At a time when some Americans were miffed over French policies toward the United States and others were too worried about terrorism to consider a visit, the French were once again showing their love for American culture. The occasion was the gathering of some of America's best poets, short-story writers, and novelists at the F^ete du Livre, Aix's annual book festival, held at the end of May. For the first time in the festival's nine-year history, New York nasal and Iowa twang jarred this town in the Midi, France's deep south, a region where the lilting and colorful Proven,cal accent takes its time with words.
Actually, the French have always had an appreciation for American culture. In the 18th century, King Louis XVI and his court at Versailles enjoyed the witticisms of Benjamin Franklin. More recently, such great American writers as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein found solace and inspiration here. William Faulkner and other American authors were published in France even before their books were printed in the US.
Today, this old interest is taking a new turn. ``French schoolchildren are learning English and traveling more,'' said Odile Hellier, owner of the Village Voice bookstore in Paris. ``There's also so little happening in Europe. If you are interested in literature, you can't not be aware of what is happening in America.''
According to Claude Richard, professor of American literature at the University of Vermont at Montpelier, and the editor of a small press, virtually every French publishing house has a collection devoted to American titles. New works, he believes, are getting attention more readily than before. Professor Richard goes so far as to suggest that American literature receives more attention in France than in the US.
``Few American people,'' he said, ``know the most courageous and adventurous fiction of the last 10 years.''
Perhaps one reason for France's attention is that American prose may be less bound by convention. ``American language is more alive, more malleable,'' says Pierre Joris, a Luxembourgeois who prefers to write in English. ``American is now at the stage English was in the 1600s,'' during the Shakespearean age, he says.
Festival organizer Annie Terrier, a speech teacher, did not invite what she described as ``stars,'' the William Styrons and Joan Didions, but less well-known artists who she feels need to be better appreciated in France. She came up with an impressive list: Grace Paley, John Ashbery, James Baldwin, Robert Coover, Robert Steiner, Jerome Charyn, Kenneth Koch, and Jayne Anne Phillips.
For the audience of several hundred students and townfolk -- some of them lured away from shopping in the sunny marketplace to the activities in the cool, marble halls of the nearby Palais de Justice -- it was a chance to hear sentences in the original. Ms. Paley, sitting in a leather chair pulled from behind the judicial bench, read her short stories slowly -- as, she explained, they should be read. At another session, Mr. Coover licked through his prose like a vaudeville comic, whose routines, he said, have influenced his style.
To the public's astonishment, Mr. Ashbery and Mr. Koch recited their poems first in English -- and then in French.
``The writers are so simple and straightforward,'' said high school student Chantal Zedet. ``I wish we would do this kind of thing.''
She was listening to a discussion led by James Baldwin, a black novelist who sought refuge from racial pressures in France 40 years ago and who now lives in nearby St. Paul de Vence. Although Miss Zedet had never sampled his works, she now promised to read them.
Kenton Keith, a US Embassy cultural attach'e, loved hearing such words. ``All this is very positive for us,'' he said. ``It gives the French reading public another glimpse of life in America.''
And he says this glimpse is not the usual image of Americans, either.
``A book by Grace Paley is more instructive than a film by Sylvester Stallone,'' he says.