Friday, October 6, 2017

Je Suis Perdu

Peter Taylor (1917–1994)
From Peter Taylor: The Complete Stories

Detail from Vue présumée du jardin du Luxembourg [View of the Luxembourg Gardens], 1794, oil on canvas by French painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). The protagonist of Taylor’s story recalls this painting while visiting the Parisian gardens: “Wasn’t it from one of those awful windows that the great David, as a prisoner of the Revolution, had painted his only landscape?”
Tennessee native Peter Taylor had been publishing stories in various magazines for ten years when in 1948 Harcourt, Brace released his first book, A Long Fourth and Other Stories, with an introduction by Robert Penn Warren. The collection didn’t make Taylor famous, nor were its sales all that remarkable, but it was reviewed widely and came to the attention of The New Yorker’s fiction editor Katharine S. White. After reading Taylor’s debut, she wrote to him and asked to see his future work. His relationship with the magazine would last forty years.

In 1973 Taylor was interviewed by Stephen Goodwin, who was then working on his first novel after receiving his Master’s degree from the University of Virginia, where Taylor taught. Goodwin asked what it was like writing for The New Yorker. “It was always a pleasure to have The New Yorker edit a piece,” Taylor responded.
The little magazines show too much respect. They won’t catch you up in little inconsistencies. I once got from The New Yorker a full-page discussion about the use of light switches in a story I had sent them. But the myth that The New Yorker changes stories to make them fit the tone of the magazine is just a myth; they never changed anything of mine. They did once object to the title of a story of mine. They didn’t like the title “Je Suis Perdu.” I don’t know why. Because it was French? Anyway, I changed it to “A Pair of Bright Blue Eyes” and they printed it, and then I changed it back when it was collected in a book. “Je Suis Perdu” is obviously a better title.
Goodwin also asked Taylor to identify the favorites among his stories, and the author listed three that rank among his most famous: “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time,” “Miss Leonora When Last Seen,” and “The Spinster’s Tale.” He then added “Je Suis Perdu” and revealed the story behind the story: an incident that happened during his family’s eight months’ stay in Paris during the 1956–57 academic year:
Katie, my daughter, was the little girl who got lost in a movie theatre in Paris. When she called out to me, I didn't recognize her voice because she was calling in French. She was calling, “Je suis perdue [I am lost],” and I didn’t really pay attention to her—I didn’t know any French children.

That story was one of Randall’s favorites too. [The poet Randell Jarrell, Taylor’s housemaster at Kenyon College, was one of Taylor’s closest friends.] He even noticed that in the story the little girl uses the feminine perdue, with an e, but in the title the word is masculine, because it’s the father who’s lost.
Ann Beattie, who was Taylor’s colleague at the University of Virginia, discusses the effectiveness of this story in her introduction to Library of America’s just-published edition of his complete short fiction. Taylor “provides us with a psychological study,” she writes, “not to solve the mystery of his protagonist’s conflicting moods but rather to create anxiety with its articulation. . . . Taylor overwhelms both reader and character with the intensity of the character’s inner conflict.”

The story is divided into two parts, titled after Milton’s two companion poems: “L’Allegro” (Italian for “The cheerful man”) and “Il Penseroso” (“The serious man”). As Beattie explains:
Sometimes described as paired opposites, the poems actually embody their own contradictions in an embedded complexity that would appeal to Taylor, who never thought in terms of either/or. Also, Taylor would never invoke Miltonic high seriousness if not to alter it—in this case, by wittily playing against it. This is a story about a man who should be all right, but who isn’t.
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Notes: Chauffage central (page 473) is French for central heating. L’École Père Castor (page 474) was an exclusive, experimental private nursery school in the Latin Quarter of Paris. It was founded by writer, illustrator, and educator Paul Faucher (1898–1967), creator of the Père Castor series of books for young readers. Café Tournon (page 481), located in the St.-Germain-des-Prés quarter of Paris, adjacent to the Luxembourg Gardens, has been a favorite haunt of the American expatriate community since the 1920s.

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