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 a closer look at this depressing gathering. Estebe’s mother has taken to drink. Estebe himself is in the dumps because he cannot speak Oc, and he suffers from a sense of inferiority because of being a southerner. Sicre is upset too about Oc. It is a pretty wretched thing to be a southerner, whether Oc or not. Sophie, who had an illegitimate child by an Italian, has had herself and her two cats sterilized. Of Paule, we are told that “her main interest is Eastern religions, and communion with the past…. She believes in reincarnation.” So does Paco Rabanne (who told the author that he, Zeldin, was the reincarnation of Diderot; he does not seem to have inherited Diderot’s prose style). Their daughter, it is claimed by a couple, “would certainly be shocked to see her parents naked.” This Dr. Zeldin puts down to the persistence of pudeur; the girl is clearly “unliberated.” Then, of another woman: “Right into adult life, she would cry in the night…. Music was her one love. He returned home to take her harp and sold it….” Of another man, “He stopped sleeping with her, partly because he insisted on bringing his dogs to bed with him also”; his wife then took to drink.
Dr. Zeldin informs us doctorally: “There are women in their forties who have only recently discovered the clitoris and masturbation.” Think of what they have missed! The French have a lot to catch up on. Not so the general practitioner he talked to: “He masturbated but was deeply depressed at the thought that this practice cut him off from God,” so “he went back to drugs, he sought psychotherapy, he became religious” (but went on masturbating). Of Régine, a publisher of erotic books: “Even now, living happily with her man, she goes off occasionally to a nunnery for a week or two….” There are two communists from the Nord, Noelle and Bernard: they hate the Nord (a most unusual pair, then, for most chtimis adore their region); she wants the sun, “he talks nostalgically of starting up as an artisan weaver in a village”; for they have moved south to Marseille, which they both hate. They are communists and quite humorless.
We are introduced to a “diplomat who has become a carpenter” (style rustique, of course); but he is still not entirely happy. He has a Haitian wife called Mimi who is not keen on carpentry. Loulou, a dress designer, “was sent to a finishing school in Switzerland and then to therapy with a New York psychiatrist.” Claude Chabrol “has two failed marriages behind him and now lives unmarried with a third woman…. He is fascinated by war.” Claude Lelouch, who must be quite abnormal, “has not turned against his father.” Then there is the hospital nurse: “All her possessions are on the floor…. She is a great admirer of Boris Vian….” One would like not to fall into her hands! We hear of a man who “lives with a liberated woman whose hobby is weightlifting.” Most of these people have the sort of names that go with their awfulness: Benoite, Ariane, Brigitte, Noelle, Eluard (a mess), Emmanuel, Gérard Barthélemy, Françoise Flageolet (who is keen on Lacan). How do they meet? “The break came when they went together to protest against nuclear power at Malville.” Of course! All these awful people go through all the predictable hoops of ritual collective protest and conformism.
Three happy people have somehow managed to get into this pantheon of gloom. Two are a couple, who seem to have got it right: “So she studies divinity while he hunts.” The third,
in the space of six years,…has seduced at least a hundred women. At present, he has eight mistresses simultaneously. One is eighteen…; one used to be mistress to the Shah; one is a divorced executive; most are blonde and blue eyed; all are under thirty-five—he never goes above forty.
This mini-Simenon seems indecently cheerful and pleased with life.
Apart from this unnatural trio, the gloom is so universal that one is sometimes tempted to think that some of his interviewees may have been taking Dr. Zeldin for a ride. Certainly, I used to think that I knew a lot about the French, and I liked most of those I knew. But I can find little to like about the present lot. I think the author and I must have met two quite different sets of French. Probably I did not knock on the right doors; but then I had no plan of action and never formed a list of the sort of people I would like to meet. In most cases, I just bumped into them. Another explanation would be that most of my French friends are now over sixty; many are dead. Dr. Zeldin’s gallery draws heavily on the underforties. I would even venture a generalization, my only one: the French become collectively more conformist the younger they are, and more humorless.
Dr. Zeldin makes a great many generalizations. He refers to the Bretons as suffering from the scorn of Parisians toward peasants. But to be a Breton does not usually mean to be a poor peasant (there are more and more rich ones); and what the Parisians so often had in mind was poor, clumsy, simple Bécassine, the Breton maid. A Breton would be as likely to be a fisherman or a sailor, or the one, then the other. With Dr. Zeldin, it is so often either the one thing or the other, the choice of two; there is no third choice, nothing can be blurred, there is no middle ground. He offers few options, only compulsory courses. This gives unity to his book, but it does not necessarily make it more accurate.
Some of his historical references are contestable. “In the eighteenth century, wine was still largely a rich man’s pleasure.” Certainly not true of the Paris poor, who drank heavily of the adulterated wines of the Paris region. “The Paris region is pagan because it was never properly converted.” In the eighteenth century, it was an area of very high church attendance; and in the 1930s, Cardinal Verdier met with much success in evangelizing the suburbs. “One of the surprises of French history is that in the revolution the nobles had their heads chopped off…” But relatively few nobles fell victim to the Terror. The federalists were not defeated in 1789; they won. They were only defeated, and then not decisively, in 1793; but they got their own back, with a vengeance, between 1795 and 1799. HLM is not a high-rise block. Most of it was built in the Thirties, before such things were thought of. And what is one to make of the statement: “Though the French cannot be accused of being more racist than other similar nations, they are not noticeably less so”?
The whole book is constructed over an elaborate scaffolding of statistics, percentages, opinion polls. But how does anyone know how many people have daily baths? Even the author has his rare moments of doubt and questioning: “These statistics may be false, but that is what they say.” A third of French women take the pill, a tenth use the diaphragm. And so on: take it or leave it.
There are some very good sections in the book. That on the Communist party is first-rate; and, as in his previous work, Dr. Zeldin shows a very acute understanding of French medicine. His chapter on food and drink is bookish, as if he had read about both subjects, rather than eaten and drunk. It is rather hard to write about wine if, like Dr. Zeldin, one does not drink it. I have drunk a great dea of wine, mostly Beaujolais, but I certainly could not write about it.
My French friends tell me that the most unpronounceable word, at least for Anglo-Saxons, in the French language is Rueil, in the Paris suburbs. It certainly is a tongue twister. Dr. Zeldin sidesteps the problem by spelling it Reuil. I think the one-time editor of Le Canard whom he refers to as Benaert must be Pierre Bénard (who was certainly very partial to Juliénas). Nothing could add more to the proclaiming gloom left by the book than the assertion that the dog population of France will have doubled by the year 2000. But there is at least one item of good news: the frightful Sartre comes only 125th on the UNESCO list of most widely read authors. And Dr. Zeldin scores a bull’s-eye on the subject of ministers of education: “the omnipotent Minister, who changes his mind and the syllabus with the same distraught frequency.” A wonderful phrase, right on the ball.
There is a mass of valuable information in this vast book. But I found it rather heavy going. I may have missed the point. There were moments when I asked myself whether the author was not pulling my leg, whether the whole enterprise was not an elaborate canulard, a schoolboy joke at the reader’s expense, an immense take-off of “investigative journalism.” If that were the intention—and the jacket description, “A Brilliant and Witty Portrait of Today’s France,” hints at this—it is a very good joke indeed. But I really do not know the answer. Dr. Zeldin is an enigmatic person who seldom obtrudes himself into his writing (save on the subject of what he is going to write next). Perhaps someone will tell me if I have got it all completely wrong.
November 24, 1983