A book recently reviewed in these pages by my colleague Jonathan Yardley (Book World, July 31) gave much of the credit for the development of French style to King Louis XIV. In La Belle France: A Short History (Knopf, $30), Alistair Horne shows the dark side of the Sun King's mania for elegance. In 1661, a parvenu called Nicholas Fouquet, who held the post of minister superintendent of finances, invited the king to come dine at his new mansion, 30 miles south of Paris. "The massive iron gates gleamed golden with freshly applied gilt," Horne writes; "in the vast gardens 200 jets d'eau and 50 fountains lined a half-mile-long main allee. Nothing like it had been seen before, even in the great gardens of Italy, Tivoli and Frascati."
Fouquet's ostentation gave the monarch a royal headache. He almost had Fouquet arrested that night, until the queen protested, "No, not in his house, not at an entertainment he is giving for you." Louis swallowed his bile, but not for long. Soon Fouquet was on trial for his life -- on trumped-up charges of plotting against the throne and via a corrupt process that Horne compares to the Dreyfus Affair some two-and-a-half centuries later. Once the hapless showoff had been convicted and jailed, Louis applied the ultimate indignity: hiring away his architect to work on Versailles.
As Horne notes, quoting approvingly from an English historian, France has always been "an unfailing source of stimulation." Sometimes that stimulation coincides with being the object of French pique. In The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism (Univ. of Chicago, $35; translated by Sharon Bowman), Phillipe Roger notes an emotion that might be felt by any French visitor to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, with all its Monets and Renoirs and Gauguins, or to the Cloisters in New York City, with so many windows, doors and walls plucked from French monasteries and chateaux: namely, a burning desire to resist American power and influence, both political and cultural. What American hegemony threatens to do away with is Frenchness. "Not the territory," Roger writes, "but the terroir; not France's power, but its wisdom; not its vanishing currency, but its consistently high values; not its damaged vitality, but its unparalleled joie de vivre; not the motherland . . . but its coveted heirlooms, its dismantled cloisters and exported castles. . . . France had moved onto the defensive and was defending a quintessentialized idea of itself."
-- Dennis Drabelle