Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Johnny et Jean

France is about to be submerged by a wave of nostalgia. The deaths of Johnny Hallyday ("notre Johnny national", as a French friend once put it to me with a tinge of savage irony) and Jean d'Ormesson will remind people of a certain age--my age--that their days are numbered.

Those who danced to the endless string of Johnny hits in the years leading up to May '68 will recall what it was like when the sap flowed more freely in their veins than it does today. Those who imagined their own future amorous lives on the model of Johnny and Sylvie will conjure up the pangs of lost loves.

The Johnny cult has always more or less mystified me. I was an American and therefore had no need of the French Elvis. I had the genuine article. French rock largely struck me as a pale shadow of the real thing. I had somewhat warmer feelings about Johnny the film actor. He had a certain something, which came I suppose of being a national monument called upon to play an ordinary bloke. The Fabrice Lucchini film Jean-Philippe played with this a bit.

As for Jean d'Ormesson, while no one would quite call him "notre Jean national," he was for a time a rather ubiquitous presence. I doubt that he would have much of claim on the nation's nostalgia were it not for Apostrophes, the Bernard Pivot bookchat show, of which he was a fixture. Despite having been editor of Le Figaro for many years, it was his genial presence on Pivot's stage that made him a celebrity, a status that neither his novels nor his election to the Académie française would have earned him. He dined with presidents (and was in fact Mitterrand's last luncheon companion before his death), but television made him a household name and broadcast his seductive charms even to those in the audience who found his politics a bit on the réac side.

7 comments:

christopher delogu said...

Johnny and Jean also share being "de droite" -- the right-wing populist appeal of Johnny seems undeniable. And though it's a bit unusual to be a right-wing rock and roll star, America has its Ted Nugent and there are plenty of Trump supporters among the stars of country music, no doubt.
It will be interesting to see if Macron goes along with a journee nationale de deuil for Johnny and not Jean d'O with whom he has many more points d'affinites.

mpz13 said...

Bravo for your eulogy of Jean d'O our television literary superstar. Regarding Johnny you may have missed something about him. As many have already said and probably Raffarin said it better, Johnny gave, Johnny was generous. Johnny made 182 tours, gave over 3 200 concerts (2 800 in France). That special relation to audiences made him the superstar he was. I wouldn't compare him to any American rock star, he wasn't a copycat he was a natural. He didn't compete with any anglo-saxon rock stars. There is a specific way French people fantasize about Americana, a sort of French dime store American dream that we all know is just a fantasy, Johnny embodied that fantasy and did that with his personal style. I don't think Johnny was "de droite", he wasn't "de gauche" either. He was a very sincere guy and an honest star who did the job. He was immensely popular because he spoke to people with emotions and people loved him. That's all.

bernard said...

I agree with MPZ13. Further, when I was a teenager who actually was already bilingual, I could not help but be amazed by the way people like Johnny were disrespected by so many well-to-do kids who adored English and American songs when they spoke and understood not one word of English. This was "mépris de classe" at its worst in the Quartier Latin. Johnny sold a hundred million records in France mostly and lasted 50 years on the scene, there's got to be a reason.

Anonymous said...

Johnny reminds me of Jimmy Buffett in the U.S. A domestic cultural phenomenon, untranslatable.

Don and Cathy Jo said...

I found Adam Gopnik's take on the Hallyday phenomenon very interesting-

https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-untranslatable-french-love-for-johnny-hallyday

Don

christopher delogu said...

I liked the Gopnik piece too, but as a translator and 25-year resident of France I don't know what the author means by untranslatable, since there he is translating JH into something comprehensible for us all. At least two items of some importance are lacking in that piece: a recognition that JH was a half-Belgian opportunist -- like a lot of Belgians who make it big in France; as do many Canadians in the U.S. (see "On Being Canadian). The second item, has to do with JH's borrowings. The debt to Elvis, ok, but in later years there was also a desire, it would seem, to be both the Francophone (not French obviously) Garth Brooks and Bruce Springteen -- the only problem is JH was too rootless to pull off either of those, though not for lack of trying. I find him a poignant, ballsy, somewhat tragic figure who did his best with a lot of bric a brac and broken pieces that he reassembled sometimes into some wonderful pieces of art. His "lemonade" i guess. His claim that we all have something of Tennessee in us -- ie, vulnerable, wounded, stained, loveable -- is my vote for his greatest insight and perhaps a memorable one. Given France's current "identitarian crisis," President Macron made a wise decision to have the celebration be "populaire" and not "nationale" since the latter would have been puzzling to everyone from Renan to Renaud.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Jean d'Ormesson was a bit réac, and his writing is tout ce qu'il y a de plus classique. Whenever I heard him speak I was always amazed by his verve, his faconde, his imagination, although I suppose he was at bottom just someone who loved to gossip. The only book by him I ever read was Au plaisir de Dieu, a leisurely account of several generations of his aristocratic clan and their ways: "C'était pour éviter de douter que nous avions renoncé à penser." His death marks the end of a certain France, I think.