After graduating from college, I headed to Paris to study contemporary French philosophy — Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze — and semiotics with Julia Kristeva. I spent most evenings contemplating the meaning of life while drinking Scotch in a gay bar in the Marais. I lived in a series of chambres de bonne with a Turkish toilet down the hall and had a boyfriend in New York, a lover in Italy, and another in London, whose visits to me in the City of Love I expertly juggled. I believed I was following the tried and true path toward a life of an intellectual and sensual super-sophistiquée.
The odysseys of American writers and artists in Paris — Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin et cetera — are legendary. But what of the legions of young Americans, especially women, who, like Patricia Franchini (played by Jean Seberg) in Godard’s film Breathless, came to Paris on study abroad programs ostensibly to attend classes at the Sorbonne, but who really were in search of a degree in the School of Life?
It seems there is a small but growing literature on the subject.
The most comprehensive study is historian Whitney Walton’s Internationalism, National Identities, and Study Abroad: France and the United States, 1890-1970 (2010). This subgenre’s pioneering narrative, however, is Elaine Dundy’s classic autobiographical novel The Dud Avocado(1958), written the year before Breathless was made.
It recounts the (mis)adventures of Sally Jay Gorce, middle-class, Midwesterner, and aspiring actress. Sally Jay occasionally goes to a lecture at the Sorbonne, chats with exchange students, and hangs out at Le Select in Montparnasse. Mostly, with her hair dyed pink and wearing her eclectic outfits, she explores Paris seeking new experiences. She goes to “lesbian joints,” poses nude for an artist, nurses hangovers at the Ritz bar, and beds a wide range of men. Funny, charming, perceptive, surprising, a master of irony and understatement, Sally Jay is astonishingly real. Her year in Paris is an attempt to reconcile love, sex, career, and respect — the eternal female conundrum. Wearily she concludes, “it was not easy to be a Woman in these stirring times. I said it then and I say it now: it just isn’t our century.”
In 1961, Barnard graduate, Nancy K. Miller, now a renowned feminist scholar, left New York in search of intellectual and sexual freedom in Paris. A “real-life Dud Avocado,” Miller’s Breathless: An American Girl in Paris (2013) is an account of both her sexual awakening and her developing feminist consciousness. She begins her Parisian adventure by sleeping with a married doctor, a friend of her parents’ charged with looking out for her. While studying French literature at the Sorbonne, she has a several affairs with hapless men. Second wave feminism still a decade away, Miller sees few options: she marries, disastrously, another American ex-patriot escaping his own “family plots.”
“I had hoped that in marrying Jim,” she writes, “and living with him in Paris, I would escape my nice-Jewish-girl destiny. I longed for glamour and style, Frenchness, Jean Seberg in Breathless, or Jeanne Moreau (even more of a reach) […in…] Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” Moving in with Jim, however, she “voluntarily preempted the task of washing his socks.” Urged by her female friends to have children, she was told that by not having them she wasn’t “delivering as a woman.”
Miller’s account resembles Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963) in its bold, frank descriptions of sex, contraception, and abortion, and her acerbic wit and uncommon insight. Her political awareness shifts and broadens while abroad. “From here the situation in Vietnam,” she writes to her parents, “seems absolutely insane — there’s a feeling of wonder that American policy can be so blind to reality.” Of the Kennedy assassination, she writes: “The French were mystified by how the protection of a president could be so inefficient. They immediately imagined a conspiracy theory.”
An affair with a German worker redecorating her and Jim’s new apartment leads Miller out of her bad marriage and back home. Miller’s zestful, poignant memoir brilliantly evokes how it feels to be a young woman in Paris steeped in desire and confusion, seeking answers and clarity, yet sensing that a state of uncertainty and amazement may be the most thrilling of all.
During the period the French call “les trente glorieuses” (the thirty glorious years) — the post-war recovery years from 1945 to 1975 — three young women who would later be among the United States’ most iconic public figures of the century, spent time studying in Paris: Jacqueline Bouvier, 1949-1950; Susan Sontag, 1957-1958; and Angela Davis, 1963-1964. Their experiences are chronicled in Alice Kaplan’s extraordinary account Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis (2013). Kaplan, who explored her own junior year abroad in French Lessons: A Memoir (1994), considers three American women from different generations, cultures, and classes. Examining both commonalities and divergences in their Parisian experiences, she sheds fascinating new light on each woman’s trajectory and reveals how these exploits significantly influenced them throughout their later lives.
Read the rest of the column at Bookslut