April 25, 2014

Letter from Paris: ‘La Conversation’

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

La Conversation” is the kind of play Parisians love: a brilliant exercise of actors just talking and conversing on all the subjects of their time.

The scene takes place in the Tuileries palace in 1802 between First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte and Second Consul Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès. Bonaparte is a young general of 34, impatient to acquire more power. Vladimir d’Ormesson, dean of the Academie Française (a learned assembly of 40 “eternal” members, whose role is to perfect the French language), wrote an imaginary dialogue carried out in an elegant style.

The tempo of the conversation is rapid. The topics move from the mundane to the lofty. At first, Bonaparte discusses food, then becomes animated when telling a funny anecdote of a family fight over a shawl. The conversation touches on Bonaparte’s relations with women, including a beautiful blonde he met in Egypt during the 1798 campaign. When he speaks about Josephine, it is with a tangible emotion.

Although Bonaparte’s seven siblings are hard to manage, he acknowledges how much they serve his ambition of becoming a ruler over Europe. A current exhibit at the Marmottan museum shows the striking personalities of his three sisters. Elisa, grand duchess of Tuscany, is an enlightened patron of the arts and a powerful brain. Caroline, the wife of dashing general Murat, is the ambitious and plotting queen of Naples. Princess Pauline Borghese was so incredibly beautiful as to be called the “Venus of the Empire”. She was also very generous and sold all her assets to accompany Napoleon during his exile on St. Helena.

The conversation flows along revealing Bonaparte’s personality, his ambitions and his accomplishments. Cambacérès just acts as a sounding board. Meekly he expresses opinions which are swiftly bulldozed by the first consul. Bonaparte is proud of his military victories like the Pont d’Arcole, or Marengo. He considers himself at the service of the French and for them has created a legal and administrative system (which still exists today.) He brought down the monarchy of the Ancien Regime and wants power, but not as a king. He looks at Rome, and what does he see? Ceasar and the Empire. Yes, this is what he wants: be the emperor.

In the small theater, a captivated public savors the references to their common historical past. The uninterrupted conversation is a refreshing break from the modern world of texts and smart phones.

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.