I CAN'T THINK WHY, but there have been relatively
few good novels about the subject of Richard de Combray's Goodbye Europe--namely, that wave of Americans who went (I almost said fled) to Europe between, say, 1952 and 1965, refugees from the suburban movement and the age of conformity. They were lured by the shades of Picasso and Gertrude Stein, of Camus and Sartre, and they were intoxicated by the irresistible ozone of the tabacs and bistros and the flow of the Parisian night above them as it "streamed, like another Seine." I speak of course of a phenomenon much more passionate than mere tourism. These are the Americans who, when September came, did not take the boat--yes, boat--back home again. They stayed, stayed for years, for good, and they turned life in the beautiful elsewhere of Europe into a kind of career, a true life's work. Many are still there. Often, the specific method of earning a living was secondary to their real vocation, which quite simply was to be European.
Reasons for expatriation varied: Europe, it was claimed, was sensuous and America repressive; Europe was cultivated, while America was still a wide flat continent of rich hicks. Maybe--but is there also a harsher logic at work: some driven, guilty, angry sense of alienness about home which had been present from the beginning, way back in Brooklyn or Silver Spring. A friend, one of those who stayed, once explained it to me as we sat on the golden terrace of his Rome apartment: "In 1953, everybody, but everybody, I knew, did one of two things. Either you went into psychoanalysis--or you went to Europe. There was no third choice."
De Combray's characters went to Europe. Here are six sketches of people, (they all know a sage and observant narrator named Richard), who travel in that vaguely dicey middle-to-upper Bohemia of Americans abroad whose axis is Paris, the C.ote d'Azur, and Rome, with pit stops in Marrakech and, whenever it is arrangeable, Venice and Capri. De Combray's versions of the breed include Olivia, "just a colored girl from New York," who in the Paris that once made Josephine Baker famous, discovers, then sheds, a flamboyance and high style commensurate with her nerve and love of freedom. There is Elliot Kaplan, blocked writer and culture lover, who marries a rich woman from Virginia, becomes an editor of The Paris Review, and makes a career out of not writing and knowing Everybody. There is Brenda Cloak, a lower Bohemian hot number with bad teeth, loose morals, and a girlish interest in nasty drugs. She hangs out with people who play at la dolce vita and get serious about selling and shooting a large amount of serious dope. One such is a studly fellow from Texas, whose death from an overdose de Combray makes into a very exciting story indeed. There is a woman named Caroline Phipps, whose alimony checks buy a life of gentle emptiness on the C,ote d'Azur, and who--when the money runs out-- can't handle the jolt of returning to America and reality.
As for Europeans, de Combray gives us a beguiling Italian con man who sets up phony arts festivals in the peasant hill towns, introducing de Combray at the "awards dinner" of one such scam as Peter O'Toole. (Well, de Combray is tall and thin, and they needed a star). There is a Franco-Austrian boy with ambiguous sexuality; and finally, there is, obviously drawn from the life, the late Colette de Jouvenel, daughter of the Colette, evidently a real friend of the real de Combray, and an impressive woman of the world.
De Combray gets a number of good stories from this cast. It is his account of himself that I find elusive and unsatisfying. This elusiveness is formal. I would wager that a primary model for this book--a collection of fictionalized personal sketches--is Lillian Hellman's Pentimento. (De Combray, who is also a photographer, has taken some of the better-known recent pictures of Hellman, while she in turn has endorsed one of his earlier books, a luscious collection of pictures and text about Venice). The format is the same: A set of elaborated anecdotes about exceptionally intense, colorful, often mysterious people (shades of Julia), told by a narrator whose self-description, like Hellman's, is stagily modest, sometimes bewildered, yet in the end invariably an unshakable moral presence. The prose employed in both cases is 10th-generation Hemingway, as codified by Hemingway's popularizer, Dashiell Hammett: a too-familiar, though workmanlike style with a lot of I-looked-him-in-the-eye affectations. There are moments when Goodbye Europe sounds so much like Pentimento that one suspects ventriloquism:
"After I returned to America, I lost touch with Olivia for a long while. Once, when Jacobson came to New York he called me, and we spent an awkward hour at the outdoor caf,e of the St. Moritz trying to think of things to say. He enjoyed gossip, and halfway through the conversation he managed to tell me that Olivia had married a Frenchman with a very expensive last name."
One oddity of this manner--at least as practiced by Hellman and de Combray--is that while the tone suggests somebody somberly, even drearily, insistent upon self- revelation and heavy truth-telling, the produced result is precisely the opposite: a posing reticence which only sounds honest while it manages to say little and elide much. Hellman has extracted a great deal of dubious moral mileage from this optical illusion in prose, and it now seems to be spreading. The time has come to call a halt to it. De Combray's story seems at least as interesting as the others he tells, but no story can be given full life through this kind of wooden and affected self-portrayal.
That said, I must add that even so I liked reading Goodbye Europe and can think of few books that treat its subject as engagingly. Even de Combray's own story, though slighted, moved me in places. I wanted only to know more about it as he tells how the eager boy he once was, reading about Colette's death in the Tuileries, became the grown and exceedingly wordly man who here grieves over an Italy the innate decencies of which have been degraded by terrorism and drug-trafficking (he writes especially well about Rome in the heyday of the Red Brigade) and a Europe whose magic, at youth's ending, seems to have drained away.