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.