Several kinds of novels in one, Edmund White’s “A Saint from Texas” is so good you might forget a novel can be this good. Beginning as a comic American novel set in Texas, the heroines are twin-sisters, and one moves to Paris, another enters a convent. What’s explored is the gap between a human as guided primarily by carnal impulses, and a human as a holy spirit—similarities and dissimilarities. White says the only thing the sisters have in common is they feel remote within themselves. This is the kind of writing we need if we don’t even know it.
For my spring semester abroad I arrived at the big old-fashioned apartment of Pauline’s grandmother on the Avenue Mozart (she’d taught me to say “Moh-Zar,” not “Moht-zart” as we pronounce it—correctly, I might add) with seventeen pieces of luggage and an extra taxi. For the door on the ground floor Pauline had given me the “code,” whatever that was. I saw a panel with some numbers and punched them and wedged my hat box in the heavy wood door, lacquered teal blue and adorned with a heavy round brass knocker. Though I’d tipped them extravagantly the drivers had just dumped my bags on the sidewalk. I moved them all into the big entrance hall to the building of rather dirty black and white tiles and smelling of fish (cod, as I later learned, since the concierge was Portuguese and ate nothing but bacalao). She looked suspiciously out through her lace-curtained window and disappeared. Wasn’t it her job to help me? The elevator was big enough for only two people. I decided to haul everything up in three trips to the fifth floor and the entrance to Mme de Castiglione’s apartment (in French with two ps, appartement). When I got everything up there I sat on my suitcase for three minutes till I stopped perspiring, then rang her bell. I didn’t expect her to hug me exactly, but I did expect her to greet me in slow but precise French with a formality and a certain warmth. Instead she looked at my mountain of matching Vuitton luggage, put her hands on her hips, and snarled, “Mais non! C’est impossible! Vous exaggerez, ma chère. You have rented only a chambre de bonne, a maid’s room one floor up, and you can never fit all that—”
She made a wide, despairing gesture and tilted back her head, lips downturned. “This is not the Ritz. Oh, non, full of American clothes, no doubt.” Still clucking like a broody hen, she gave me a key to my room and said, “I’ll see you at eight for dinner,” then slammed the door. I sat down on my biggest suitcase and sobbed. But I decided to be peppy and happy, like a true Tri-Delt, and within three minutes had pulled myself together, carried all my bags up in three elevator trips, found the right door, and let myself into a maid’s room with a sink, no toilet, one window, a room no bigger than my closet in Dallas, the narrowest bed I’d ever seen with the thinnest mattress and just one coffee-stained blanket and a pillow, which, if you peeked under its crisp white pillowcase, you saw had turned tobacco-yellow with years of sweat. Other people’s sweat. There was no closet and no armoire, just three wire hangers stuck into cracks in the wall. Everything smelled of old copper wire—or was that roach spray? I discovered the toilet behind a curved door halfway down the stairs. It had a bare bulb, nothing to sit on, just two scored ceramic tiles on the floor, where you were supposed to place your feet, squat, and let fly into a stinking hole in the floor. The whole thing was no bigger than a phone booth. I couldn’t see any trace of toilet paper, though some scraps of a newspaper—Le Figaro—were probably intended for mopping up, which might have been okay if you had a bidet, which I didn’t. I assumed the shower was in Mme de Castiglione’s apartment. No, the whole thing was impossible! I would rent a proper hotel room nearby where I could leak in comfort and hang my clothes and bathe but I would pretend to live here so I could still have my total immersion in French (if not in soapy water) and eat French food and participate in the life of impoverished aristocrats. Tomorrow I’d get my hotel room while Madame was out and tip two bellboys to move my luggage. And get myself some great croissants (I’d researched a patisserie across the street called La Flûte Enchantée). Next door there was supposed to be an art nouveau hotel with green glazed tiles and the inevitable dragonflies (libellules).
Something built by Hector Guimard, the man who did those wonderful old noodle metro entrances under the fanning pebbled glass awnings. It was only six o’clock, so I decided to go out for a walk. I was in a very tight skirt and bright colors and high, high heels. It took me a moment to realize I had to push a button to release the front door. Everyone looked at me oddly, the men with interest and the women with disapproval, or was I just being paranoid? Although it was January, the air was surprisingly warm and pregnant with moisture, as if it might rain at any moment, stop the moment after—and it wouldn’t really matter except to my hair. I looked around for the Flûte Enchantée—and spied it! And it was open. I walked in and queued up behind four rather dowdy older women and rehearsed what I would say, but the other customers looked at me and one even clucked, whereas a saucy teen behind the counter pretended he’d just touched something hot with his hand, hissed, and shook his fingers in the air as if to cool them off. In my best French I said, “A crescent, s’il vous plait,” and the cheeky teen scrunched up his face in confusion and the man behind me said, “Elle veut un croissant,” and tipped his hat. I smiled. The boy said,“C’est trop tard, y’a plus.” The man translated (very loudly), “NOT MORE.” I smiled my thanks. When I finally chose a coffee-cream pyramid called a “nun,” une religieuse, the clerk waved his hand impatiently, as if I were a fly, and then pointed to the cashier. “PAY NOW,” the nice man said. When I finally returned to my room, I devoured my creamy nun, hoping it would spoil my appetite, since the food was bound to be as austere as my room. I made sure in the cracked mirror that my mouth showed no signs of pastry. I opened my one window and lay down on my sagging bed and stared at my ceiling, which was low and had beams buried in the plaster, rough-hewn supports that looked surprisingly primitive in prissy ol’ Paris. The bells were ringing in several neighborhood churches and the breeze had turned cold. It was January 20.
When I went down to dinner after taking a maid’s bath at the sink (washing under my arms and my neck, my heine and my cooze) and applying fresh makeup and lots of perfume, Mme de Castiglione greeted me at the door, invited me into the shabby salon, indicated where I should sit on the couch, introduced me to her other boarder, Justine Goldwasser, a name she pronounced with an obvious emphasis on the last name, as if to indicate I must avoid saying anything anti-Semitic, which she was implying might be my first impulse in polite conversation. Justine, I learned after I posed a few questions (Mme de Castiglione later taught me that questions were considered rude in France), had grown up in Zurich. Her first language was Swiss-German though she assured us she was also fluent in “real” German. She was a sullen girl with dirty hair and a dirty face, dressed in an almost laughably anonymous way. She said she wanted to learn French and English, since she was obliged someday to take over the management of the family “palace,” which I learned must mean a luxury hotel in the Alps. Mme de Castiglione, holding herself erect on the edge of her chair, said, “This is the last occasion we speak English—to welcome Madamoiselle Cravfjord.” “Crawford,” I corrected. “Yes,” she repeated, “Cravfjord. This is the elegant French pronunciation. Would you like an aperitif?” “Don’t go to any bother.” “I wouldn’t. Elegant French people drinks an aperitif before their souper.” She stood, poured me a thimbleful of sweet vermouth, and handed it to me. I smiled but her face was blank, or rather composed, like a salad of cooked vegetables pressed and shaped into a dome. “Thank you,” I said. “Merci.” She said nothing back and I assumed it was inelegant to answer, “You’re welcome,” though I learned later the tacky French-Canadians say, “Vous etes bienvenu,” a horrible Americanism. The real French might ironically mime doffing a plumed hat and mutter, “Pas de quoi,” making their compatriots smile at the antique foolishness of it all. “And you?” she said, turning to Justine. “As the Italians say, ‘What beautiful thing have you did today?’” Justine ran a hand through her bushy hair and shrugged. Was she rude or shy? I wondered.
A Saint from Texas Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth Wetmore. Reprinted courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.