Richard Eder

Darlinghissima: Letters to a Friend by Janet Flanner, edited and with commentary by Natalia Danesi Murray (Random House: $24.95; 508 pp.)

November 03, 1985|RICHARD EDER

Like De Gaulle, she presented to the world a certain idea of France. Like De Gaulle, who often preferred his idea to France itself, she could be scathing:

"When I first came here in 1921 to live, I swallowed the entire map of France and every French citizen on it, as I did its Gothic and Romanesque architecture. I still swallow the latter, but am poisoned by the people. They are like slightly spoiled crabs or lobsters and give mental food poisoning."

That was written at the time France was going through her painful and murderous withdrawal from Algeria; and the place was full of plots and anger. French civilization, like its classical cuisine, is rich and subtle and causes periodic bilious hangovers.

From 1925 to 1975, with four years' interruption during World War II, Janet Flanner wrote her bimonthly Letter from Paris for The New Yorker. It was astute and humane. It wanted to believe, but seldom mistook the desire for evidence; and over five decades, its skeptical good will proved to be belief of the best kind. It won her a Legion of Honor ribbon, which she pinned onto her Chanel or Balmain collars.

The New Journalism's pen-carriers found the attitude fusty. It lacked eye-balling, they thought, and the kind of brow-to-brow encounter that gets the subject's sweat on your page. Tom Wolfe, with a jab of generational imperialism, scoffed at "Reports made looking out the window of a second-best Paris or London hotel."

Flanner's letters to Natalia Danesi Murray, her lover for nearly 40 years, quite defenestrate that window. (Not to mention the "second-best hotel" which, for a number of years, was the Ritz.) The polish was achieved by the most vigorous hard work, by a relentless seeking-out and badgering of sources, and by agonizing writer's doubts.

Seven years after Flanner's death at 86, Murray has made public the treasure she has accumulated. The letters show the uncaged spirit that Flanner disciplined into her New Yorker pieces. Back in 1925, Harold Ross had instructed her to write what the French thought, not what she thought. Clearly, she shaded the distinction. But in the correspondence, Flanner's passions, her frequent indignations, and the grand sweep of her wit are evident. Time and again we marvel at what the New Yorker's readers were missing.

For example, on war: "Victory, freedom. Yes. Then you see the result, the result in our time, of victory. Destruction. The Nazis destroyed the invisible, war is destroying, has destroyed the visible."

On men and war: "Only a male is competent to deal with a bazooka; he made it up. He made it up because another man invented a tank; he made that up because another earlier man invented machine guns. And so on back; we women have invented nothing in all that, except the men who were born as male babies and grew up to be men big enough to be killed, fighting."

On Charles De Gaulle in 1944 without knowing him--and nobody has suggested him so well: "Today I am to meet a rebel, a hero within his limits and at all events a tall, strange man."

On politics (Ross worried that she might be a socialist): "If I can't understand a comet, I'll never be able to grasp a Republican."

On the misery of the journalist, columnist, critic or whatever: I am "sick of this spatter of writing, like a small, worked-up storm that falls out of a silly, dramatic-looking very small cloud every fortnight or so."

To Norman Mailer when he broke into a friend's conversation at a party: "Young man, keep quiet. You are interrupting an intelligent older man."

Don't sue the New Yorker, subscribers. Flanner needed it. Her imagination may have exceeded its format but her self-confidence required it. Literary trees may fall in the woods, but literature is the sound that manages to carry.

"Darlinghissima" is a triumph but it has also been a risk. Something of the risk, and the courage shown by the 85-year-old Murray in taking it, is in that title. It is a deformity; yet, like a displayed scar, it is a deformity that harbors life.

The two women met and fell in love--Murray calls it a coup de foudre --during the war, when Flanner lived in New York and Murray made broadcasts to Italy on NBC. Until Flanner retired from the New Yorker in 1975 and returned to the United States, it was their only protracted time together. In 1944, Flanner returned to Europe and Murray, after several years working for the United States Information Service in Italy, moved back to New York, where she represented successively two major Italian publishers.

This separation, punctuated by vacations and reunions, caused great stress. It also, of course, produced the letters.

"Darlinghissima" was a frequent salutation in Flanner's letters to Murray, and part of their Italo-American love talk. In the evenings, for example, they would have a "cocktailino." Clearly it does not come easy to a woman of Natalia Murray's generation and style to expose such things; still less, the full extent of what she calls their "passionate friendship."

On the other hand, it was the only way to bring to life that major part of Flanner's spirit and talent that she could express only in her intimate letters. And having decided to do so, Murray has gone further. In between the letters she has written a memoir and commentary, of about equal length, that only illuminates the letters themselves but acts as a touching kind of dialogue; a posthumous correspondence.

Murray's commentary is overlong sometimes, and occasionally its effusiveness spills over. In the main, though, it not only serves to round out the portrait of Flanner; it also constructs a winning picture of the sturdy and wholehearted woman who was her lover. The love itself is described mainly in terms of feelings, but there is no attempt to disguise its full extent. Murray has achieved an almost impossible balance: large disclosure without the slightest betrayal.

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