The beginning of a beautiful friendship?
The AP released a story where it says that President Trump’s guide to Paris is Jim (NLN). The wire claims no one has got any dope on this person, even whether he is an American ex-pat who hosted Mr. Trump when he used to pass through on the lookout for deals, or a pal from Queens who likes to visit the city and sometimes they were there at the same time, went to the Closerie des Lilas or the Ritz and mused about buying them and renaming them Closerie de Trump or Trump Ritz, while each suggested the other have a drink. I am told — could be apocryphal — a cartoon in Le Monde, their Times, shows the two new presidents, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump, sitting on the Arc de Triomphe and the former says to the latter, “Sorry, we can’t rename this.”
It is all kind of silly, and you have to assume our AP colleagues were indulging in humor and a good thing, too, state the world’s in, not to mention the state of the press. Plus keep in mind, this is the centennial of the year of the AEF and the Rainbow Division, preceded on the Meuse-Argonne front by the Men of Bronze, the 69th New York (later 369th), one of America’s legendary regiments, forced by the prevailing prejudices of the time to fight in French uniforms despite General J. J. Pershing himself — “Lafayette, nous voici!” — being their chief booster in the American high command.
It is a memory of somber glory. It took nearly 200,000 American lives to save Europe from collective suicide, and the recently elected French president, Emmanuel Macron, a learned and literate man, knows the importance of memory. He specifically invited his U.S. homologue to attend the July 14 ceremonies, the high point of which is always the défilé, parade, down the Champs-Elysées, a somewhat ostentatious avenue a bit commercial but tastefully so. It is a grand parade, with men on horseback and armored vehicles and Foreign Legionnaires with their smart white kepis and cops and gendarmes and all the others who “guard us as we sleep,” including a contingent of U.S. Marines.
The 369th would’a been nice, but the Leathernecks will get the point across, and having Donald Trump at his side shows he knows. He knows that allies, in the end, are like a married couple, whatever the naysayers say. Jim the mystery man is not available, so Mr. Macron, polite to a fault, steps up, that’s class. And consider: a man who is not swayed by the conventional gossip and hysteria, even that emanating from the bien-pensants on both sides of the ocean, must have something under his belt besides breakfast.
But what we at TAS find interesting is that it seems to have occurred to no one that if Mr. Trump actually put out this Jim story, as they claim he did, he may have been pulling their legs. Because, why Jim?
Because Jim, y’dope, is a central character in the most famous movie ever made in France next to “La Grande Illusion,” “Jules et Jim.”
When in Paris, I have a habit of picking up a paperback copy of Henri-Pierre Roché’s novel, Jules et Jim, written in the early 1950s. Roché was in his 70s then, but it is a book written with the verve and lyric heart of a much younger man. One guesses that the author lived through a story akin to the one in the novel, or witnessed close friends who did, and meditated upon the experience for decades. So when finally he sat down and committed it to paper, it had all the freshness and frankness and spontaneity of his well-remembered young manhood.
It is a gorgeous book, which will reinforce admiration for the gorgeous movie. Though many, if not most, films are based on books, it is often the case that the film version falls short. (Notable exceptions: The Searchers; Gone With the Wind; The Maltese Falcon, to take examples from all over the place.) Jules et Jim is written with a spontaneity that brings out all the more poignantly the intense passions of the three main characters. They happen to be beautiful in the most simple meaning of the word. You would want to be like them or if not, to have such friends.
But they are not uncomplicated: they are writers (the two men), and the girl — young woman rather — is a soul in search of her female essence, which Roché is far too skilled a writer to define. Her essence is what she desires: the love of two men, plus her own freedom.
In the years of the late 19th, early 20th centuries, the young Henri-Pierre Roché had noticed that things were getting out of joint, and one way in which this showed was in a woman’s search to resolve unresolvable impulses of her nature. Failure was assured, by way of attainments of supreme happiness and spiritual peace followed by lapses into the most heartaching pain and misery.
Roché’s novel was, you might say, a short version of Marcel Proust’s multi-volume one, written while the younger man was living it. And with, of course, far fewer complications, characters, and all the panorama of turn of the century French society that Proust saw so unerringly. Jules et Jim is a simple book. Poets and language students as young men, the French Jim and the Austrian Jules share girls and discuss big ideas. They are enraptured by Kathe, whom Jules marries on the eve of the war, which slams the door on the belle époque that they and their bohemian friends in Paris thought would go on forever, as did Proust’s aristocrats.
In its way, Roché’s book evokes the end-of-civilization theme with as much pathos as Proust’s profound and wide-ranging classic. It is done with a light touch that belies its deep sense of a lost place and time. That is, of course, why it lent itself so well to François Truffaut’s cinematic style, based on terse dialogue, by turns elliptical and fanciful or sorrowful and wise, and always taken straight from Roché’s text. Truffaut’s camera sense, with its impressionist scene-cutting and constant movement, was anticipated, you feel, in Roché’s precise, but whimsical and deeply affectionate prose.
If the Paris of Jules et Jim has moved into the realm of memory, it still can be reached through the art it inspired. In “real” life, you find bits and pieces of it here and there, though what at first sight strikes you as a street, a building, a cafe that time forgot usually turns out to be a clever entrepreneur’s idea of using retro-marketing to sell his wares. Which, mind, is by no means a put-down; it takes immense skill to do this sort of thing and, surely, it is far better to have restored, or preservationist-inspired products (whether in housing, fashion, food) than poorly conceived “new” products.
However, the world they lived in is gone. The story itself, in prose and film, shows what we’ve known for a century: the Great War and its aftermath killed it. But the story also shows that this world would have been doomed anyway, with or without the political disasters of the century, for it is a love story that cannot happen. Maybe every generation wants, briefly, to reinvent love. When you do that, you fail and move on — or die trying.
So I wonder. Donald Trump, a secret Jules? Jules is, you will recall, the wise member of the trio, upon whom it falls to gather the ashes and keep life going. According to the AP, the prez said his friend Jim no longer goes to Paris because, “Jim says Paris is no longer Paris.” A banality that, but banalities, sometimes, serve as shortcuts to something that is real and true, like Henri-Pierre Roché’s masterpiece, Jules et Jim.