Two French Lessons

i. In Menlo Park


Since we would be leaving soon for Pais, Marion decided that she had better brush up on her high-school French. An old friend in Palo Alto had just the thing for her: a picturesque flamboyant French lady named Madame DuPlanty, currently living in an old wreck of a building in Menlo Park, who was teaching the girls at the Sacred Heart convent to speak the language of Racine.

She turned out to be a brisk grey-haired roundfaced chatterbox of a Frenchwoman who lost no time telling us that before the war she had been one of the most famous, nay the most famous, of the criminal lawyers in Paris. She showed us pictures on her walls, on her bureau, on her desk, of herself in various poses. Her favorite was the magazine page showing her full length in her black courtroom robe raising passionate arms in defense of Weidmann the most famous serial killer of the 1930's. "Ah, there was a man . Sharp, witty, a linguist, mysterious, attractive." Hundreds of women wrote to her from all over the world -- nuns, duchesses, chamber maids, adolescents, old maids, opera singers , every imaginable kind of woman -- offering to lay down their lives for Weidmann. He never told her how many women he had actually killed, he preferred to leave certain parts of his life in a penumbra of mystery. He killed them quite methodically, he told her, just for their money, so that he could go out and have a good time and meet more women. He did not believe in getting emotion mixed up with his love-deaths. Only he intimated that he did have some sort of tenderness for Jean De Koven, the rich American girl who was his last victim, the one whose family lit enough fire under the French judicial system to bring him to the guillotine.

Madame had been wondering whether she shouldn't try to get in touch with the De Koven family after all these years to give them this information. She had known many bereaved families in her time, sometimes they were walled up in their hatred, sometimes they were pleased to get little snippets of information that might help explain why their lives had been forever altered.

Weidmann was only the most celebrated of her clients, for years she bathed in murder and had her picture in all the papers. She specialized in crimes of passion. One of her cases was of a woman who was informed by her husband that he was leaving her to live with another woman whom he had met in a sanatorium. She agreed to give him a divorce, and the man went off. A few days before the divorce was granted, the other woman gave birth to a baby. When she came home from the hospital, there was the wife at the door with a pistol who shot her dead with the baby in her arms. "How did you handle that one, Madame, " I asked. "It must have been a hard one."

" Oh no, I got her acquitted with ease. How I castigated that husband, that traitor, that coward. Put yourself in the place of this woman, I cried, so cruelly, so faithlessly, so abominably abandoned. See yourself alone in a cramped and loveless room, still reverberating with the heartless snickerings of him who - "

I was turning pale (I had after all just been through long and unpleasant divorce proceedings with a French wife who was, according to the psychiatrist she consulted, certainly not insane but definitely dangerous), but she assured me that she was personally the gentlest of souls, with an infinite capacity for assuaging the sufferings of others.

Her own sufferings came pouring out at the sight of an ear. It took one whole French lesson for her to explain, in English, what unhappiness was hers, in war and ine peace, in her native land and in Menlo Park.

She had been married once, in Paris, but her husband didn't amount to much and she felt no grief when he disappeared with his whole ship at Dunkirk. Ten years later he was legally dead and she was free to marry again. By that time she in the US, and in trouble with the immigration authorities. She met a handsome Dutchman named Hans, a teacher at Stanford, and they fell in love. He was a great strapping golfing blond, though half Indonesian, and she was about to marry him as soon as those immigration troubles were over, but then he had a stroke. He became gloomy, ingrown, peevish. He barked at her when she came into his room, and she ran out crying. He had been living for many years with his sister-in-law, a rough rawboned Swiss peasant woman who had moved in to do the cooking and housework the day her sister got married to Hans. He was ashamed to go out looking old and haggard, and his arm twisted. A Swiss peasant woman knew how to take care of that: she pulled down all the blinds and kept ceaseless watch on him to see that he didn't fall down. After a couple of years he was turned into a trembling furtive little man, eating out of sister-in-law's spoon and terrified of her frown. Then one day he did fall down, all the way downstairs, and when he came to, he asked for Madame at once. Why haven't you been seeing me? he said. He was her old Hans.

But it is still touch and go. His arm is still twisted, and he is still scared to death of the ogre. When Madame drives up to his house, he peeks through the Venetian blinds, then he scurries out the back way and runs fluttering up to her at the corner. Or he hides behind a tree and waits for her. He is teaching classes again, but the ogre goes along with him to see that he doesn't fall down, and this creates a bad impression. The ogre is 75 or 80, but she is expected to live forever. Meanwhile, he has lost all his money. And Madame herself is being short-changed by the Menlo-Atherton Union High School, where she teaches adult French classes at a constantly diminishing salary.

These worries however are bliss itself compared to what she was going through years ago. "The French are a vengeful people," she says, "you will never understand the depths of their political passions. I had tasted of success, I was famous, I devoted myself to my work and to the common good. What did I get in return but jealousy and persecution and endless troubles which have lasted to this day?"

"Why, what troubles are you in, Madame?".

"Call me Régine. I tell you, it was the day the newspapers began to sing my praises, it was the day I became famous, when my name became a household word as THE woman lawyer, on that day the poisons of jealousy entered into I won't guess how many of my male colleagues, you may not believe it but it is true, a colleague told me once, after I had made a particularly brilliant plaidoirie before the Cour d'Assises in Versailles, Renée, he said to me (I was known as Renée Jardin as a lawyer), Renée, he said, you are digging your own grave. And it was true.

"Oui mais enfin Régine, what did they do to you?"

"Do to me? I can't tell you what they did to me. What did they not do to me? Can you imagine what it means to me to know that when you leave this house you will be reflecting that you have been accepting the hospitality of a convicted felon?".

"Nonsense, Régine, you know we think highly of you. Surely there was a mistake. You a felon? What did they convict you of?"

"Politics," she said sadly. "When political passions are involved, they charge you with the highest crimes, they condemn you to the ultimate punishment. No, not the guillotine. No, not quite. Something worse. I can't tell you. But I must." A long pause. "Hard labor for life."

"You? Impossible!"

"Politics, I told you. I will tell you the whole story. I will offer to you the novel of my life.

"Ah, let me tell you, I was something in the old days. I was THE woman lawyer of France, my picture was in your magazine Life, look, here is a copy, one of the few things I have saved from the wreckage of the past. I believed in womens rights, I campaigned, I was elected, I was the first woman in France to become a conseiller municipal, it was in Versailles. All politics. I don't believe in politics any more, if you gave me a plate full of womens rights I would throw them into the ashcan.

"Well, as I was saying. I was conseiller municipal of Versailles in 1940, when the Germans were coming. Of course everyone ran away. Like rabbits. All those puffy speech-makers who had been elected to defend the material and spiritual interests of their citizens. There were only two or three of us left in the city hall to run the city, what was left of the city. A colleague of mine drove off with his wife. A German plane strafed the car and killed him. His wife buried him by the roadside. When she got back into the car, she remembered that all their money, and all their papers, everything, was in his coat pocket. While she was digging him up again, somebody drove off in the car.

"In the city, what a mess. No one to take care of the sick in the hospitals. The dead animals lay stinking in the abattoirs. I worked like ten. They should be putting up monuments to me. I protected the people from the Germans, I warned Jews in time to get out. I fed the poor. I did my duty and I am not ashamed of it. Of course I supported Marshal Pétain. I believed in him, I still do. Maurice Garçon, greatest of the lawyers of France, begged me not to say a good word of Pétain, he told me, 'don't be a fool,' he said, 'all you have to do is to say that you have changed your mind and that now you know that Pétain was an old imbecile; I defended him at his trial, and I know he was.' 'Never,' I said. 'You can defend others,' he said, 'but you can't defend yourself, you'd better get to America as fast as you can.' That is why I am here."

"But what about the hard labor? What were you sentenced for?"

"I don't know, I never received a summons. I was tried in absentia. No one ever told me what I was accused of. That is political justice for you."

"But surely -"

"Oh I could go back now. But my family doesn't want me to. If I went back now, they would reduce my sentence to a fine. But then I would have to sell my share of the family chateau in Brittany. It would drive them all crazy. My family are old royalist stock, chouans. I don't think they ever want to see me again. At least I have kept my stocks and bonds out of their hands. They are in a vault in Paris. I can't get at them, Perhaps if you go there some day I will give you a power of attorney and you can get them for me...

"But as I was saying...In 1944 came the Liberation. I was on vacation and I had left my forwarding address on my office door. The Germans came to take me off with them to Germany, and when I wasn't there, they were so angry they ripped off the card with my address on it. The next day the FFI came looking for me. They had already hanged a couple of my colleagues. But they couldn't find my address.

"I knew what they were capable of, what they wanted to do to me. I tore up my identification papers and my ration books. I became a hunted woman. I became a nameless wanderer in the streets of Paris. Sometimes I would duck into a doorway and hide my head because there coming down the street would be a famous lawyer with whom I had once exchanged jests as the Palais. He was my pal, my buddy, but who was to say he would not rush to report me to the authorities and collect his twenty pieces of silver for it?

"I got a job teaching English at a small private school. I said I was from St. Lo where of course all the records had been destroyed in the bombardment. I told the little girls all about the cowboys, Hollywood. For a while I was tranquil. One day one of my colleagues said to me, 'You are a fugitive.' I turned pale. She said, 'So is my husband.' ' I didn't know you had a husband, 'I said. She said, 'He has been living in my room all these months. How lucky you are, who can go out in the street. He cannot even show himself at the window.' Indeed they led a strange life in that room. How pale he was! Through them I met a Pretender to the Throne of France, not the Pretender whose right to use the name of Bourbon I defended in a famous case in 1938, but a Russian, a madman. I went to a vault where a priest was blessing the lilied flags of this Pretender. But that is another novel.

"Then alarming rumors reached the school. I had to leave, go out again into the cold and hostile streets. My friend the Bishop of Troyes stood by me as he always did. I entered a convent.

"It was a convent of Poor Clares. They didn't know who I was, I was just another postulant. Mon Dieu. All day long, scrubbing, sewing, kneeling, praying, praying, praying. No wonder they are all nuts.

"Oh they are all crazy, I assure you. They become praying machines, the ceaseless monotony and repetition turns them into machines and drives out everything human. I am a good Catholic, but if I told you all I know about nuts --

"Anyway, you can imagine my position. I can't sew, I had chilblains. And the silence! The endless silence! We could only talk on holidays, and then it was a matter of some older nun saying something about the weather, and the young ones saying, Thank you sister. Oh the silence! And I, who had pleaded so eloquently before the bars of Versailles, of Paris, who had stirred auditoriums, moved juries to tears. Reduced arrogant witnesses to tears when I proved to them out of their own mouths that they were liars, oh I assure you, I am through with politics

"Oh I assure you I ate the bread of affliction in that convent. I had only one release. Every Sunday we went to confession, There was an old, old priest. How I gave it to him! I kept him there for hours, dancing in the box. I told him all I thought of the convent, I told him what I was going through, I told him what was wrong with the whole system. And of course he was under his vows of silence, he couldn't repeat anything I told him to anyone. Finally he could stand it no more. He begged me to give him permission to tell the mother superior how unhappy I was. I was cold and weak, I said No, I said No, But finally I bowed my head, I said, Yes, I said, Yes, throw me out into the streets, you old fool. And that same day I was out on the streets again, the cold winter streets..

"My dear Bishop saved me again, he got me into another convent. Then the police came looking for me."

"But what did they say you had done?"

"Well, they weren't looking for me exactly, they were looking for a Milicien, you know the Milice was the auxiliary police force which was trying to preserve the France of the Marshal, and this one had been condemned to death for something or other, you could get death for anything in those days, and they believed he was hiding out disguised as a nun. What an outrage. They came right through the convent, poking around in the most unseemly manner How those poor girls squealed!

" Fortunately, I had been tipped off, and I sneaked out through the church just in time.

"Then there were more wanderings. There was a horrible moment on a train. I was sitting in a compartment opposite a nun. Suddenly we heard policemen boarding the train. The sister divined my situation at a glance. She took her knitting wool out of her bag and handed it to me to help her wind it. When the policeman appeared in our compartment and demanded brutally, Identification papers every one, of course our hands were all wrapped in wool and she looked up at him sweetly and said, 'Women too?' Well no, he said, they were looking for a man.

" I was saved again.

"And then at last, I came to America."

"And you still don't know what you were charged with when they condemned you?"

"How should I know? I never received any papers. I had to assume it was somehow connected to the unfortunate man I do not wish to name. I will call him Monsieur X.

"It is a very painful matter. Monsieur X was a gentleman who lived near my home town in Brittany. One day I learned he was hiding a number of old weapons. Now you must understand that whole villages had been wiped out by the Germans when such caches were found. The lives of many innocents were in my hands. I therefore sent a letter to M. de Brinon -"

"The late M. de Brinon? The one who was shot as a traitor?"

"The very same. Marshal Pétain's ambassador to the occupation authorities in Paris. I urged him to use his influence to get Monsieur X to remove his arms or destroy them before they led to the death of innocent people. I always thought of M. de Brinon as an honorable man, and I am sure he would have done what I suggested. But somehow that letter found its way into the hands of the Germans. They came after Monsieur X and took him away to Germany and he was never heard of again. You will understand that I was not in any way responsible. But such are the passions of politics that I was accused of having betrayed poor Monsieur X to the enemy. That was the kind of dealings with the enemy that they charged me with. When politicians have something like this they can throw at you, they never let you go. Persecution is their passion, Persecution is their law.

"Even in this country I have been persecuted. I lost my job at Mills College on the basis of the most odious calumnies... I went to the president of Mills, who was as haughty as she was ignorant, and I said, I said it clearly...I went to the French consul in San Francisco, and he was insolent, and I told him what I thought of him....All my life, in or our of the courtroom, I have been ready to I am ready to stand up and tell anyone what I know to be true..."

She would be telling us to this day if I hadn't said we had to leave, to start packing for our trip to France.

ii. In Paris

Twenty years after, we were spending a couple of months each year in Paris, and Marion was speaking a more or less respectable French, but being a perfectionist she wanted to speak it perfectly, so we went to enrol her in a course at the Alliance Française on the boulevard Raspail.

We were ushered into a room where behind a desk covered with neatly arranged papers sat erectly a little man with thin lips, a thin mustache, thin unyielding eyes. He was, as he explained in unskillful English, in charge of assigning prospective students to the classes corresponding to their linguistic skills.

After transcribing the necessary vital statistics on to an appropriate document, he leaned forward and said, "So you have come here, Madame, to learn to speak French. Correct French. Do you at present speak French?"

"Un peu," she sad.

"Aha!" he said. "So you speak French. A little. But you speak?"

"Oui," she said.

"Then conjugate for me the passé simple of the verb venir"

She stared at him, for once speechless.

"Comment?" he cried, "You claim to speak the language and you do not know the passé simple of the verb venir? Then, dear Madame, you know nothing of the French language. I will enrol you in the elementary class. Please sign here."

She stood up and stormed out of the room.

On the boulevard outside, I assured her that what she had just been through was a traditional caricature of French bureaucracy, that in fact it was a rare French person who knew the passé simple of the verb venir, and that the whole episode called for a tolerant smile rather than an angry frown.

But she did not appear to believe me.

It was a glorious spring day, and I thought she might be easier to convince if we went for lunch at the restaurant Chez Albert just a few blocks away..

It was better to go to chez Albert for lunch than for dinner because the patron was generally a little drunk by nightfall and capable of pouring sauce béarnaise over the meringue glacée. And indeed he was, though a little red in the face, at his cordial and efficient best when we arrived, and the coquilles Saint-Jacques were delicious. We were on the terrace in the shade of the plane-trees looking out on the picturesque tourists and the art students, sipping the wine Albert had chosen for us as particularly suited to Paris in the spring.

At the table to our right were three well-dressed gentlemen. The only one I could see in full, sitting with his back to the tourists on the boulevard, was a gaunt figure with mad black eyes and a sharp bitter voice. He was expressing with ringing clarity not his hatred, which was too exalted a word to apply to trash, but his total disdain for a man whom he did not name but who could easily be identified as Georges Pompidou, second President of the Fifth French Republic. "He rented out his wife," said the man, "even after he got to the supreme seat of power. He rented out his wife. I have no more respect for him than I would have for any pimp on the Place Pigalle."

Later he turned his attention to another, even more despicable, figure, whom he referred to only as LUI, Him, but who could be easily identified as Charles de Gaulle. "I call him the French Rasputin," he said. "I bumped into him strutting around the Champs Elysées last November 11th and since he is as blind as a bat he held out his hand to me. To Me! I had the pleasure of turning on my heels and walking off. Without a word. Offering the only part of my anatomy he was fit to kiss."

His two interlocutors murmured their approbation.

They began busily discussing other figures in French public life. The man sitting next to me was a Corsican, with the somewhat gangsterish look affected by some Corsicans. Beyond him I could get a fleeting glimpse of a stocky rather benevolent looking middle-aged man in tweeds. It was to the latter that the dark-eyed gentleman addressed most of his remarks. "HE," he said malevolently, not to say devilishly, at one point, " he is Satan! Satan! But you, my general, you are the last of the knights, you are Chivalry, you are Honor, you are France!"

It is not always easy to restrain curiosity. After the meal I ordered coffee and cognacs and adroitly struck up a conversation ("May we share this sugar?") with our neighbors, who were pleased to find transatlantic ears into which to pour the lowdown on what was wrong with France.

The demonic man turned out to be an admiral who had represented De Gaulle in America during the war, he had ruled briefly in Indo-China, he was a descendant of the admiral who secured Tahiti for the Kingdom of France. The general turned out to be General, or rather ex-General, Salan who had recently been amnestied after being condemned to death for high treason as leader of the plot to overthrow De Gaulle and his government because they had abandoned Algeria to the Algerians.

The general however was not really interested in politics, he preferred relaxed small talk about springtime and Paris and the girls in the streets. At one point he remarked that he was pleased to find two Americans who spoke French correctly, and I seized this opportunity to tell him of our experience an hour or so earlier at the Alliance Française.

"Ah, the passé simple!" he cried. "I had trouble with it at school. It is one of those things which add savor to our language."

"By the way, mon général," I said, "what is the correct form of the passé simple of the verb venir?"

"That's easy," he said, "je venais, tu venais, il ou elle venait, nous --"

"No, my general, isn't that the imperfect?."

"Oh yes, of course" he said, "it's easy to confuse them. We have a beautiful language but a complicated one. What I should have said is, je vins, tu vins, il vint."

"And nous?" I prodded gently.

"Nous vîmes" he said, vous -"

"Excuse me, mon général, "but isn't that the passé simple of the verb voir? Shouldn't it be, nous vînmes. vous vîntes, ils or elles vinrent?"

The general laughed heartily. "The last time," he said, " that I said, vous vîntes must have been when I was twelve years old when I had to stand up in front of the class and repeat it because I had got it wrong. Ah, it's a great language."

Then he frowned. That classroom memory had reminded him of a more recent, more serious humiliation. "There are some things you can never forget, never get over," he said. "Like, for me, the medals."

I didn't catch on immediately, and he repeated, "The medals. The medals they took away from me. They took away all my medals, you know."

"Think nothing of it, mon général,"cried the admiral, clawing at the tablecloth. with his dark fingernails, "they could, in their infinite insolent pettiness, strip you of your medals, which are only bits of metal fashioned by human fingers, but they could never strip you of your grandeur, your dignity, your honor, which are gifts of the good God."

"Would they have done that in America?" the general asked me.

I had no idea what the correct answer was, but I had no choice but to assure him confidently that in America, once you are given a medal, it is yours forever. "You might have been put in the electric chair, but no one would have touched your medals."

"A great nation," said the general, "I have always admired America. Tell me, are they going to give Pompidou an enthusiastic reception when he goes there next week?" "I cannot he sure but I strongly doubt it," I said. "I am glad," said the general..

"A man who rents out his wife," said the admiral, "can never earn the respect of honorable men."

Later that day we dropped into Marcel's bar, our corner bar. Titine, Marcel's wife, showed us a paper addressed to all the mothers and fathers on the 14th arrondissement by a local Catholic organization, portraying the contemporary crisis of French civilization in tones rather like those of the admiral of Chez Albert.

But this time it was not politics that was at issue, but the breakdown of morality in contemporary adolescent youth.

"Consider," said this document, "the fate of our boys, schooled in all manner of unmentionable vice from an early age, accustomed to linking pleasure only to the sinuous intertwinings, the unspeakably perverse and practiced maneuvers and manipulations, the sinister spiced sweets of lascivious encounters. Naturally these encounters are sterile, for the abandoned females who take part in them also take the Pill. But what happens when a young man, revolted by all these horrors, by an immense effort of the will chooses to return to the better way? He chooses a young lady of good family, brought up well sheltered from all those wicked practices; he marries her. But when the moment comes for the consummation of this blessed sacrament, the poor girl lies there in her sweet innocence knowing nothing of the shameless devices and lewd postures which alone can stimulate the jaded desires of her wretched bridegroom. He can do nothing! Nothing! And I solemnly warn you, mothers and fathers, if this state of affairs is allowed to continue, we are witnessing the extinction of the race."

Asked for my comments, I said I thought there was no doubt we were living in a time when old traditions were being unceremoniously thrown overboard. "Look," I said, "at the decay of the French language. How many people in this bar can correctly conjugate the passé simple of the verb venir?"

Of the eighteen people - and you couldn't get a more representative sample of the French population - thirteen either didn't know what the passé simple was or refused to take any interest in the subject. Two others recited the imperfect (je venais, etc.), one other the passé composé (je suis venu, tu es venu, etc.), and one got correctly down as far as il or elle vint and then blundered over into nous vîmes, the passé simple of the verb voir.

Of the two who were acquainted with vînmes, vîntes and vinrent, one was a Monsieur Ains, known affectionately as Monsieur Ainsupportable, who could quote of all of Mallarmé by heart but was generally too drunk to do anything else, the other was Marcel and Titine's twelve-year-old son Pascal, who had recently been disciplined in school for the same failing, and at the same age, as General Salan.

I believed that by then I had made my point.

©2006 Robert Wernick