I’d been in Paris less than twelve hours, arriving for a job interview, when I was invited to my first French dinner party. The job I wanted was at a Parisian advertising agency. My would-be boss, Pierre, said after the meeting that he had an older sister, Paulette, who’d invited me for dinner. Very charitable of her, I thought, but did she know I barely spoke French? I spent the afternoon drinking, worrying in a café on the Champs-Elysées—springtime in Paris, many happy lovers walking by, and I wished on them all gonorrhea. That night, Pierre and I took a cab to the 2nd arrondissement, and rode upstairs in a tiny elevator with black lattice walls. Paulette met us at the door. She was a gallery owner, a blond looker with poofy hair and the sloppy grace you typically find in dancers. She also had a hostess’s chivalry I’d come to recognize as distinctly Parisienne—coolly formal while being naughty with men she was meeting for the very first time.
Paulette lived with her partner Stefan and many children—so French: some hers, some his—in a big apartment behind Paris’s stock market, the Bourse. Their apartment spread out in crow’s wings, unlit halls and rooms with art propped against the walls. Somewhere a woman was singing morosely in Portuguese. Children would appear and dash away. Couldn’t someone turn on a light? In a corner, a girl was screeching about her textos, her text messages, but I couldn’t make her out in the dark.
The adults were drinking champagne in a vast dining room. Everyone was smoking, laughing: Paulette and Stefan, plus Paulette’s best friends, two blondes. Kisses for the group while Stefan sautéed chicken livers in a colossal pan. The ceiling was high above us. Everyone was louche in their own way. The fridge light showed four shelves of champagne bottles, their golden butts mooning us; apparently the food refrigerator was somewhere else.
By three a.m., the seven of us had drunk a case of champagne, plus two additional bottles, followed by whiskey digestifs for the men. “They do this all the time,” Pierre’s wife Chloe whispered to me in English at one point—dismissively, but without malice. As if to say, sure, Pierre’s relatives were lushes, but perhaps this was how life should be, inévitablement. On the last day of existence, the French will still be the French. To have it differently, I thought, would turn the rest of us that much paler.
The conversation was confrontational, never-ending. I tried my best to participate, but “my best” turned out to be much worse than supposed; I’d at least thought I could do a respectable French accent, as good as Peter Sellers. Movies, politics, gossip. For several hours, I was a non-communicating jelly. If I couldn’t survive a dinner party, what about this new job? How would I brainstorm new ad campaigns if I couldn’t even discuss the latest Asterix movie?
“So,” Paulette said in English at one point, “possibly you’ll work with Pierre? Pierre says you’re a writer.”
“He’s a writer!” Pierre shouted from the other end of the table.
“Aha!” Paulette said. She pushed her hair from her eyes, waved her smoking hand and almost burned me. “But come on, you’re a writer? Amazing, how many books?”
No, I thought, not this.
“I haven’t published any books,” I said.
“But Pierre just say, you’re a writer.”
“He isn’t published,” Pierre said. “But ask him, he’s working on a novel.”
Now everyone was listening. I hated Pierre. “I’m writing a novel,” I said in French, J’écris un roman.
Paulette stayed in English, “And how is it?”
C’est difficile, I said.
“You have written others? What about them?”
I took a moment to work it out aloud: Ils sont morts, they are dead.
I’d said this to get a laugh. Instead I got looks of confusion—who died?
Paulette poofed out her lips. “Please, come on,” she said, “you make many turns. What, you think it’s easy? Should it be easy, literature? You need to have balls—big balls,” Paulette emphasized, slashing with her arms. How she loved life! “But let me tell you,” she said, “you must write this novel. Absolutely. So what if it is not published? E-publish, the web, baby, who cares?”
People had warned me about France’s attitude toward literature, that here books mattered more. In Paris, Jim Harrison was recognized on the street; Paul Auster could make a living autographing décolletage. With a slap on my arm, Paulette turned back to her blondes. Serge Gainsbourg came on the stereo, sexier than the typical macho rocker—more feminine, more vulnerable. After all, French women loved bad boys, especially criminals, and who was more vulnerable than a man who lived beyond the law? Half an hour later, Paulette turned back to me. “Ask anyone, I am reading constantly,” she said in English. “Not just French. All Americans. You know Philip Roth? Here is the new Roth, do you have it?”
I said I hadn’t even known there was a new Philip Roth.
Paulette quizzed me on which contemporary French novelists I liked best. I struggled to say someone other than Michel Houellebecq. Thankfully I remembered Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s bathroom book, a novel that mostly takes place in a Parisian bathroom, where nothing happens and every page is somehow still riveting.
“Toussaint is a Belge, you know this,” Paulette said haughtily. We heard Stefan popping open more champagne. Paulette broke down for me the latest Bret Easton Ellis and compared late Cynthia Ozick to early Cynthia Ozick. I wasn’t sure I knew anyone in the States who could do that. How many Americans could name a single living French novelist?
I couldn’t name a living Austrian author, for example.
Paulette added, “American Jews are the best. The novelists, I mean.”
“What? It’s true! American Jews make very good writers. Hey, I am no Nazi, it’s my opinion.”
“It’s a dumb opinion,” Pierre said.
Paulette made a loud bouf sound and translated her opinion into French. Her friends nodded, they agreed about the great American Jewish novelists, though one argued that she found Philip Roth’s later work overrated compared to Goodbye, Columbus. Then they started arguing over whether Houellebecq was any good to be so famous, and if it was fair or not, the way people assumed sadism to be an author’s personal habit when it might just be a dramatic tool. At three a.m., all of them were defiant, very good at repartee. They told risqué stories cleverly and smoked their heads off. Meanwhile I was feeling swell for them, feeling deeply impressed by Parisians, all Parisians.
For the final hour, I sucked on the ice from my whiskey and, like the ice, melted, sinking deeper into my chair. Perhaps I was not only an alien to Parisian culture, I wondered, but also my own. Which was OK. Even desirable. I was ready to move abroad. So I couldn’t speak French as I’d thought, but the drinking had improved my comprehension. And I’d said a couple forceful, ludicrous things at the table that had sounded, if not correct, at least amusingly stupid. And people had been impressed. That’s the expat’s secret advantage: helplessness. When natives discovered you were from somewhere else, they assumed you were a wide-eyed mute, an infant gone astray. No matter after that what you said or did, invariably they were impressed.