instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

French Farce

PORT Magazine, Spring 2012

Many years later, as I faced the firing squad, I recalled that distant evening when my father took me to see General Della Rovere. My father did not actually leave the sofa that night, but rather insisted I stay home with him and watch the general on television, thereby helping discharge a parental duty to enrich my cultural education.
The general in question, as every educated person knows, exists only in fiction. His name is the title of a 1959 film by Roberto Rosellini. It involves a petty swindler named Bardone who is arrested by the Nazis in 1940s Genoa. For the promise of freedom, he agrees to be thrown into a political prison while pretending to be General Della Rovere, a partisan hero who, unknown to the inmates, has just been killed. Bardone’s task is to identify another resistance leader thought to be in the prison. Once inside, however, Bardone is touched by the courage and generosity of his fellow detainees. He ends up acting very much like the real Della Rovere, turning against his captors and facing death as a true hero.
My teenage soul was deeply touched by General Della Rovere, which is perhaps why my mind is returning to it often in these stressful days – and why my adult life seems to be unfolding along a similar plotline. Only instead of ending in heroism, my personal masquerade has left me with a bad taste in the mouth, a persistent fear of being caught out, and a gnawing sense of inadequacy. For the past few years, I have been living a lie. I know my time will soon be up. Perhaps things will go better if I confess.
You see, I too was infiltrated into a closed society, not as an informer like Bardone but as an assassin. I did the job, but I never got sprung. Here I remain, writhing under the accusatory stares of my fellow residents. I have a certain notoriety, but it gives me little pleasure. Throughout the land, from the interrogation sessions of Parisian dinner parties to the firing squads of television chat shows, I am known as – I cringe to say it – the man who killed French culture.
I didn’t mean to. I had just stepped down from an over-busy job as a magazine editor in London and, with my editor wife, was looking forward to some quiet time in France. Taxes here are surprisingly light for people in our position, with little European income, and the weather is certainly no worse than London’s. Moreover, the food, the wine and especially the cultural offerings are outstanding. You can barely walk down a street here without tripping over a chamber music concert, an art opening, a revival of Racine, or the winner of some new literary prize (France has nearly 1,000 of them, more than any other country). I was in heaven.
My former captors in London had other ideas. I had been keeping busy by writing the odd article for my old magazine, nothing strenuous. After three idyllic years of this, I was invited back for a nice lunch at a London restaurant not far from the old office. My ex-colleagues and I rambled pleasantly through old times and triumphs until dessert arrived, whereupon my successor as editor got to the point. Would I take on an assignment dreamed up by his boss, a known Franco-skeptic who called the shots at corporate headquarters in New York? The idea: a long article on the decline of France as a cultural force in the world.
I politely declined. I was an all-purpose hack specializing in politics, business and car crashes, I noted, not a cultural journalist. Besides, anybody who lives in France for more than ten minutes knows that art, music, literature and the rest are thriving there, and that signs of decline are rare. Culture has been a source of French pride and diplomatic strategy since the days of the kings. As a French official boasted some years ago, “The Germans may have Siemens, but we have Voltaire.” Today France takes the arts more seriously and subsidizes them more heavily than any country in the world. Much as I would welcome another freelance fee, I said, there was simply no story here.
My host frowned, reached for the check and asked me to think it over. As we parted, I’m sure I heard him mumble something ominous about the future of my relationship with the magazine. It was then that I began, for the first time in years, to think of Bardone.
I returned to Paris and started infiltrating. What I found was surprising. Of course, France dominated the international cultural scene in the 19th and early 20th centuries. French novelists – Hugo, Zola, Balzac and so on – were read the world over. French composers – Debussy, Ravel, Satie and the like — were similarly esteemed. In art, France was the birthplace of impressionism, cubism, fauvism, surrealism and other major -isms. Same for film (a French invention), photography (ditto), drama, architecture… France ruled the artistic universe.
Today, however, the country’s cultural achievements are largely unheralded outside its borders. Works by French contemporary artists command less at international auction, on average, than those of Americans, Germans, Brits and Chinese. New books by French authors are no longer widely translated; of the 1,000 or so published every fall as part of the famous literary rentrée, fewer than a dozen make it to the other side of the Atlantic, or even the English Channel. New French drama is rarely performed outside France, and French movies have lost the cachet they enjoyed in the era of Godard and Truffaut. Serious French music is largely unheard beyond the Hexagon. The same goes for pop and rock, which are dominated by Americans and Brits. Quick, name a French pop star who’s not Johnny Hallyday.
I accepted the assignment, of course. I talked to French publishers, authors, musicians, artists, gallery owners and cultural critics. I perused white papers from government culture commissions, reports from entertainment industry associations and books by French cultural critics. The inescapable conclusion: French culture, though thriving at home, is vastly unloved outside the country. The cultural gloire of French is now but a memory.
The reasons are diverse. Much of French culture is produced in French, a language fewer and fewer people speak. The international “buzz” machine – that infrastructure of publications, websites, conferences, publicists and other megaphones for promoting culture – are based largely outside France, and they speak English to each other. France’s education system is in decline and, at its best, geared more toward producing engineers and civil servants than writers, artists and musicians. And, paradoxically, the subsidies and protectionist measures with which France nurtures its cultural industries have produced an insular mediocrity. I came up with some remedies: producing more movies, music and even literature in English for the global market; putting more emphasis on the arts in schools; reducing the government’s role in cultural decision-making, encouraging more private support for the arts, and encouraging France’s marginalized racial and ethnic minorities to help re-energize the national culture. Nothing that hadn’t been tried successfully in other countries.
My findings were published as a 3,000-word cover story in my old magazine. It is published in English and sells only a few copies in France. I thought the article would pass largely unnoticed. How wrong I was.
My Paris telephone started ringing the day the issue hit the news dealers, and well before I had received a copy. In interviews with several journalists, I detected a note of hostility that surprised me. My previous contacts with them, and with the French generally, had been a warm bath of collegiality and generosity. I knew that culture was a sacred vache here, but pretty much everything I reported had already been said by French observers or was boringly obvious. Surely, I thought, the French would take my recommendations in the positive spirit with which they were intended. I was only trying to help.
I should have known that when a foreigner offers constructive criticism about French culture, no good deed goes unpunished. I was pilloried in nearly every major French newspaper and magazine. Leading scholars, publishers, government officials and the publications’ own cultural reporters were enlisted to refute my assertions. French journalists around the world were directed to find local evidence that their country’s culture was thriving (I was pleased at the meager results). My own country’s ambassador to France issued a statement that I was dead wrong (thanks, pal). Bernard Henri-Lévy, France’s leading celebrity-intellectual, was commissioned to fillet me in the pages of Britain’s The Guardian (he politely turned the discussion toward America’s declining influence abroad).
The problem was not just my article, but the words my editors had, without warning me, put on the magazine’s cover: “The Death of French Culture.” A wild overstatement. Nowhere did I write that French culture was dead or even approaching its sell-by date. But I guess they wanted to shift magazines, and that they did. The issue sold in record numbers. Several French journals asked me to write further on the subject, among them the Foreign Ministry’s own cultural monthly. Nearly every French television channel invited me to explain myself on air. I was Liberation’s “Man of the Day.” I was invited onto French radio’s equivalent of Desert Island Discs (postponed indefinitely, though on sleepless nights I review my musical selections just in case).
Unexpectedly, I had become a genuine French personnage, recognized by maitre’d’hotels and saluted on the stairs by my heretofore silent neighbors with the shocked curiosity you’d accord a famous murderer. I was beginning to enjoy my Warholian 15 minutes of fame.
Which, to my eventual chagrin, has become an eternity. More than three years after the article appeared, I am still regularly invited to bloviate about French culture at conferences and seminars, on television chat shows and in the pages of respectable journals. You might think I would glory in such fame. Instead, I find it mortifying. A leading French publisher commissioned me to expand my original article into a book, which appeared a year ago. It was savaged by critics as shallow and ill-informed.
They may have a point. If I sounded mildly convincing in a magazine piece on the rather narrow question of French influence in the world, on the larger subject of French culture I remain a dilettante in a sea of anoraks. I read French with difficulty and can barely speak a complete sentence of it. I may manage a few words about the vacuity of French novels in general, but I have read embarrassingly few of them in particular. I remain largely ignorant of the classics of French literature, art, music, drama and cinema. I struggle to tell Saint-Beuve from Saint-Simon, Audiard from Abelard, Caron de Beaumarchais from Choderlos de Leclos. When asked, I fudge things as best I can, changing the subject to something obvious and hoping I am not found out.
Oddly, my ignorance hardly seems to bother the French. Chat show hosts and conference moderators are surprisingly indulgent, letting me babble incoherently without ripping me to ribbons, James Naughtie-style. Audiences rush up afterward to shake my hand and tell me affably that they disagree violently but find my American accent charming. Still, I can see it in their faces. They know I’m over my head, living a lie, making it up as I go along. They can smell my shame.
So I keep mostly to myself these days. Rarely venturing out of my flat, I surf the Internet looking for stray bits of information – in English – about French culture. A language tutor comes to converse once a week, but he has pretty much reached the limits of exasperation. I still receive invitations for conferences and chat shows, but I try to limit my appearances to those that offer translators and free drinks. I know that they know that I am a fraud, and their indulgent persistence is excruciating. They must enjoy watching me squirm.
One aspect of French culture I have not yet written about – because I have only now come to appreciate it – is the country’s unexpected congeniality. I have been thoroughly discredited at various forums by genuine experts, who thereupon invite me for drinks, for dinner, to lecture their students, to attend their own forthcoming conferences. A cultural bureaucrat who lost his job shortly after my article appeared, perhaps because of it, greets me with smiles and a bear hug when I run into him. It’s as if the French, the same people who so robustly criticized my original effort three years ago, do not really care that I hardly know what I am talking about.
Indeed, faking it seems to be a national sport. French politicians and diplomats are distinguished more for their brazen self-confidence than the rigor of their policies. French television is full of over-the-hill celebrities hamming it up shamelessly on variety programmes of appalling length. Chat shows feature air-head crooners and starlets holding forth on politics, science and literature with laughable ignorance. Such behavior may explain the popularity of French scholar Pierre Bayard’s 2008 bestseller, How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read. I devoured the tome, expecting a riotous, tongue-in-cheek satire. But the guy is mostly serious.
All this makes me wonder if the French know something about their storied cultural greatness that I don’t. Perhaps the whole edifice is built on myth – a shrewd, centuries-old marketing campaign. Maybe French culture dominated the world for so long not because it was better than anybody else’s, but simply because the French convinced us it was. They had better packaging and a larger promotion budget. As far back as Louis XIV’s day and even earlier, these snake-oil merchants created a brand and have maintained it for generations, even as the product itself grew shopworn. Today, upstart market entrants challenge their dominance, but the French carry on oblivious – and the world nods in assent.
As I was writing that last paragraph, my phone rang. It was a French magazine editor inviting me to a roundtable discussion of – guess what? I tried to wiggle out of it, explaining that I was just an ordinary journo, that my knowledge and language skills were not up to the task. He would not listen.
And so, a few days from now, I shall stand before yet another firing squad. This time my mind will likely return to that London lunch where I tried, unsuccessfully, to refuse this mission of deceit and betrayal. Once more I will feel like a fraud. But this time, just possibly, my self-loathing will be softened by a new realization. Maybe the reason I have been able to persist in my deception for so long is that the French, like many people, don’t really listen to what we say. What matters is that we are talking about them.