Theodore Zeldin is described on the back of the present book as “the world’s foremost authority on Frenchness” (Time magazine). This may well be so. But in the present context, it is an odd comment, for the author spends over five hundred pages arguing that there is no such thing as the French, that they are just like other peoples, and that they do not exist in their own right, at least as a collectivity. The author has also recently discovered the individual Frenchman through a great many interviews; and we are glad for him about that. There is a strong hint at the beginning of this lengthy exploration of the un-French or the non-French that his next book is to be about Human Nature. Dr. Zeldin has a way of laying out his claims in advance; but I doubt if any other historian would be tempted to follow him—or indeed to get in ahead of him—in such a vast, frontierless terrain.
If the French are just like everybody else, the prospects for ourselves and for the human race in general look pretty bleak. For the subjects of Dr. Zeldin’s quest seem a pretty unhappy lot. This may have something to do with the people he has chosen to interview, or it may reflect on Dr. Zeldin’s own, ever enigmatic, approach; for he seems to shy away from the spectacle of happiness as an affront to intelligence and as an example of unwarranted simplicity. Unhappiness, he seems to suggest, is so much more interesting—it cries out for attention, it is a form of protest—whereas happiness is dangerously private and represents an attempt to escape from the insistent demands of the collective norms. Only three people in the present marathon tour of the French admit to being happy. I’ll return to this abnormal trio later.
Unhappy in themselves, Zeldin’s French fall out of marriage with much greater ease than they fall into it; they get little satisfaction out of their children, their children get little understanding from their parents; they do not often enjoy their jobs, wonder if they are in the right ones; they fret and worry about the state of society, think there is too much or too little decentralization; and they question themselves endlessly about what constitutes a French identity, or a Breton one, or an Oc one (if they would only listen to the author, they would give up worrying on that score). Most of them—including the humorists and the cartoonists—take themselves extremely seriously, even their sense of humor; laughter seems hardly ever to be spontaneous. What Zeldin says of the popular comedian Coluche could be applied to most of the others in his rather grim-faced gallery: “His smile is a half-smile, and there is a suggestion of pain behind it.” Even speaking French seems to impose a terrible physical effort, a rounding of the lips and throat exercises as horrendous as gargling.
Let us take …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.