William Wharton: The Man Who Got a Life

William Wharton is the pseudonym of a man whose life is one of the great success stories of expatriate living –  not that of the international public servant or manager sent to France on a lucrative contract, complete with apartment in the 16th arrondissement, but rather the success of the foreigner who comes here of his or her own accord, in search of a certain way of life or perhaps, as current idiom has it, to “get a life,” one wherein such archaic words as “freedom” and “identity” take precedence over more accepted terms such as “annual income” and “job security.”

The Philadelphia-born Wharton moved to France with his wife and young children in 1960. He had a Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA, money from a teaching job and a desire to paint – and there is something highly traditional and understandable about coming to France to paint. However, he and his wife were also set on getting away from certain aspects of American life. As Wharton told me, “My prime reason for leaving was, believe it or not, to get my kids away from television, and I could also feel changes happening in the US. Changes a lot of people were in favor of, but I didn’t like the lack of concern being shown for the individual and the family. Also, at the time, life in Europe was much cheaper.”

So, they lived simply: while his wife taught kindergarten at an American school, he painted. By the time his first novel, “Birdy,” was published to immediate critical and public acclaim in 1978, he had been living on this side of the Atlantic for nearly 20 years. Wharton was born in 1925, so why did it take him so long to write his first novel?

“It wasn’t my first. I’ve always written – ever since I was in my teens – I just didn’t publish. I didn’t want to publish. I am a very private person; I need my privacy and publishing is a very public thing.”

Despite his avoidance of publicity, we have a fair picture of the years here in France through his 10 books. His latest, “Houseboat on the Seine”, is a splendid “non-fiction” account of his life here, specifically the part that involved making a home out of a leaking wooden houseboat. Why the emphasis on non-fiction? Although this is his second work in that category, several of his eight novels are set in France and the settings, if not the personal details, are clearly autobiographical.

There is “Scumbler,” which explores the question of privacy and whether such a thing is even possible in this age, through the eyes of a painter living in Paris with “a family of six.” Or take “Tidings,” his 1987 story of a couple and their four children celebrating Christmas, a son’s birthday and their 30th wedding anniversary – all in the space of a few days -at their mill in Burgundy. A quick glance at the book jacket biography reveals that the author “divides his time between a houseboat on the Seine, a restored mill in Burgundy and an artist’s loft in the Bastille.”

Even the family head-count is accurate, or rather was until 1988, when the death of his eldest daughter reduced the number. Her death in a 23-car pile-up in Oregon, which also claimed her husband and two infant daughters, became the basis for Wharton’s first work of non-fiction, “Ever More: A Father’s True Story.” This “true story” is written more in the form of a novel than a memoir. Perhaps as “truth” is what is at issue in the book, the author believed that it would be easier to tell the truth in the guise of fiction. At any rate, the book discreetly communicates the existence of an extremely close family, largely untouched by the prefabricated myths and conventions of late 20th century existence. A group for whom friendship and honesty are things of value.

With “Houseboat on the Seine” we enter into a clear world of Wharton reality, or almost. As he puts it: “Don’t forget I’m a novelist, and just as you can make clear fundamental truths in fiction, you can put a little fiction into your memoirs.” Here we are dealing with the often comic reality of trying against seemingly impossible odds to make something work. In this case the something is a wooden houseboat.

The story begins simply enough: his wife has a friend who lives on a houseboat and she thinks this is a wonderful idea. When a burnt-out boat goes on sale, the author puts in a ridiculously low bid, assuming this will end the matter. Alas, his offer is accepted and he finds himself the proud owner of a wreck, which promptly sinks.

As Wharton retells the years of never-ending repairs, renovations and maintenance necessary to turn the boat into a real home, the normal reader will find adjectives like “delightful” and “hilarious” popping into his head. The expatriate reader will accompany each chapter with enthusiastic cries of recognition and understanding, for although it is common for the artistic “marginal” living in France to feel a sense of community when reading one of Wharton’s “French” novels, there is an almost therapeutic quality to reading “Houseboat.” Somehow, the descriptions of how he finances the endless repairs make one feel less…less alone.

For example, the author constantly borrows money, usually against paintings he has neither painted nor will have the time to paint as long as he is obsessed with working on the boat. Sound familiar? Or who remembers, or is still experiencing, the horrors of telephone conversations in French? Wharton is hardly the first to experience comprehension problems when denied the visual aid of hand signals and elaborate mime.

The houseboat’s sinking problem is solved by sitting the wooden structure atop a metal hull – marrying two boats, as it were. This keeps his home afloat and also makes it considerably larger. Making the enlarged houseboat livable entails innumerable visits to the local hardware store and much miming, followed by drives back to the boat in an overloaded and steadily depreciating family car. For rugs, furniture, saucepans and a panoply of household goods, the discerning Wharton shops at the Emmaus charity stores – where else?

Now the houseboat has long been a Wharton address. It has undergone countless improvements, with even more promised at the end of the book. It has also witnessed a good many books, paintings, weddings, parties, and also the satisfaction of a man who got a life.

But how much has France changed since those early years?

“France, like the rest of the world, seems all too often to be following America’s lead, both culturally and politically. Americans and Europeans have to start thinking about redistributing some of their wealth. They have to learn to take smaller pieces of the pie so that the rest of the world isn’t always scrambling around for a few crumbs.”

Although William Wharton’s books are read all over the world, one can’t help thinking that they may have added significance for those who have come to France in search of a life of their own choosing. For them Wharton is a kind of role model, a true success story: “I definitely found the life I was looking for. When you come to another part of the world, you have the opportunity to be more yourself than you would be back where you come from. I know I would be a different person had I remained in America. In the end, you bring yourself with yourself.”


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