La Femme Savante

Rameau's Niece

by Cathleen Schine
Ticknor and Fields, 280 pp., $19.95

Rameau’s Niece is a jeu d’esprit for readers who would be able to guess that from the title, and who would feel at home in the milieu it inhabits. The milieu is defined by its “initial dinnerparty question…either ‘What is your field?’ or ‘What are you working on?’ depending on the degree of familiarity between participants in the exchange.’ The heroine, Margaret Nathan, is twenty-eight and has published a biography of an eighteenth-century French femme savante, an anatomist called Madame de Montigny. Unexpectedly the book made it to the top of the best-seller list because the critics praised it for being readable as well as scholarly. It also won Margaret a grant and an office at Princeton, which she doesn’t use because she is thoroughly dug into her life in New York.

Her handsome extrovert, boomingly articulate husband, Edward, teaches American literature at Columbia to worshiping students. He is English, an Oxford graduate, but this doesn’t prevent him from being Jewish—as Jewish as Margaret, i.e., not very. Their Jewishness is not part of the story, just part of the Manhattan setting, like jogging around the reservoir and waiting on line for lunch at restaurants with only four tables and names like You Are Hungry. Margaret and Edward have no religion, no hang-ups about the Holocaust or immigrant parents, no nostalgia for Brooklyn or the Lower East Side where they didn’t grow up. They are upper-middle-class intellectuals, and so, with one exception, is everyone else in this old-fashioned romantic comedy. In spite of its chic Nineties trappings one can easily imagine it made into an old-fashioned film with Margaret Sullavan, say, and Cary Grant in the leads. There is even a part for Charles Boyer.

Margaret is that old Hollywood favorite, the attractive bluestocking. The novel rides on her charm, and her charm comes from her engaging turn of mind and phrase, whether she’s speaking or just thinking. She is pretty, but socially inept, suffering from “panic, shyness, and critical disdain for her fellow man.” This does not extend to Edward, whom she adores. She is at work on the translation of an anonymous eighteenth-century French manuscript which she discovered in the course of her research on Madame de Montigny. It is called Rameau’s Niece, in imitation, she supposes, of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, and it is a conflation of ideas and whole passages lifted from Helvétius, Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke, etc.

Schine intercuts her novel with chunks from this manuscript, which—like Rameau’s Nephew—is in the form of a dialogue. On one level it is a philosophical inquiry into the nature of truth and how we come to perceive it; on the other an erotic tale of seduction—of a young girl by a philosopher twice her age. Schine must have had fun inventing this spoof text, which runs on a sustained double entendre. For instance:

Myself: [i.e. the philosopher]…Impressions are perceptions that are forceful and violent, external objects pressing in upon you.

She: At this moment, not only do I…

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