The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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July 1, 2013

Paris in July: 'Les metteurs en scène'

'Metteurs en Scène, Les.' . . . Short story published in French in the Revue des Deux Mondes in October 1908. ... Edith Wharton wrote it in French because she was tired of the 'arid work of translating.' She was then embarrassed when Henry James read it; he drily congratulated her on 'the way in which you've picked up every old worn-out literary phrase that's been lying about the streets of Paris for the last twenty years, and managed to pack them all into these few pages.' He told a mutual friend that is was a 'creditable episode in her career. But she must never do it again.'

from Edith Wharton A to Z, by Sarah Bird Wright

Poor Edith! {And Henry has a mouth on him.} Thinking about how closely Edith Wharton is connected to Paris, I spent a few minutes last night looking through this book -- one that I keep on my nightstand -- for a short story of hers set there. If you had read this entry, would you have been able to resist? 
When the story opens, Jean Le Fanois, 'pale and chiseled,' elegant, well-connected, 'knowing and slightly impertinent,' is waiting, a little anxiously, in the lobby of the Hotel Nouveau-Luxe. With gambling debts and nothing to do with his time, Le Fanois has drifted in becoming what he calls a metteur en scène; he befriends newly arrived, newly wealthy Americans, introduces them to his aristocratic friends, decorates their elegant Parisian townhouses, and finds antiques for them {'Jean was delighted with the opportunity to distinguish himself in the role of enlightened amateur, and, in acquiring handsome works of art for his friend, he experienced a little of the pleasure he would have had in buying them for himself.'}, reluctantly accepting the indignity of payments from the secondhand shops where he directs them.

He is at the hotel for a rendezvous with his friend and collaborator, Blanche Lambert. For the first few pages of the story, the zingers fly {'Her exceedingly pale pink lips and large limpid eyes complemented an intelligent forehead crowned with a soft haze of indecisively blond hair.'}. As unlikeable as she is, Miss Lambert is a more self-knowing, tougher version of  Lily Bart ...
      'After all the designing women you've sent us over here, that child is a real relief,' Le Fanois remarked jestingly to Blanche. 'I think her very faults will help us to marry her off.'
      They were sitting at the tea table in Miss Lambert's tiny sitting room. Two years ago she had been able to move into an unpretentious fifth-floor apartment, where she received callers with the independence of a married woman.
      ('What else could I do?' she would say. 'I have no source of income, no husband and no companion, so I have to be all three to myself.')

... and the friendship between Le Fanois and Miss Lambert seems deep and sincere.

Edith saves her worst for Miss Lambert's new protégés:
Le Fanois turned around and saw a large woman with pale, puffy features and a complicated coiffure, on which was poised a hat laden with the remains of an entire aviary of exotic birds. She advanced toward them, her shoulders weighed down by a magnificent silver fox coat, her movements impeded by the folds of a lavishly embroidered dress, trailing in her wake a tall, rosy girl. Dressed with the same exaggerated elegance as her mother, the girl held in her hands a sable muff, a gold purse set with precious stones and a diamond-studded lorgnette, and her incredibly blond hair was crowned with a floral abundance as varied as the ornithological trimmings of the maternal bonnet. 'Here are Mrs. Smithers and her daughter Catherine,' Blanche Lambert repeated, and Le Fanois, following her toward the new arrivals, could not suppress a sigh. 'Oh, those poor people ... those poor people!'
Knowing that Mrs. Smithers wants 'the inevitable marriage to a French count' for Catherine,  Le Fanois and Miss Lambert set to work {'... before long the two of them had installed Mrs, Smithers in the town house formerly owned by Le Fanois' first patron and decorated by Le Fanois himself. Next they arranged a splendid succession of dinners and balls, to which Le Fanois' friends flocked with a pleasure they sometimes forgot to express to the hostess.'}. Zinger after zinger. But Catherine, 'in spite of her awkwardness, her twangy voice, her ear-splitting laugh,' has a 'freshness and youthful radiance,' a naivete and cheerfulness, that draws people to her, and the metteurs are soon able to orchestrate 'a splendid match.'  But Catherine has fallen in love with someone else, and then a lot of plot twists are crowded into the rest of the story.

This isn't a very long short story, only about 16 pages, and even in translation I could see what Henry meant. The humor and the satire are not very subtle, and there wasn't room {or, possibly, any effort} to give the characters any depth, but it was a lot of fun to read. 

{The painting, found here, is  by Walter Gay, who was a friend of EW's and
also painted some her French rooms. I'm very drawn to these paintings;
fascinating to learn that this one measures only 7 x 9 inches.}


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