Paris, writes James Salter, "is defined by all the heartfelt tributes of its chroniclers and admirers; they have created something even more enduring than the bourgeois city of stone."
How true. And to the list add Salter's own lyrical memoir, in the December Esquire, of Paris -- and the Cote d'Azur, and London, Rome, Switzerland: places he knew as a young expatriate writer, fellow-carouser with Irwin Shaw, James Jones and William Styron, in the 1950s and '60s. This evocative meditation is extracted from an autobiographical work in progress, a book that seems increasingly likely to bring the 65-year-old novelist's neglected earlier work to the deserving attention of new readers -- a process sparked by his PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction last year.
Salter arrived in 1950. "Europe was impoverished then. The plaster was cracking, the drapes worn to thread. Only a year or two before, it had still been for sale for a carton of cigarettes. The desperation had been vast and the testimony there before one's eyes: ancient telephones, outclassed cars, drab clothes. It had not forgotten, however, how to afford pleasure and the way to do things."
Wild things. "The real memory is of dawn and an image like Mahomet's paradise, driving through the streets with six girls and the top down, a couple of them sitting on it, or beside us, a couple on our laps. It was like riding banked in flowers; Montmartre was grainy in the early light in which everything, every deformity and cheap enterprise, every dirty restaurant and shop, was pure."
Wondrous things. "Evening is falling in Paris and you sit on a green bench on avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt reading the first letter in a week, it's about the book. She has read it for the first time in its entirety, a stunning letter that flutters in the hand like a bird as you read it again and again, cars rushing homeward. My darling, I must simply say ... Nothing is like that moment. Everything you hope for."
Europe, Salter writes here, teaches "a view of how to endure." His memoir is but one high point in a many-peaked issue -- editor Lee Eisenberg's dernier cri, as it happens, before (speaking of Europe) he goes off to start up a British incarnation of Esquire.
Over the Pill
RU 486, the French abortion pill, has been kept offshore by effective pressure from U.S. antiabortion forces, who have questioned not just its tricky moral implications (the pill impedes gestation rather than conception) but its safety and reliability (is this another DES, another Dalkon Shield?).
Dorothy Wickenden's update in the New Republic this week (Nov. 26) says those health concerns have been addressed decisively, and that the debate over RU 486 has entered a new and, for those who oppose it, more complicated realm: As a "hormone antagonist," the drug may have potential other uses than as an abortifacient -- in treating breast cancer and brain tumors, and even AIDS.
Even with these fresh and tentative incentives, the French government-supported manufacturer, Roussel Uclaf, is skittish about the consequences -- from lawsuits to boycotts -- of marketing RU 486 in the United States. Roussel is waiting for a social and political consensus here, among other strict conditions governing its prescription.
Pharmacology, Wickenden candidly suggests, could be forging a consensus. "Most people -- even many in the anti-abortion rank and file -- have fewer qualms about the idea of aborting a three-quarter-inch embryo than a fetus at three months, complete with tiny fingers and toes and all of its organs. So a pill that would both enable women to have earlier abortions and result in fewer late ones would doubtless be widely seen here, as it has been in France and other countries, as a welcome medical advance."
You may have read about the annual Doublespeak Awards honoring the greatest transgressors of language and its meaning: the manglers, the euphemists, the bullslingers and the outright linguistic felons in our midst. But you may not know that you can enjoy the work of hundreds of contenders for the award -- the indicted, if you will -- in a newsletter, the Quarterly Review of Doublespeak, published by the outfit that makes the awards, the National Council of Teachers of English.
A sampling from the latest issue: Red Lobster restaurants' new "call ahead seating," an innovation strangely reminiscent of "reservations." A truly extraordinary Sears lawn shredder that "reduces 10 pounds of leaves to 1 pound of mulch." Two engineers operating a train that jumped the tracks explaining they were in a "reduced state of awareness" at the time -- you call it sleep. A Temple University official who pruned some racy photographs from an art exhibit, declaring memorably, "I don't consider it censoring. I can say that we have yielded to our primary population." And outgoing drug policy director William Bennett's profoundly philosophical assertion when he is quoted as saying that he would support "something analogous" to the death penalty for high-level bankers who launder drug money.
Each issue has pages and pages of such things, not all of them memorable but none worth missing. Not a bad stocking stuffer at $8 a year. Write Quarterly Review of Doublespeak, 1111 Kenyon Rd., Urbana, Ill. 61801.
Where Are They Now?
One more place where you can find an "exclusive" interview with Salman Rushdie, whose new book is coincidentally being published this fall, is the December Vanity Fair. Novelist and friend Martin Amis turns in a livelier performance than his subject. Also in this issue the vinegary James Wolcott explains what's gone so terribly wrong with Diane Sawyer. ... The December Washington Dossier, along with good reporting by Carl Cannon on Ann Dore McLaughlin and "D.C.'s own Trilateral Commission," the Federal City Council, does its annual analysis of the most and least efficient local charity benefits.