. I do not ask you to take my word for it. Go to Balzac and Stendhal, to Zola, to Strindberg — to Paris itself. Nicolaus said the Parisians were celebrated for their tartness of character. He declared that it would be better for me to feel my way into it than to criticize it. Himself, he was a connoisseur of the Parisian temperament. I was lacking in detachment, he said. To this accusation I confessed and pleaded guilty. I was a poor visitor and, by any standard, an inferior tourist…

Click here to read the full article at The New Republic.

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