Tour de France
Four new looks at the French through American eyes, including a few glares.

By Judith Warner
Sunday, May 15, 2005

Not that long ago, it was nearly impossible to say the word "France" without eliciting a string of invectives -- or at the very least a sarcastic sneer -- from almost any American listener. That moment, fortunately, has passed. While it's probably overstating it to say that France has been re-admitted to the Coalition of the With-Us since about the moment when French President Jacques Chirac's lips touched down upon Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's outstretched hand, the country's name has at least recently ceased to be unmentionable in polite conversation.

Publishers couldn't possibly have known at what point this new entente cordiale would kick in, but some must have had faith that our two-and-a-quarter-century love-hate relationship was eventually fated to take a turn for the better, or at least for the potentially lucrative. For here, on the heels of Mireille Guiliano's mega-bestselling French Women Don't Get Fat, come four new chronicles of the Franco-"Anglo-Saxon" cultural meet-up. Two are French-loving, two are French hating (or loving-to-hate, in the case of Stephen Clarke) and all tend to remake France in their authors' own image.

Sartre's Old Haunts

In Into a Paris Quartier: Reine Margot's Chapel and Other Haunts of St.-Germain (National Geographic, $20) Diane Johnson's Paris -- the 6th arrondissement -- comes across as a charming place, the raw material for a charming book, primarily because Johnson herself comes across as a charming character, showing us Paris via her kitchen window and daily neighborhood stroll. Her St.-Germain-des-Prés (the area, roughly speaking, that stretches from the Boulevard St. Germain down to the banks of the Seine) is a world not only imbued with the history of American expats drawn to the neighborhood before her -- Benjamin Franklin, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein and the like -- and with the memory of such emblematic French intellectuals as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; it is also, for Johnson, home to the ghosts of her febrile childhood imagination, especially the heroes of Victor Hugo, whose novels she discovered one weekend half a century ago as she lay in bed with a debilitating fever she now believes was most likely polio.

Johnson, author of the bestselling Le Divorce , came to France late in life -- too late, really, to live there without the constant mediation of a good dictionary, too recently to feel like anything other than a resident tourist among such inscrutable French characters as "La Voisine" (the neighbor), "the colonel" and other pleasant but remote actors in a comedy of manners she can but watch. She is "marginal," she writes, "contentedly mooning around the side streets, communing with seventeenth-century Parisian architecture and buying groceries for dinner, instead of hanging out at [Sartre's former haunt] the Café de Flore." Johnson's is the Paris of wealthy American expatriates, people of a certain age who can afford and have the time to commune with Paris's priciest real estate. But that isn't particularly a problem. For her Paris is the Paris most Americans dream of, and for visitors eager to get off the beaten track of tourist sites and follow a more intimate and imaginative route, her book will prove a highly worthwhile and readable guide.

Seeing Without Distortion

James Morgan's passage through France, chronicled in Chasing Matisse: A Year in France Living My Dream (Free Press, $25), is a very different kind of journey. Risking all, chased by debt and a dwindling bank account, Morgan sold his Little Rock bungalow home (whose inner life he explored in his 1996 book If These Walls Had Ears ) to follow a dream: living a true artist's life, developing a true artist's perspective, learning "to see without distortion," as his idol, Henri Matisse, himself strived to do. "The effort to see things without distortion demands a kind of courage," Matisse once wrote, "and this courage is essential to the artist, who has to look at everything as though he were seeing it for the first time: He has to look at life as he did when he was a child and, if he loses that faculty, he cannot express himself in an original, that is, a personal way." In Chasing Matisse , Morgan retraces the artist's path through the Picardy region of France, to Paris, Brittany, Corsica, Basque country, Morocco and the Cote d'Azur, following the light that illuminated Matisse's artistic vision and hoping to find through it "a guide to living itself." From the pen of a less appealing writer, such a quest could easily have fallen into the worst sort of clichés. But Morgan avoids the traps, giving us a narrative of his discovery of France that is fresh, genuine and immediate. He renders the feeling of being a newly arrived ex-pat in terms that anyone familiar with the experience will immediately recognize: the exploding printer, the innumerable trips to Paris's home-supply megastore BHV and -- equally realistic -- a series of happy surprises as initially inscrutable and seemingly unpleasant French people turn out to be (grab your chairs, now) really nice.

There is the art teacher who displays Morgan's work-in-progress in her studio's front window; the Paris hotel owner who grants him and his wife, Beth, a "home" in Paris; newfound friends who offer country houses, invitations and connections; the hotel maid who tearfully comes to the couple's aid when Beth's mother suddenly dies. Morgan's goal of developing a better way of seeing has most surely been realized: If the French people in Chasing Matisse are so consistently decent and compassionate, it's clearly because Morgan has the eyes to see them.

Sticking a Finger in His Own Eye

Not so Richard Z. Chesnoff, whose utterly obnoxious book The Arrogance of the French: Why They Can't Stand Us -- and Why the Feeling is Mutual (Sentinel, $23.95), if read by the right people, might singlehandedly push us back to the days of "freedom fries" and pouring champagne down the gutter. Chesnoff, a contributing editor to U.S. News & World Report and a columnist for the New York Daily News who lives part-time in southern France, paints a France of hypocrites, snobs, anti-Semites, bad drivers and poseurs . He also proves himself, over the course of the book, to be a thoroughly unsavory character: the kind of gift-giver who asks where his thank-you note is; the kind of restaurant-goer who insists upon his right to reconceive the menu; the kind of neighbor who remembers every slight, every infraction, every insult, imagined or otherwise.

Not surprisingly, the French people Chesnoff meets and lives among are not very nice to him. A maître d' sneers, a neighbor doesn't water his plants ( quel scandale! ), an "offensive" parish priest essentially tells him what he can do with a carved ivory Jesus figurine he wants to donate to the church . . . and when Chesnoff calls people's attention to their basic lack of reverence for him, they take umbrage. Or -- worst of all -- they turn their backs and walk away.

In Chesnoff's book, revenge is not just a dish best served cold; it's a moveable feast. For not only does Chesnoff lay bare the cheese-stinking French soul, and not only does he painstakingly detail the hypocrisy and corruption of France's political elite, particularly on matters of foreign policy (no argument here about that; in fact, this portion of the book is solid and compelling); he goes further. He includes a list of French companies that readers might want to boycott. He also provides American tourists who might otherwise suffer silently with an arsenal of nasty and inconsistently grammatical sentences to shoot back at their French tormentors -- things like, "You may stick your finger in your eye," or "You give the impression that you are constipated," or "Go elsewhere if I'm there." Or, if all else fails, " Merde !"

All of which left me with an absolutely terrifying image: packs of American tourists insinuating their way into the courtyards of the 6th arrondissement's most beautiful 17th-century residences, then responding, when residents express displeasure, " Merde !"

Secretary Rice has her work cut out for her.

An Englishman in Paris

The presence of another narrator with matters scatological on the brain sometimes tarnishes Stephen Clarke's otherwise highly entertaining social documentary cum novel, A Year in the Merde (Bloomsbury, $22.95). It's the story of Paul West, a 27-year-old Englishman who moves to Paris at the invitation of a certain Jean-Marie Martin, the crooked head of a meat-processing firm who wants to branch out into tea rooms. English tea rooms, that is, to be called "My Tea Is Rich" -- an instant laugh line for Paul's French colleagues (it's a play on "My tailor is rich," a standard line from old English-language phrase books). "I felt as if I was in the middle of a surrealist film," poor Paul muses during a disastrous early business meeting in which the only other acceptable "English" name proffered by his colleagues is "Tea's Café": "In a minute Salvador Dalí was going to fly in through the window with a baguette sticking out of his trousers."

West's initial inability to see the humor here is only the start of his problems. He soon is thoroughly up to his ankles in the literal merde of Paris, sanitation workers having gone on strike -- to be joined over the course of the book by waiters, metro and bus drivers, gas and electric workers, pharmacists and journalists. He's also neck-deep in the metaphysical merde by the time his sojourn on the wrong end of the Eurostar train turns sour: With the Iraq war breaking out and anti-British and anti-American sentiment running high, he's dumped by his politically sensitive girlfriend, shunted out of his job, evicted from his apartment share with a marijuana-growing nymphomaniac and generally rolled in the flour (as his franglais-speaking, American expat friend Jake might put it) in every possible way by his charming and profoundly corrupt boss.

Clarke renders the flavor of life in Paris impeccably: the endless strikes, the sadistic receptionists, the crooked schemes by which the wealthy and well-connected land low-rent apartments, the impatience and disgruntlement of commuters who can't stand in line, the impeccable well-wishing and questionable productivity of office workers protected by a mountain of labor laws and trade-union conventions: "They all said 'Bonjour' every morning and asked if 'ça va,' and when we parted, they wished me 'Bonne journée' -- Have a nice day -- or if it was the afternoon, 'Bonne après-midi,' or if it was later on, 'Bonne fin d'après-midi' -- Have a nice rest-of-the-afternoon. . . . This was without all the 'Bon weekend' stuff on Fridays, and Monday's 'Bonne semaine' -- Have a good week," West reports. "Once we'd greeted one another, there was hardly any time left in the day to broach the subject of why reports weren't being read and decisions not being made."

Clarke's eye for detail is terrific; the book can be sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. It can also, however, be painfully sophomoric, particularly when West breaks loose on the subject of women, food and, of course, merde . ("You are a little obsessed, no?" his first French conquest asks, folding back the "foreskin" of a fig and biting into it with "sharp-toothed relish.") Must be a guy thing. ยท

Judith Warner is the author, most recently, of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety." She lived in France from 1995 to 2000.

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