FINDING FONTAINEBLEAU: An American Boy in France
Publication by VIKING
Published on May 17th, 2016
Hardcover, 304 pages
FINDING FONTAINEBLEAU recounts the adventures of Carhart and his family—his NATO officer father, his mother, four siblings, and their dog—in the provincial town of Fontainebleau, France. Dominating life in the town is the beautiful Château of Fontainebleau, and the book intertwines stories of France’s post-war recovery with profiles of the monarchs who resided at Fontainebleau throughout the centuries and left their architectural stamp on the palace and its sizeable grounds. Years after his family moves back to the States, Carhart finds himself drawn back as an adult, eager to rediscover the town of his childhood, and in FINDING FONTAINEBLEAU he shares both his memories and his new discoveries with warmth and humor.
A Conversation with Thad Carhart, author of
An American Boy in France
Q. Many parts of Finding Fontainebleau are written in the same vein as The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. What do you feel are the similarities, and the differences?
I’ve been very lucky with The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, an international bestseller that is still in print. A writer is never entirely sure why a book captures the public’s imagination, but I think a big part of Piano Shop’s appeal has been the look at French life away from the familiar tourist circuit. It’s not that easy to get below the surface of things in France, and readers seem to have been hungry for stories about a French approach to things in Paris. In this respect, Finding Fontainebleau has a similar voice and scope, though the setting of the little Parisian shop is replaced by our family’s big old rented house in Fontainebleau and the adjacent Château.
What separates the two books is a focus in Finding Fontainebleau on France in the 50s, as experienced by an American family. The period covered is greater, too, moving back and forth from my childhood to more recent times, when my wife and I settled in Paris and raised our own children here.
A point both books share is the story of two Frenchmen – the shop’s owner, Luc, in Piano Shop; the Château’s chief architect, Patrick Ponsot, in Finding Fontainebleau – who go about their business with a seriousness of purpose coupled with an abiding sense of light humor that could only be French. While Finding Fontainebleau is in no way intended as a kind of “prequel” to Piano Shop, I like to think of them as companion volumes, drawing the reader into aspects of French life that are otherwise inaccessible.
Q. You’ve lived in Paris for more than 25 years and could have chosen any number of subjects that are better known. Why write about Fontainebleau?
The short answer is that I lived there as a child, and so there has always been a gravitational pull to a place that had such a strong effect on my early life. The longer response is that I came to understand the extraordinary importance of Fontainebleau as a site only as an adult. In that sense, my arc has been from the happenstance of childhood to the appreciation than an adult can bring to bear only after learning much more about France.
I’ve visited most of the great châteaux of France over the years – Versailles, of course, but also Chambord, Chenonceaux, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Chantilly, and many others. I have my favorites, naturally enough, but for me there is no site quite so rich, storied, or delightful as Fontainebleau. By turns a hunting lodge, château, palace, seat of government, and museum, it is the single greatest assemblage of successive architectural styles and decorative arts in all of France. If a visitor to France wants to understand the richness and breadth of French history, no structure tells the story better than the multiple wings and courtyards of Fontainebleau.
The Château is one of the oldest places continually occupied by the kings of France, a direct connection to medieval times. For example, Thomas à Becket, the exiled Archbishop of Canterbury, consecrated the original chapel at Fontainebleau in 1169. A line of rulers favored Fontainebleau from the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance, the French Baroque, the Enlightenment, and past the Revolution to the two Napoleons of the 19th century, and each left his mark. Now the French Republic attends to its treasures on behalf of the people of France.
My story is two-fold: the account of living in this remarkable town as a boy, going to French schools, visiting Paris on weekends; and my return to the Château as a grown-up when I was able to witness significant parts of the ongoing restoration of its rooms by French experts. What I share in this account is my discovery of Fontainebleau’s unique legacy when I was allowed behind the scenes. It is where the Renaissance was first brought to northern France, and those treasures, like so many others, are once again intact and accessible to the visitor. I think there’s an inherent allure about the site that will capture the imagination of readers once they know the contours of the story.
Q. Why is it that Fontainebleau isn’t better known?
The simplest reason, I think, is that Versailles occupies the field as the “go to” château for visitors to Paris. But the reasons are in fact more complex than that. No single personality or period is associated with Fontainebleau, as is the case with Louis XIV and Versailles. One of Fontainebleau’s most attractive features is the fact that an unbroken continuum of French art, style, and architecture can be seen intact.
A particularly French notion of restraint infuses the rooms: grand, certainly, but seldom showy. Nor does the Château dominate the landscape when seen from afar, in the manner of Chambord or Versailles. Rather, when a visitor spends a day there, she or he takes in an accumulation of styles that are distinctive in themselves, but that magically cohere into a pleasing whole. Fontainebleau’s subtleties are multiple, creating an atmosphere that is both captivating and unique. It takes some time, and some imagination, to drink in its splendors, but a certain ambiance stays with you.
Q. Your family arrived in Fontainebleau less than ten years after the war, and throughout Finding Fontainebleau there’s an almost palpable sense of the War and the Occupation in France. Why is this?
I was born well after the war, so everything associated with it seemed to me at the time like ancient history. But of course, a decade is not long at all in historical terms. It was only much later that I came to understand how World War II had shaken the entire country to its core. This was the France we arrived in, still recovering from the nightmare of defeat, privation, shortages, and the presence of the enemy on French soil for four long years. The bitter shame of having your country taken over by a foreign power isn’t something Americans experienced in the war, and that wound deeply marked a generation of the French.
The parts of my narrative that touch on this trauma are the things I noticed as a child: people picking up dropped pieces of coal from the gutter; the shock when my mother found that our babysitter was illiterate because of the war’s convulsions; the discovery that our house had been requisitioned for German officers during the Occupation. Only when I returned with my own children did I fully appreciate the remarkable achievement of the French in first surviving, then thriving as a nation. That, too, is part of the book’s story.
Q. In Finding Fontainebleau, as in your other books, you touch on the whole notion of living “in between” two languages, two countries, two cultures. Why is this important?
My immersion in French during the years in Fontainebleau changed everything. Children aren’t given a vote in such matters; it just happened. As with anyone who grows up conversant in two languages, it altered the way I look at the world, in big ways and small. I was given a kind of alternative self, grounded in France and its attitudes. It meant that I developed a healthy skepticism for occasional French posturing, but also an abiding affection for a country that is far more beguiling than the prevalent ideas of many outsiders would suggest. I don’t regard myself as a missionary for things French, but I do enjoy telling stories that allow others to appreciate the human qualities that still set France apart.
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*Please Return In June To Read My Review Of Finding Fontainebleau