Being a bit saddened over the death of Mr. Wilder, I was quite happy to find his novella My French Whore at a display at my local library. I always knew Wilder was a great actor, but I didn’t know he was also a talented writer.
My French Whore tells the tale of a gentleman named Paul Peachy. It is 1918, Peachy is living in Milwaukee. He works a thankless job as a street car conductor and his marriage is less than pleasant. He tries to get a bit of spark in his life by acting in local theater, but feels his life is nothing and he’s a mere cog in the machine, just taking up space.
To add some spark to his dull life Peachy, in the latter days of World War I, decides to enlist in the military. Peachy is deployed to France. It isn’t long before he and some of his fellow soldiers are captured by the Germans and soon will face execution. However, the every-quick thinking Peachy wiggles out of this deadly predicament using his acting and language skills. Fluent in German (his parents are immigrants from Germany) Peachy assumes the identity of a German spy named Harry Stoller and is immediately welcomed among the German soldiers.
It’s not long, as Stoller, Peachy is welcomed like a long-lost relative amongst his German “comrades.” They share fine meals together and drink the finest of wine. Peachy’s new friends bequeath him a lady of ill repute, a French prostitute named Annie Breton.
But Annie is so much more than the standard trope of “whore with a heart of gold.” Yes, she is a vessel for Peachy’s more lusty desires, but she soon proves to be so much more. She is nurturing, kind and charming. Annie, not beautiful but makes everything from cutting Peachy’s hair to serving him a beautiful meal to the art of l’amour an act of true femininity and sensuality. And like Peachy, she has a past filled with heartbreak and disappointment, and together they share tales of woe, but find happiness in their fleeting time together. As a whore Annie often wears the war paint identified with her particular profession. But once stripped of the outer trappings of heavy cosmetics, Peachy sees how truly lovely Annie is, both on the outer exterior and what lies in her true heart and soul, which leads to one of the most beautiful passages I have read of a man speaking his true feelings to a woman:
“Well, I don’t know what you think ‘beautiful’ means, I suppose everyone has a different idea. I think it’s something that’s half on the outside and half on the inside. Without all that makeup on your face, I can see the inside a little better….”
As someone who has often felt she needs to apologize for her less than “hot” looks, this simple gathering of words brought tears to my eyes.
Away from the lovely Annie, Peachy frets, wonders how long he can keep up this ruse as Harry Stoller, and soon he finds out and his fate is sealed. But of course, you have to read My French Whore to find out what Peachy’s ultimate fate.
My French Whore is written in plaintive and believable way (and often reads as a diary of sorts). Wilder writing style is rich, yet unpretentious, and his characters ring out true, which probably has a lot to do with him being an actor. He empathizes with his cast of characters, and I greatly appreciated how he made Annie a fully-developed individual. In fact, I’m now aching to read a novella told from Annie’s point of view. Sadly, with Wilder’s demise, this won’t happen. Perhaps, this is why fan fiction was created.
I really enjoyed My French Whore (yes, I can see it being made into a movie), and it was a delight to find out writing was amongst the late Gene Wilder’s immense talents. He will be missed.