Underground Reading: His Own Man by Martha Gellhorn
Thursday, March 31, 2011
His Own Man (expressively written as His OWN Man on the cover) is a 1962 novel set in beautiful, cosmopolitan Paris. Billed as a "hilarious" comedy, this is actually one of the more depressing novels I've read recently - a short tale of ruthless comeuppance disguised as a sex farce.
American Ben Eckhardt is determined not to leave Paris. He's in his early 30s and, despite being completely broke, he's having the time of his life. Ben's getting his graduate degree in Sinology, a process he's managed to drag out for years and years - doing just well enough to keep his scholarship, but avoiding anything that might lead to completing his work. He spends his days wandering around the museums, his weekends exploring the parks and his nights mooching beer and wine from parties. Ben has two traits that make this life possible: he's astoundingly easy-going and he's extraordinarily handsome. Everyone loves a pleasant hottie.
Ben's routine is disrupted by a hot cup of coffee. Jessica de Camberges is a willowy blonde who gets over her guilt of being born (filthy) rich by spending every waking hour volunteering at a charity for refugees. Her parents are continually baffled by her, but accept that she's just a little insane. An early marriage (and subsequent divorce) has made Jessica especially awkward around men. However, when she spills Ben's coffee, Jessica is wracked by a sort of liberal guilt that overpowers even her reclusive nature. He's poor, she's rich - she owes him for the cup of coffee and he won't take her money.
What follows is a sort of semi-benign stalking, as Jessica follows Ben around meekly trying to please him. He's initially a little annoyed by her, but Jessica's relentless and they wind up becoming friends... and later, lovers. Oddly, they never really like one another. Jessica is dazzled that someone is paying attention to her and Ben is satisfied with having an undemanding weekend companion.
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