Guest post! Dear readers, please welcome Julie Kleinman, who is a Paris-based writer, a PhD candidate in anthropology at Harvard, and my frequent partner-in-crime. In one of those weird intuitive moments that I can never justify, I thought it would be great to get her together with the writer Vanina Marsot, whose novel Foreign Tongue I had just read and loved. What follows is Julie's take on the book and their chat.
Vanina Marsot divides her time between Paris and LA. Foreign Tongue, her first novel, is about a Franco-American woman working as a translator in Paris, and ironically, it has the great distinction of being an untranslatable novel.
Over to Julie.
I tell people that I live in Paris, people often gush, “You're so lucky! Paris
is so romaaaantic!” I never really got it. Why romantic? Because it's pretty?
So is Budapest. At some point,
when Paris became the place where I live and work, where I take the metro to
and from my apartment, along more or less fixed trajectories, at some point I
must have stopped noticing. What made the city so beautiful, that juxtaposition
between the intricately detailed and the slightly worn and dingy, faded into
the background. Something that can wake up this sagging attention for a moment,
like the April light over the Seine in the evening, until it gets lost again in
the metro-work-sleep routine.
Marsot's debut novel, Foreign Tongue, is the rare kind of book that shakes you out of this torpor, inspires
you, gets you to notice the beauty of details and interactions around you, long
after you've finished it. It's one of the few books I have insisted on reading
in the crowded number 4 line at rush hour, before excitedly walking up the rue
de Seine to a dinner party a block from the café where Anna, our protagonist,
flusters and blushes her way through a first interaction with tall, dark, and handsome
Olivier. The intense precision and originality of the scene are the kind of
things Marsot does so well, and makes the book stand out from almost everything
I have read by and about Anglophones in Paris.
was lucky enough to have coffee with Vanina Marsot at a bar called Le Carillon
in the 10th, to talk about Foreign Tongue, life in Paris, and how to translate “bobo” into
English. The novel is an untranslatable story about translation, a love story
about language. Anna, American-French and recently heartbroken, moves to Paris
from L.A. (Marsot's other residence), where her aunt lends her an apartment.
There, she meets up with old friends, including an older man she calls Bunny,
who suggests she find some translation work to make ends meet. She ends up
translating a mysterious erotic novel, whose anonymous author is the subject of
speculation and interest. She starts translating the rather misogynistic, heavy
prose, before she meets Olivier, a French actor-director. Suddenly the
novel-within-the-novel doesn't seem so horrible to Anna. Paris seems brighter.
Although a big plot line in the book involves
Anna's romantic entanglement with Olivier, this story becomes significant not
as the center of the book but by how it relates to the larger arc of Anna's
life and the translation she is working on. Nonetheless, her excitement over
Olivier and the enticing world of the Parisian literary and theatre scene he
introduces her to allow us a glimpse at Parisian intimacy and high society,
where Ministers rub elbows with the literary elite (in France, as Marsot shows,
they are sometimes the same; many politicians publish books on things like the ancien
regime or the early history of the
E.U.). It also offers another take
on a story that will not be so unfamiliar to my fellow Americans who have
fallen for a certain kind of French man.
He is at once intrigued and baffled by Anna, this American woman, and we
have the impression that Olivier just can't get his head around her independent
behavior. You might have the urge to tell her to stop being tugged around by
him, but you can feel the beauty of the morning light in her apartment, imagine
the taste of the cafe-creme and croissants he's brought up from the bakery, as
they read Liberation and do the
In the novel, we discover a new side of Paris. What other book about Paris discusses a things like
a Senagelese feminist collective weaving clothes in Barbes with the same ease
as a libertine sex club? Sitting in a Saint-Germain cafe, and then collecting
marabout cards at the Gare du Nord? The magic of Foreign Tongue lies in the details, as Marsot brings you a Paris you
may not have expected, which includes African marabouts and exaltation at the
supermarket Monoprix. I asked her how much she invented: a few cafes, she
admits, including one whose unlikely name foreshadows the twist at the end.
Still, she says, “I wanted it to be like the Paris I know. Paris is an informal
hobby,” which she keeps working on. She's lived in so many arrondissements, from
the 11th to the 16th, the 2nd to the 5th,
so this knowledge keeps expanding. (Which one is the best? “The 11th.”)
Marsot's Paris is both a Paris recognizable to
visitors and one that only a connoisseur of the city knows. Between these two
Paris-es exist many foreigners who make this their home: on the one hand, they
have their neighborhood, what Marsot to me described as the “villages that make
up Paris, each with their own bakery, restaurants. Of course everyone thinks
their village has the best ones.” On the other, they have the landmarks to remind
them they live in something bigger, and the walking itineraries that take them
between these two.
it's a whole city too, she explains, not just a mosaic of villages: “My dad
[he's French], doesn't know Paris like I do, so I got to discover it for
myself. And rediscover places he knows, like Caveau de la Huchette, where he
went in the 50s and appears in the novel. Walking is so central to knowing
Paris. Every year I do the same walk, from the Marais through the Seine
islands, the Latin Quarter to Saint Germain and then back across the river to
the Palais Royale. I check to see if my favorite places are still there, what
the new places are. I've been doing the same walk for ten years, and my favorite
places are still there.”
Can we say, then, that Paris doesn't change
much? Some people call it a “Museum-city.”
“No,” says Marsot, “I don't think that's right.
It's definitely not as bad as Venice, where the city is all tourists and cats!
In France they are obsessed with public works, with construction, and that
keeps Paris functioning and evolving. It's not fixed, so it's not a museum.
Parisian urban planners are very practical, very aware of tourists.” If
anything stays the same, she says, “It's the pride in doing things well. Like having great bread. Really excellent food is
accessible here, it's more democratic, everyone can eat well. You don't have to
go to Guy Savoy, you can go to the market. “ So is Paris expensive like people
say? “You can live really well her for not very much, or you can spend a lot
for luxury. It's the best city in the world for films, never mind L.A. In
Paris, I feel like I'm living in the center of things, whereas in L.A. I feel
like I'm living on the edge. Here I have everything within a walk from my
house: a Chinese neighborhood, Polish cheesecakes, Algerian mint tea and
What about the right-wing nostalgia for an
earlier, more "pure" Paris, before immigration?
“It's like they want to make “Mad Men” for
Paris. In that, people satisfy a nostalgia for things like three-martini
lunches and male superiority. It's silly. I like the idea of different
ethnicities mixing, which happens less in L.A.”
How do you translate “bobo” for your American
“I just say Bourgeois Bohemian and then explain
a bit and they see. We all like to make fun of bobos and bobo cafes and
neighborhoods, but in the end, I go to those places and live in that
neighborhood, and I'm probably a bobo. I translate neighborhoods. In L.A. they
don't know anything if it's not the Marais. 'The 11th? Where's
that?' I tell them it's Silver Lake. The 15th is the suburbs. I
don't care if it's technically in Paris.”
I learned from Vanina that wealthy kids who live in the 16th
and like to display brand names on their jeans and sweaters are now called “les
chalala,” or “les chal” for short. This is post-BCBG, nouveau riche.
her perception of Paris had changed since she first came here as a student in
I first lived here, I worked for Gaultier. I read that he had said, 'Je suis un
mangeur d'images.' I felt like that too, but I wanted to eat up Paris and its
ideas. When I lived here as a student, I remember being in a club, seeing Serge
Gainsbourg and Princess Stephanie there and thinking, this is the coolest place
ever. I can't imagine thinking that now, my idea of fun is having a nice dinner
with a bunch of friends. But there's a constant pleasure in novelty, in
discovering what's new, whether a new restaurant you haven't noticed before, a
new cocktail, or some liqueur you've never heard of that someone's grandmother
made, with its handwritten label.”
the novel, explains Marsot, like in her own life, Paris is “a site for finding
clues.” Clues for living. “When feeling lost and misguided, you can look in the
city for signposts and tracks to help you find your way.” Currently, she is
working on a novel that takes place in part in her birthplace, Cairo (Marsot's
mother is Egyptian).
asked Marsot about this other, almost present language: We find out toward the
end that one of the characters is from Cairo: Although your book deals with two
languages, translation between English and French, I feel like there's also
Arabic, though it's unstated. Especially because I read you were born in Egypt!
“Eve [the character] is
from Cairo, I wanted to give her a real history, more depth. Arabic is
pre-verbal for me, it's what I've lost, even though it was the first language.
It's half-remembered, my earliest memories are connected to Arabic.” There is
also a kinship between Paris and Egypt, two very different cosmopolitan cities.
“Cairo is sophisticated, overwhelmed by conflicting emotions. It's both
magnificent and dirty. In Paris, you find traces of the past. In Cairo, layers
of the past and the present are there all at once, there's an intensity of
temporality and it's vertical. Everything is piled on top of each other, all at
Foreign Tongue, at the beginning a deceptively quotidian story of
heartbreak, reveals its layers like Paris's past, its version of a city, of
language, emerging as Anna follows the clues that Paris offers up, in order to
figure out her own heart's dilemma. It makes you want to go outside and soak it
all up. Suddenly everything is pushing at you with its significance, and the
tiny boutique on the corner you never noticed, or the red bookstore only about
the Paris Commune, or someone's forgotten and worn wristwatch on the café
table: all of these things emerge as clues as you rediscover Paris, or wherever
you happen to be.
Foreign Tongue, by Vanina Marsot, is published by Harper Collins and,
if you can't find it at your local bookstore, you can find it online.
[Please note: Vanina will be reading today, Sunday May 31st, at the Café
Etienne Marcel (32 rue Etienne Marcel, 75002), from 5-7 pm. Come on by!]