Re­veal­ing snap­shots from Paris

Dream­ing in French: The Paris Years of Jac­que­line Bou­vier Kennedy, Su­san Son­tag and An­gela Davis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic

By Alice Ka­plan Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 289pp, $38.95 (HB)

IN An­glo-Saxon coun­tries a deep am­biva­lence per­vades think­ing about all things French. This at­ti­tude comes with re­gional ac­cents: in Eng­land, it is the grouch­ing of cousins across the Chan­nel, snip­ing at each other since 1066. In the US, a love-hate re­la­tion­ship pits Pu­ri­tan pro­bity against aris­to­cratic glamour, de­spite the long and in­ter­twined his­tory of repub­li­can­ism that con­nects the two nations.

In Aus­tralia, ad­mi­ra­tion and as­pi­ra­tion are cloaked in egal­i­tar­ian de­ri­sion: Parisian chic re­mains a bench­mark for some, while the word ‘‘ wanker’’ is never far be­hind in the con­ver­sa­tion of oth­ers.

This dou­ble-edged fas­ci­na­tion per­vades Alice Ka­plan’s triple bi­og­ra­phy Dream­ing in French, in which she traces the Paris years of three em­blem­at­i­cally Amer­i­can women: Jac­que­line Bou­vier Kennedy Onas­sis, Su­san Son­tag and An­gela Davis.

Lit­tle would seem to con­nect the three, apart from celebrity, and in­deed each took some­thing dif­fer­ent from her for­ma­tive year abroad.

Ar­riv­ing in the late 1940s, Bou­vier found a Paris strug­gling with post-war de­pri­va­tion. The walls of its beau­ti­ful build­ings were black with soot; the Amer­i­can students, like their French hosts, needed ra­tion cards; and po­lit­i­cal dis­course was still ran­corous, not that Bou­vier, with her art stud­ies, her par­ties and her hunts, no­ticed.

Fif­teen years later Davis, an aca­dem­i­cally gifted black woman po­lit­i­cally schooled from child­hood in the race ha­treds of Birm­ing­ham, Alabama, and pre­co­ciously flu­ent in French, found a Paris con­vulsed by the Al­ge­rian War, deeply sus­pi­cious of Arabs and still an­tiSemitic, but colour­blind where she was con­cerned. Like Bou­vier, she was a French

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