Standing beneath Tiepolo's Asia, with its ruins and elephants and cavalry, it struck me that the books that today use a foreign land to probe our peculiar fate tend to choose a different setting and to belong to a different genre. When he'd settled in Europe, James wrote home: "I take possession of the old world—I inhale it—I appropriate it." Even then, such words no longer seemed a figure of speech. Not America's aspirations but its power, not its innocence but its culpability: those are the terms that today would shape James's "international theme." And now that theme belongs not to the novel of manners but to the thriller, to fiction that in chronicling the American imperium finds its most congenial settings in such places as the Southeast Asia or Central America of Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise, or in the unnamed Middle Eastern kingdom of Henry Bromell's recent Little America.
Perhaps Patricia Highsmith's Ripley books marked the moment of change. For Highsmith's Tom Ripley the New World is not fresh and promising; instead he finds in France and Italy a chance for the self-invention denied him at home—an ironic inversion of what America itself had offered to so many of the Continent's tired and hungry and poor. Yet Europe is also for him a place free of consequences, a playground where he can literally get away with murder, and in the post-Highsmith novel of expatriation Europe becomes an entirely conventional setting. The Americans in Paris whom one finds in such expertly made novels as Diane Johnson's Le Divorce and Le Mariage are awkward and ingenuous and perhaps even criminally naïve. The Europeans aren't and lean toward duplicity instead. The terms are all known and settled in advance, the rules firmly and predictably established. In a way, they're the fictional equivalent of the act my wife and I have developed over the years, a practiced routine in which la différence can be endlessly discussed and each other's cultural limitations deplored. But neither those books nor that routine itself offers much in the way of surprise. Europe might still provide a sense of individual liberation, I thought, but the cultural stakes in such an awakening were low, a matter of lifestyle.
Yet I felt uneasy with the thrust of that argument even as I carried it down the stairs and across the square in front of the Residenz. It seemed odd to think of Europe as irrelevant in Germany of all places, especially while walking across a square on which the brownshirts had mustered and books had been burned. Here, more than anywhere, was where our hunchbacked era had been determined and deformed. Europe wasn't irrelevant. But it was no longer the inescapable term of comparison.
Or was it?The months since I stood beneath Tiepolo's ceiling seemed at first to confirm Europe's diminished role in shaping our condition, and yet later to give it a renewed importance, the sense that it remains our necessary cultural counterweight. It hasn't always been comfortable to see the debate I had with myself in Würzburg become the material of op-eds and headlines, to find the terms of what had seemed a long-settled relation tossed and turned and argued over. The familiar faults that Diane Johnson describes no longer seem just a question of manners, are no longer the stuff of comedy. They have consequences once more, and have left each side with grave doubts about the other, with the fear that our interests—or maybe just our governments' interests—now diverge, in a way that they haven't for a half-century and more. Yet those debates—those doubts—have also revealed the degree to which we remain each other's interlocutors, and in the end our disagreements recall nothing so much as the doubts of marriage itself; a bad patch in something that will nevertheless be patched up. My own marriage has made Europe into a place with which I am indeed obliged to deal and from which I continue to learn, even as our alliance ensures that my wife, too, will have to keep on coming to terms with America. And so it is for our two continents: linked as in any marriage by time, by what's been shared and squabbled over, by what amounts in the end to history. However disagreeably America and Europe may now strike each other, a divorce remains unthinkable.