James Jones lived in Paris from 1958 to 1974. That the author of From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Whistle spent sixteen years in the City of Light is one of those facts difficult to comprehend.
Frank MacShane, author of Into Eternity, a biography of Jones, tells us that the novelist and his new wife went to Europe to escape — from the hostility exhibited by reviewers of Jones’s second novel, but also from more personal problems. We are told that Jones studied French in preparation for the move and even wrote stories in French. Perhaps. What seems undisputed is that those sixteen years made only a small impression on Jones’s sensibility, and that a blurred one.
Recently I walked around the Ile St.-Louis in the Seine on which the Joneses lived. On the side of the island that faces the Left Bank one gets a magnificent view of the flying buttresses of Notre Dame on the neighboring Ile de la Cite. Ghosts and memories; a layered past is all around. The Romans were here, the Merovingians; the medieval University of Paris, chartered in 1200, was over there — Abelard, MTh of St. Victor, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas. The Revolution of 1789, Napoleon — the coronation, right there in Notre Dame, with a captive pope in attendance. Sixteen years in such a city must leave a mark. Such a city commemorates with plaques the places where artists and writers lived. I was annoyed to find no plaque for Jones on the Ile St.-Louis.
From Here to Eternity is the best American novel to come out of World War II, though its action ends when that war began for us with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Jones was there, a peacetime soldier in Hawaii, out of Robinson, Illinois, already obsessed by a desire to write. Reading MacShane’s life, reading Willie Morris’s touching memoir, James Jones: A Friendship, one encounters that central fact about the man: he had defined himself as a writer and that is what he was.
He never worked at anything else. Back from the war, he acquired a patroness who was also his mistress. And he wrote. That dogged determination commands respect. Still, he floundered. His second novel, the huge Some Came Running, was not well received. He tried to make a trilogy of his first novel, The Thin Red Line and the posthumously published Whistle, but there are fundamental inconsistencies among them. That effort tells us that his army experience was the most important of his life and he returned to it instinctively as to the essential source of his fiction.
His obsession to write bore on himself; it was an effort to make sense out of his own life. In that sense, his best fiction is always autobiographical. But his fundamental weakness as a writer is that he never succeeded in achieving a coherent vision of his life.
There is a barracks flavor to his outlook. Weekend liberty, a pass to town, the pursuit of oblivion in booze and sex. His imagination seldom rose above the belt, but when it did it was to the breast, to thumos in the Platonic sense. His unromanticized portrayal of combat, however, amounts to a demythologizing of the martial virtues. To the end of his life, in Whistle, with its perverse concentration on oral sex, the whorehouse spree seemed his notion of the good life.
That is why those sixteen years in Paris are so puzzling. He did write a novel set in Paris, The Merry Month of May, inspired by the 1968 riots. This presented problems because, as MacShane, a sympathetic biographer, notes, “he was essentially ignorant of French life and saw the country only as an outsider. He had not mixed with the French nor steeped himself in modern French culture and literature, so he did not understand the nuances of French life, the family structure, the role of religion, or the educational system.” He might have been in the peacetime army still, serving overseas, this time in France, where the gooks were frogs.
But Paris is not Hawaii. How could he miss the countless invitations it extends? Yet here is his narrator’s description of Notre Dame. “That old stone barn, raised to tribal gods, has been sitting there on its haunches brooding over the bloodletting rituals of mankind for centuries. Beautiful and useless, it squatted over us all. With its highflung buttresses and stained windows, it was certainly a monument to something or other.” Something or other. Did he never wonder to what?
The power of his fiction lies, I think, in his ability to suggest some vague aspiration for something more. From here to eternity. Was there not, beneath his enlisted man’s distrust of officers, chaplains, politicians, some intimation of what that something more is?
The day I did not find the plaque he deserves I went into St.-Louis en l’Ille and said a prayer for him. He wasn’t Henry James. He wasn’t Steinbeck either. But he was an honest dogface who from time to time transcended his limitations.
Slep in the park that Sunday
Seen all the folks goin to church
Your belly feels so empty
When you’re left in the lurch
Dog soljers dont own pews.
May he rest in peace.