Diane Johnson is hungry. At 8 in the morning, she is preparing to read several French newspapers as well as the International Herald Tribune in her lofty 17th-century apartment, which is less than a block from the Seine on Paris's Left Bank. She makes coffee and, instead of a croissant, reheats pasta al pesto on her tomato-red La Cornue stove.
It's a short pause in a busy life. Not only has Johnson just finished her third novel in a trilogy, L'Affaire (the follow-up to Le Divorce and Le Mariage), she is also awaiting the release of the movie version of Le Divorce. Set in Paris, this Merchant Ivory film stars Kate Hudson, Glenn Close, Naomi Watts, Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston, Matthew Modine and France's Leslie Caron and Thierry Lhermitte, among others.
Johnson and her husband, John F. Murray, a doctor, know Paris almost as well as any two Americans could: They have lived there on and off for 20 years. The novelist's intimate observations of her French friends and her own participation in Parisian life (including her daughter's marriage into a French family) inform the Le Divorce trilogy. These books carefully examine French ambiguities—romantic, culinary and quotidian—as they are revealed in the manners, habits and idiosyncrasies of a privileged social set.
The author, who is often likened to Henry James, Edith Wharton and Jane Austen, tells me she is sometimes taken to task for her recherché dedication to the customs of the French sophisticate. "I write about these people because they are the ones we meet," she says.
Johnson and I are lunching at Drouant, a stodgily fancy restaurant that appears in Le Divorce. In the story, an American named Isabel travels to Paris to visit her pregnant sister, who has been abandoned by her French husband. The husband's Uncle Edgar takes Isabel to lunch at Drouant, where he tells her of his taste for fruit vert (young women); at another lunch, he suggests that she become his mistress. What follow are romantic meals at which Uncle Edgar educates the American ingenue on the intricacies of the French table.
"Food and dining are important in all my books, not just the French ones, because food and dining are important in everyday life," Johnson says. "Especially because I'm a woman and so much of my life is spent contriving and cooking meals, I think about food in its social and decorative settings. Restaurants come into my French books because they are so integrated into French life and conversation. Beyond this, they provide occasions for the characters to talk, and what they eat symbolizes the life of the senses, happiness, or, occasionally, strife."
She adds, "I suppose food symbolizes luxury and sex, as well as being a sensual experience in itself." Consider this passage in Le Divorce, narrated by Isabel:
For some reason I felt especially guilty about the pleasure and interest I took in the restaurants we went to. This fascination grew in me in a way I felt could not be quite good, was perhaps a perversion, one I sensed Edgar and I encouraged in each other, a shared secret. Edgar first sensed it in me—an interest beyond the normal—when he realized I had read up on a certain restaurant and knew what the chef's specialties were. This might of course be a good courtesan's normal preparation, finding out what her lover likes and so on, but since he himself is interested in restaurants (but does not always indulge himself, in food), he was not unhappy to patronize ever new, distant and vaunted eating places, now with the excuse of pleasing me.
Johnson pays as much attention to food in her life as she does in her novels, and she entertains splendidly—though it is impossible to imagine how she finds the time. She has a large family (including four children, three stepchildren and 12 grandchildren) and a wide circle of friends. She contributes to the New York Review of Books and is currently writing the introduction to a new translation of Stendahl's Le Rouge et Le Noir. She knits, does needlepoint, works out with a trainer, decorates and shops. She lunches out often and travels constantly.
And she has many parties—in her viridian dining room or gilt boisserie salon. She and her husband had the cast of Le Divorce over for blanquette de veau. "We were short a chair so I sat on a stool, which collapsed," Johnson recalls. "John forgot to add the cream to the veal, so we ended up with a blanquette without the blanc."
"After years of giving parties," she says, "one of the best tricks I have learned is to have a salad on the table as guests sit down." She also admits, "I love to follow recipes," and admires an American book called The Good Food, by Daniel Halpern and Julie Strand, because it is filled with stews, ragouts and other dishes for a crowd.
For a recent lunch her menu began with tomato tart, followed by veal chops grilled on a bed of woody herbs, a simple green salad with cheese, and strawberries tossed with clementine marmalade. After lunch, guests gathered in the living room around a coffee table that the set designer of Le Divorce gave Johnson because she had admired it. Then our hostess walked in with coffee on a silver tray, showing all the good humor and finesse of, shall we say, a character she'd write about.
Peggy Knickerbocker lives in San Francisco, where she writes about food and attends to the renting out of her Paris apartment.