“Memory… is the vital organ of reality,” claims the narrator J.J. in the prologue to Joanna Biggar’s novel, That Paris Year. Biggar, a member of Pomona’s Class of 1964, used her own recollections of her junior year abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris as she crafted the book, indulging in what she called in an interview, “the process of memory.” Her novel explores the lives of five young women, students at an unnamed college in Claremont with a gate defining its scholars as “Eager, Thoughtful, and Reverent,” as they encounter sexuality, art, intellectualism, and culture in France in 1962 and 1963.
Biggar spoke and read to an audience of French- and literature-loving students, professors, and alumni at Oldenborg Dining Hall on Thursday Sept. 15. At the reading, Emily Allen PO ’12, a recent graduate of the study abroad program in Paris, introduced herself and Biggar as “French addicts.” Indeed, Biggar made clear her affection of Paris.
“What’s not to love?” Biggar asked at the reading, fondly noting the metropolis’s abundance of refinement, style, and passion. She spoke slowly and tenderly as she allowed herself to linger on thoughts of French food (“You eat well everywhere [in France],” she said), aesthetics and la poésie symboliste. Biggar compared the City of Light, which she describes in her book as a woman, to London and Los Angeles.
“London is more masculine and more centered around the idea of a gentleman’s smoking club,” Biggar said. She felt that L.A., too, differs from “chic” Paris. “It’s an invention,” she said. She added that Hollywood “is a mecca” for this quality of newness and a “constantly reinvented dream.” According to Biggar, Paris, on the other hand, possesses a long sense of history.
It was fitting, then, that the process of completing a novel set in that city took Biggar nearly three decades. She called this process “slow lit,” comparing it to the “slow food” movement centered upon good food and taste education.
“I became very in touch with it, personally,” she said, referencing That Paris Year. As she studied the extensive collection of letters she kept in the ’60s, she had plenty of time to reflect on her time in Paris. By allowing her project to “marinate,” she was able to unite and contrast her vivid memories with the present.
She remembered, for example, the Camelot era the book begins in, when “it was a wonderful time to be young.” Despite the presence of this feeling and the nation’s “glamorous” president, Pomona College reinforced archaic ideas about women, “guarding them in the way their father would.” Biggar explained that men weighed and measured women when they matriculated, male students had personal maid services, and women were expected to dress up for dinner and tea parties. Paris, a thoroughly “seductive” city, served the dual purpose of escape and awakening for these women (and the characters of That Paris Year), according to Biggar. She read from a chapter in which the character Melanie allows her intellectual and sexual curiosities to flow freely as she forms an intimate connection with her Parisian professor.
Those kinds of academic and sensual explorations that Melanie undertakes still occur in Paris today, Biggar commented during the reading. An audience member who was at the Sorbonne last year agreed; his friend’s professor had asked her out, too—albeit over Facebook.
Now, Biggar is working on a sequel to That Paris Year focusing on Melanie. Biggar continues to plan trips to France, hoping to revisit her memories and immerse herself in the timelessness of the city. She did mention one significant change in Paris since the ’60s, though: the city’s residents are now much more friendly.