The first time Jacques Barzun asked me to read a piece of his (something relating to Berlioz, the topic of my dissertation and the occasion of our acquaintance), I did not respond quickly enough. One afternoon a phone call surprised me in my office at the University of Minnesota where I was a lowly French instructor: it was Barzun, his manner friendly but purposeful, inquiring whether I had received his text and was about to produce my comments. Abashed, I learned one of the first rules of any correspondence with Jacques: you answer promptly, as he does — though not too promptly. When he was a boy, he once told me, his grandmother had advised him that a correspondent should be given time to breathe and write to somebody else.
In those days I was still getting used to the idea of addressing such an august figure by his first name. He invited me to do so after I completed my PhD at Yale in 1978, thereby meriting, as he put it, “the American badge of equality.” When I wrote my first “Dear Jacques,” I suggested that he take it in the spirit of a “Cher maître.” He liked that, I think, not so much for the acknowledgment of the obvious inequality between us as for the allusion to our second common love, French — more precisely: The French Language and Literature.
Barzun is partial to capitals for emphasis. My capitals here refer to the working title of a book he once asked me to write for Scribner’s, a second assignment after the first had turned out to his liking (an essay on Berlioz for Scribner’s European Writers series). He seemed to think I could tackle the vast topic as easily as he could, and for a while I basked in his belief in me, engaging in a heady exchange of letters on the outline and tentative pages I submitted. When I gave up the project as all-engulfing and untimely (for me and the tides of my profession), he waited a tactful interval before tossing off his own condensed version of it: An Essay on French Verse for Readers of English Poetry. The coy title and slim size belie the rightful audience of this marvelous book, which can be read with pleasure and profit by any former, current, or would-be French student. I know of none that explains so cogently the essential differences between French and English, or summarizes so concisely and magisterially six centuries of French literature, enlivened — unusually for Barzun — with fascinating touches of personal recollection.
Whether or not my abandonment of the Scribner’s project helped inspire the Essay, I did have a slight hand in it before it went to press. Barzun asked me to read it in manuscript, and this time I was quick to comply. What is there to do, you may ask, when editing the master of all editors? The first thing is to exchange the presumptuous word “editor” — no one but Barzun edits Jacques Barzun — for the modest term used in French: lecteur (reader). The second and only other thing is Simple & Direct: try to read Barzun’s prose with the same care, respect, and attention to detail he gives the prose of others. He occasionally asks the return favor, after all, because he is the first to recognize that even the most secure of writers is liable to slip. Especially, I might add, when that writer ranges so widely that we sometimes tend to forget, in our separate chambers of the House of Intellect, that he is not for each of us a fellow specialist. Read his essay on the history department over the past century at Columbia for a dazzling reminder of the field he does claim as his own.
I have forgotten what I found to comment on in the manuscripts of Barzun’s I’ve been privileged to read — with one exception, because it was so strange and so revealing of his memory and mind. In the Essay on French Verse I came across a quotation from Racine’s most famous play, Phèdre — it was the first line — in which the word “chez” was substituted for “cher.” It didn’t seem to be a typo. The “chez” was grammatically feasible and the sentence, taken on its own, made perfect sense. But the alteration of the one letter made hash of the opening. Hippolyte, the young hero, is telling his confidant and companion, “cher (dear) Théramène,” that he is about to leave his homeland, Trézène, elegantly rhyming the two words in “-ène.” He cannot be saying that he is off to the home of (chez) Théramène — the very person he is addressing! In performance, it must be said, French classical theater is recited so fast that it always takes the ear a while to get oriented, so the difference between “chez” and “cher” would be hard to catch, and one could certainly be excused for not knowing exactly who is speaking to whom in the first line. Jacques’s error, though odd, was not unintelligent. Many a native French person, come to think of it, must have similiarly misheard or misread.
When I pointed out the error, with some embarrassment, I experienced my “just Jacques” moment, as Arthur Krystal calls it in his New Yorker profile. Only Jacques Barzun could have explained, apologetically, that he was memorizing whole tracts of French literature before he was quite old enough to understand what he was reading. In other words, he had accomplished in his Essay the phenomenal feat of setting down dozens of passages from those early readings in a book written from memory three quarters of a century later. After a conscientious check of all his quotations, he found that he had also “mangled poor Musset.” Small wonder! I had not noticed.
What I did notice and still stumble over in reading Barzun is the use of language now called “sexist,” a term he deplores, much as he deplores the use of “gender” beyond the strictly grammatical. I once attempted to set forth for him the logic of the extended usage, but no editor could get him to give up the so-called generic “he” and “universal” Man at the center of the Civilization he celebrates. I did persuade him to write more respectfully in the Essay of the influential seventeenth-century women writers known as Précieuses, ridiculed indelibly and unfairly by Molière but rehabilitated in recent decades by feminist French scholars. Barzun knows all about defending the unjustly forgotten or misrepresented. So although we parted ways over my feminism and undue attention (as he thinks) to the hidden victims of language and culture, we remained fast friends, tolerant, as friends must be, of each other’s blind spots. When, a few years ago, I was assigned to teach a course (unfortunately cancelled) on the sweep of culture he writes about, I looked forward to guiding the students judiciously through From Dawn to Decadence. As a textbook, it would be a rare gift. Reading Barzun is an education in itself, a lesson in clear thinking and, consequently, in open-mindedness. If the minds so opened go off in directions other than his own, that is but a further tribute to his teaching and its inextinguishable fund of light, wit, wisdom, and spirit.
Professor Katherine Kolb teaches in the Foreign Languages & Literatures department of Southeastern Louisiana University.