Sensual, sexy, corrupt France and the woman who loves her
French Seduction: An American’s Encounter with France, Her Father, and the Holocaust
Sidebar Excerpt: ‘They go to Paris’
Seduction and betrayal, I’m afraid, is a trajectory I call home, “ says Eunice Lipton early in her memoir, identifying the twin lodestars that have defined her life. French Seduction: An American’s Encounter with France, Her Father, and the Holocaust is all about the lure and the trap, a dichotomy the author experienced literally on her father’s knee. “My dad and I were never in a room together where he was not touching me. Unless he was angry,” she recalls. But of that early so-very-Freudian betrayal she says, “I learned desire from him, even if he couldn’t really love me.”
She also learned of her father’s love for France, a place he had only dreamed about since he immigrated at 15 to the United States from Latvia in the 1920s with his family among the many European Jews escaping conscription and oppression in that decade.
So what’s a good daughter to do? In 1960, at 19, Lipton heads for Paris to make her father’s dreams come true. Where it counts, however, in her choice of career, for example, she will have her own way. Her father, she says, “preferred touch and sound.” He thought art was Christian. “I became an art historian,” she says, as if her independence was a given, and then adds wistfully, “I was never able to convince him of the pleasures of seeing.”
In Lipton’s account of her encounters with France, father, and Holocaust, chronology takes a back seat to memory: Seeing a picture of “skinny people in striped pajamas” in a Life magazine photo when she is four years old means that “pictures will always be intertwined in my mind with the murder of Jews those awful striped pajamas.” And somehow that gets conflated with her mother’s mysterious departure sometime in her childhood so that “paintings will become a place for me to repress these feelings of betrayal and abandonment, these premonitions of death.” For the reader, it is too much, too fast, too many unconnected links leaving too many unanswered questions: Where did her mother go and for how long? Was it her disappearance that induced the familiar feelings of betrayal? Is it credible that a four-year-old would experience any of this as a premonition of death?
If Lipton leaves out details about her own psyche things you’d like to know she is an excellent guide to the psyche of the French. She knows art and history, ancient and modern, and she understands the country and its people. After finishing her education, Lipton married and took up permanent residence in France. She and her husband, artist Ken Aptekar, were drawn to France, a country that practically invented seduction think French pastry, perfume, movies and movie stars, for instance. Lipton and her husband still adore “ being physically pampered and alive in all our senses all the time” the fresh farm butter, the tarts, and the aromas. Like her father (the connection a coincidence? surely not), “the French always seem to be touching something each other, a cigarette, a wine glass.” But then she reminds us and herself that “France was the only conquered nation whose government officially collaborated with the Germans,” a country that 10 years later “tortured and massacred Arabs in Algeria.” The question is easy: “I know what I’m really asking is, Does France love me? Or will she betray me again, as she did in 1940?” It’s the answer that’s in doubt.
Lipton falls in love with Impressionism, those sunny canvases that paint “a small piece of the truth,” but so well “that we never think about what’s not there.” But she also knows their dirty secrets that “one day she would be forced to acknowledge what I was leaving out of my own picture, so that I could continue admiring Degas”: that this man was “a cheap and ordinary anti-Semite.” And that Renoir, “another vile anti-Semite,” lied in his “obsessively happy paintings.” She remembers the Dreyfus affair, the World War II Vichy government leaders who surrendered their Jews before they were asked, the “blatant racism” toward Arabs and blacks who are French citizens, the hatred of outsiders so characteristic of the French.
“Is that why I’m here in France? Because it is such a locus of maddening extremes: seduction and betrayal, beauty and ugliness, love and hate? Because it’s such a tease?” she asks. It is a special pleasure to stroll alongside Lipton as she explores the possible answers to these questions.
MAYBE YOU’RE SURPRISED that a Jewish girl from the Bronx fell for landscapes. If so, you don’t know about the Catskills and all the immigrant Jews who saved their money all year long so that they could take their kids a couple of hours north in summertime to “the country.” It wasn’t exactly rural. It was like the places Monet and his friends painted, little towns not far from the city. Our villages were called Loch Sheldrake, Hurleyville, Monticello, and Liberty; theirs were Chatou, Argenteuil, Trouville.
It was in those upstate New York towns that we jumped the barriers of city life and snuck into private pools and casinos, where we danced and gawked at older teenagers kissing and jitterbugging. We picked blueberries in sweltering afternoon heat, dropped them bursting into saucepans, and took them home, where our mothers piled on the sour cream, bananas, and sugar. We washed it all down with cool glasses of milk.
In the Bronx, the heat made the world dwindle and droop, but in the country the sun turned everything to its essence. It was in the Catskills that we learned to listen and to see, to smell and to taste. And to long for love. In my case, it was for blond waiters and my Pop.
It would be a late summer afternoon when my father came strolling up the road to his parents’ house on one of his rare visits, arriving when I least expected him, a jacket thrown over one shoulder, his other hand swinging a small canvas bag. The late sun burnished him red and gold along his lean face and slender arms. His white, short-sleeved shirt opened wide at the throat, the pointy collar reached to his shoulder blades. His body hummed against the light cloth. He glanced this way and that, his nostrils flaring from the mountain smells; his ears pricked up to the sound of birds and to the clinking gas-station noises from across the road. He was confident and relaxed. Just like a young man in a Renoir painting.
Yes, we know Impressionism in America. Kids all over the country buy posters when they go away to school. The pictures make them dreamy, and within two years or three they pull on their backpacks and cross the ocean in search of all the pleasure the paintings dangle, but especially they go in search of love and sunshine. They go to Paris. No matter what the American government says about France, no matter how many Americans pour their French wine down the sewer or call McDonald’s fat-soaked potatoes Freedom Fries, the kids and their parents keep coming to Paris to feel alive and optimistic. Americans have done so for a very long time.
From French Seduction: An American’s Encounter with France, Her Father, and the Holocaust by Eunice Lipton
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