The French, Fried

If you want to deepen your appreciation for America, visit France. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, read Michael Lewis’ Slate series “I See France.” And if you feel, as does Feed magazine’s Matthew DeBord, that Lewis’ lack of field research denies him credibility, pick up either of the latest two novels by Diane Johnson–either the luminous Le Divorce (1997), a Portrait of a Lady-meets-Bridget Jones story of a young woman’s sexual and moral education in Paris, or the less successful Le Mariage (in bookstores next week), which is also charming and set in Paris, though confusingly crowded with international crime and minor oddball characters.

Johnson knows whereof she writes and can lay claim to at least the appearance of fair-mindedness, if that’s the proper term for a writer who’s an equal-opportunity skewerer. Hers are tales of near-total Franco-American misunderstanding, lightly frosted with the tinkly wit of drawing-room social satire. Far off in the distance, there’s genocide in the Balkans and Y2K madness in Oregon, but back in good old Paris, the tensions seem oh so insignificant. American expatriates shake their heads at their French friends’ hypocrisy, stinginess, and intellectual pretension but beg for their approval anyway. Les bons Français, all aristocrats or wannabes, tolerate the Americans, are even fascinated by them, but are prone to simplistic, paranoid pronuciamentos about the prevalence in America of violence and fat.  Members of both nationalities join forces at the opera and dinner parties and fancy restaurants and les puces–the famous Parisian flea markets–the French swelling with national pride, the Americans committing amusing faux pas. French and Americans tumble into bed and in and out of love, since sexual compatibility trumps cultural incompatibility, at least for a while.

Then some small personal difficulty will escalate into a legal battle, the French courts will get involved, and all bets will be off. In Le Divorce, after a French husband abandons his pregnant American wife for another woman, his family all but succeeds in getting the legal system to deprive the wronged wife of her one valuable possession, a painting that may or may not belong to the school of George de la Tour. In Le Mariage, an American woman is thrown in jail for a crime everyone knows she did not commit, in retaliation for her husband’s refusal to let his neighbors hunt on his land. There is neither a presumption of innocence nor the slightest effort at impartiality in French courts, those being considered the naïve ideals of bourgeois America. However lightly depicted, Johnson’s vision of French justice is that it is a raw exercise of undemocratic power–a step or two away from the mob tribunals of the Revolution.

It’s rare to come across a writer who knows so much about a foreign culture but takes such a dim view of it. Expats and anthropologists are more likely to succumb to a mild version of the Stockholm syndrome and fall in love with their hosts. Johnson’s grasp of French culinary, oenological, and social categories are remarkably on-target (or so they seem to Culturebox, who lived in Paris for only a year) and obviously the result of a passionate apprenticeship, but Johnson has no illusions about the French. She is not a “Francophile realist,” a type delineated by DeBord–“a reluctant lover of France who knows the nation of Napoleon and Sartre will never live up to its grandly cosmopolitan reputation.” She’s a Francophobic pessimist, chronicling a people mired in its own prejudices and a City of Lights that has long since abdicated its claim to be a beacon unto the world.