American and English writers respond—most, exultantly—to la belle France and its possibilities.
Editor Powers (Ireland in Mind, 2000, etc.) has the right idea: to let mostly good, mostly familiar authors offer their English-speaking compatriots insight into another country. In this instance, she gathers selections from the usual suspects (Lawrence Durrell, F. Scott Fitzgerald), from writers associated with France but not often anthologized in that context (James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy), and from authors better known for their portrayals of other cultures (Robert Louis Stevenson, Edith Wharton). Most of her 33 selections are sound, or at least defensible, though including the likes of Peter Mayle and David Sedaris seems more a bow to commerce than to art. But there is art aplenty here, and even some surprises. One is an excerpt from the travel diaries of Ezra Pound, who walked across southwestern France in 1912, on the trail of his beloved troubadours, and has seldom sounded better: “Whether it is a haze of heat or whether it is only the effect of sunlight & of great distance, I do not know, but there come with these mts, as the sun lowers, a colour at once metallic & oriental, as of a substance both dim & burnished.” Another is a letter from 18th-century novelist Tobias Smollett, who wonders how it is that Lyons could have been promoted as a healthful retreat, seeing as it is “very hot in summer, and very cold in winter; therefore I imagine must abound with inflammatory and intermittent disorders in the spring and fall of the year.” Still another standout is a selection from James Fenimore Cooper; though strongly associated with New York and the American West, he lived in France for a decade and marvels here that in this civilized nation a person could rent an apartment that comes with furniture—and, even better, catch a glimpse of a woman’s knees.
A treat for armchair travelers and bookish Francophiles.