FINDING FONTAINEBLEAU: AN AMERICAN BOY IN FRANCE
By Thad Carhart
Viking, $27, 283 pages
This study in cultural affinity by an American long-resident in Paris starts out with a striking description of culture shock, as the four-year-old author experiences immersion in 1954 France. This is only one of the many odd juxtapositions in “Finding Fontainebleau,” which somehow manage to end up forming a perfect union. In putting together this engaging book, it seems at times as if Thad Carhart is putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle of history, reminiscence and anthropological detail which paint a complicated but indelible picture.
In part, this is because Mr. Carhart is a vivid writer, who can plunge the reader right into his experiences. We meet him first as he rattles his way across the Atlantic, with stops in Canada and Ireland, in a less than up-to-date prop plane flying through a terrifying storm. We get to share the terror amid more mundane details such as the necessity for the really big — but not large enough — airsickness bags, which were the norm in those days before jets “flew over the weather.” He leaves little of the mayhem and the smell to the reader’s imagination:
“We landed at Shannon at dawn, and the sense of salvation was absolute . When we staggered down the stairs and breathed the balm of fresh air, we were greeted by a team of workers who looked as if they had been assembled to deal with a chemical spill (which in a way they had): overalls, hoods, canvas masks, brushes, and pails . When we were herded back onto the plane in Ireland the interior was magically transformed. A strong smell of antiseptic filled the air, but this was more than welcome after the stench it replaced.”
As Mr. Carhart conducts his own Proustian recollection of the childhood years he spent in France before his father’s tour of duty in the military took them on, odors of all kinds play a prominent part in sparking up the text. The intensity of his reactions was such that all these decades later he can evoke them powerfully for us. But not for him the delicately scented cake dipped into aromatic herbal tea which jogged Proust’s time travel. More pungent ones are the order of the day with Mr. Carhart, whether it is the delights of French cheese or the less salubrious ones associated with bodily functions — more casually dealt with than an American child was used to — which suffused the air.
Few writers are more sensitive or susceptible to the beauties of Paris and the French countryside, but it is one of the chief strengths of this warts-and-all portrait that the atmosphere of France and the distinctive characteristics of its people are evoked in their entirety. He has a preternatural capacity for flitting back between his adult experiences as a Parisian and his childhood in Fontainebleau, his own children’s experiences and his own, without ever losing the reader. Historical figures emerge as colorfully as his own family, and he conveys the many complex burdens which history has laid upon the nation and its inhabitants.
It was Mr. Carhart’s good fortune to find his family billeted practically on the doorstep of the eponymous chateau and so it is not surprising that it has a special place in his heart. But he makes a strong case for its primacy even for those with a less personal connection, while frankly admitting his bias:
“Fontainebleau says something very profound about the French approach to history and to life itself; Versailles says something else entirely. To my way of thinking, you can learn more from a day well spent in Fontainebleau than from a month of Sundays at Versailles.”
He goes on to detail its glories with an intimate knowledge few today can share, but which I daresay rivals that of some of France’s kings and emperors, whose personal favorite it was. I cannot begin to approach his insider knowledge, but my own two visits make me fervently agree with his more informed praise.
It’s not just Fontainebleau’s ancient lineage stretching back so many centuries before Louis XIV built Versailles as a monument to himself as the Sun King. Unlike Versailles, which — to reverse English poet Ben Jonson’s praise of the stately Kent home Penshurst — was most definitely “built to envious show,” Fontainebleau retains traces of the hunting lodge from which it grew, albeit exponentially. And this is key to the oddly homelike quality which is somehow there amid the many splendors and which is perhaps why it appealed to its owners as people rather than just as monarchs.
The large forest which surrounds the palace is very much present in Mr. Carhart’s narrative, from the mounted heads which so astonished his four-year-old self on entering the family’s new home to the real-live boar that charged their (fortunately sturdy) American automobile as they drove home through it. Details, impressions, memories — and what the author does with them — are the heart and soul of this lovely book.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.