Monday, June 13, 2011

Unseduced

La Seduction [sic] is the title of Elaine Sciolino's new book. That's La Seduction without an accent aigu, because Sciolino doesn't want you to think she's gone native or anything. In fact, after telling you that she's signed up for seduction lessons from Arielle Dombasle and Inès de Fressange, who tell her that the subject is so "vast" that she cannot hope to master it without firsthand experience, she is at pains to make it clear that, earnest pupil though she is, she has informed her tutors that she loves her husband and has children, hence there are limits beyond which her education cannot go (one can only imagine the bemused smiles of these two "courtesans," as Ms. Sciolino calls them, at this declaration of chastity). We are thus forewarned that we needn't worry, when Maurice Lévy, the CEO of Publicis, demonstrates the four degrees of the baisemain, building to a crescendo that is supposed to convey through an intricate combination of twitches and glissandos of the lip, the ultimate message of the hand-kissing ritual, "I want to sleep with you tonight." Ms. Sciolino professes fascination with such subtleties of French culture, and no less an expert than Bernard Kouchner attests to her mastery: "It took an American woman and a journalist to write a truly exciting book about France and the French. Elaine Sciolino brilliantly captures the French character." So says the blurb.

Yes, brilliantly. So we are seduced--are we not?--by the "American woman's" beguiling anecdote of the Versailles gardener who beds an "astonishingly beautiful" Japanese tourist by admitting her to the palace for a private tour on a day when it is closed and then serving her champagne in the garden before inviting her to join him for the night. But since Ms. Sciolino is "a journalist" as well as "an American woman" (dixit Kouchner), she is careful to include a picture of the gardener, lest we think she simply made him up, and, alas, the magic of Versailles and bubbly and the aphrodisiac of absolutism is abruptly deflated by the sight of a quite prosaic fellow whom one more easily imagines rooting about the flower beds on all fours than cavorting in the royal bedchamber. Yes, the gardener is real, but, sad to say, the possibility that he made up the story of the beautiful Japanese--trop beau pour être vrai--does not seem to have crossed her mind.

Infatuation with things French is in the air again, DSK notwithstanding. Woody Allen has released his Midnight in Paris, an exercise in the pleasures of besotted innocence, which redeems itself, though just barely, by gently mocking the myth of the golden age in which it otherwise wallows. Sciolino has probably achieved a similar level of self-consciousness, but she is too artless to convey it, or else too canny about her prospective audience of yearning young French majors off to the City of Light in search of Monsieur Beau Idéal.

The publisher for some reason sent this to me as a freebie. Proving yet again that you get what you pay for. Please, if you want to know about the seductiveness of the French, read Henry James' The Ambassadors. Or, for an antidote, try Cynthia Ozick's Foreign Bodies, a deft contemporary parody--although the word "parody" doesn't quite do justice to Ozick's subtle deconstruction of the master.

3 comments:

Alex Price said...

Speaking of yearning young French majors, I love this story about the disillusionment experienced by some Japanese tourists when visiting Paris:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15391010/ns/travel-news/t/paris-syndrome-leaves-tourists-shock/

Tom Holzman said...

Some journalist. It's been a while since the Times had anyone covering France who had a good understanding and even better BS meter.

Anonymous said...

Cheers, Mr. G. for your frank account of Ms. Sciolino's book. The NY Times unfortunately has an embarassing adolescent crush on France, and an image has barely emerged from the Gene Kelly-Leslie Caron era. Its "insights" are laughably simplistic and bear no relation to "lived experience" for travellers such as myself. Someone told me that the official Times Francophilia dates from the era when the paper's owners (Ochs-Sulzbergers) had second homes in Paris or the Riviera. So the rule was "Say nice things!" These days France is more or less represented as a guilt-free Pleasure Dome for Americans to enjoy the indulgences they can't or won't indulge at home. Strangely, France doesn't mind being regarded as a whorish hunting ground to foreign gourmands and debauchees. Perhaps because it keeps the foreign media away from the real hard news: scandals, corruption, racism, social malaise, the ennervating bureaucracy, the frightful legacy of the monarchy, revolutions, etc. Perhaps more than any other developed nation, the French state spends vast sums of tax dollars feeding foreign media with anodyne culture "news" and "success stories" promote a cheery "image de la France." The NYTimes is currently their greatest public relations asset in the English speaking world.