Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Harriet Sohmers Zwerling's Scandalous New Diaries on 1950s Paris

A Tumultuous Decade of Sexual Exploration in 1950's Paris

Abroad: An Expatriate's Diaries 1950-1959 by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling

In her vivid new memoir “Abroad: An Expatriate’s Diaries, 1950-1959,” the writer Harriet Zwerling recounts a decade living in France, chronicling her numerous love affairs and the heady intellectual explosion in postwar Europe. The diaries are a turbulent coming-of-age story as well as a sexual awakening among the bohemians, writers and painters of Paris.

Harriet was 21 when she arrived in Paris with $200 in her pocket. A six-foot-tall brunette from New York City, she immersed herself in the cafes and bars, finding a tribe of young artists. Moving from cheap hotels to rented rooms with the toilet in the hall, Harriet and other seekers try to find themselves and their art. There is the heady mixture of euphoria and despair over romantic and sexual entanglements.

Zwerling’s first affair is with the Swedish painter Sven Blomberg, who takes her virginity. Their prospects for long-term love are quickly stymied when Sven gives her the clap, then tries to deny that he was unfaithful.

In a trip back to New York, Harriet meets the Cuban-American temptress Irene Fornes, who seduces her, giving Harriet satisfying sex with “her little thief’s hands.”. Irene eventually winds up in Paris with Harriet in what quickly degenerates into an emotionally abusive relationship, interspersed with passionate sex, jealousy and rampant infidelity.

Harriet’s diaries have copious amounts of sex, and she is often in search of the ultimate orgasm, where she finds on another visit to New York, with a lunk-head of a man named Peter in Hell’s Kitchen. who has a big penis.

Along the way, Harriet hangs out with future American literary greats like the poet John Ashbery, who is in a self-imposed exile in Paris. She parties with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, during their “Beat Hotel” period. Harriet’s lover Irene would also wind up becoming a famed New York playwright.

Harriet’s affairs with women make the diaries sing. Harriet falls hard for the sculptor Romaine Lorquet, but the love affair is marred by the fact that she is Sven’s girlfriend, and he insists on several unpleasant ménage a trois with the two lovers. In the course of a decade, Sven evolves into a pathetic figure, moping around as Harriet and Romaine fall in love, occasionally threatening to kill himself.

At the end of her diary, Harriet renews her affair with Susan Sontag, who would later become the formidable American philosopher-novelist. Harriet seduced Susan at Berkeley in 1949 when Susan was 16. In 1957, Susan abandons a Fulbright fellowship in London to move in with Harriet in Paris. From the beginning it is an unhappy affair, full of fights, verbal abuse and mediocre sex. Through Harriet’s diary, Susan Sontag the intellectual ice queen of the late 20th century is portrayed as just an awkward young woman in a miserable relationship.

As a sexual rebel in 1950s Paris, Harriet paints a striking portrait of a tumultuous decade spent abroad. There are good lovers, more bad ones, the occasional orgy and a fistfight or two.

Towards the end of her stay in Paris, while being immersed in multiple sexual affairs  that are supplemented with casual pickups of both men and women, Harriet takes stock of Europe as a lover and as an American: “I am starting to feel that Europe for me,” writes Harriet, “is something like homosexuality—a fantastically exciting detour, an unforgettable addiction—but not real.”

 (Harriet's previous collection "Notes of a Nude Model"...cover painting is a nude of Harriet done around 1960)

Back in New York City in 1959, Harriet eventually set aside her writing for almost five decades, becoming a New York City schoolteacher. In 2003, she published a collection of autobiographical stories called “Notes of a Nude Model.” The Paris diaries sat neglected in the bottom of various closets until she spent six years editing them before they were published this April.  In a one paragraph coda at the end, Harriet channels Edith Piaf in assessing her own life.

“Now, I am in my eighties,” writes Harriet Sohmers Zwerling. “ I read these pages with fascination, surprise and a certain nostalgia, overjoyed by the realization that, in them, there is nothing to regret…”

--Dylan Foley

(ABROAD: An Expatriate’s Diaries 1950-1959 by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling. Spuyten Duyvil, $18)