The Secret Life of France, By Lucy Wadham

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There is a genre in British publishing which could be called "froglit": the obsessive psychoanalysis or mockery of our nearest and dearest neighbours. There is no equivalent "britlit" genre in French publishing. The French prefer to write about themselves or, a(grave accent) la limite, the Americans.

The British appetite for froglit is often fed with the fast food of would-be comic exaggeration (A Year in the Merde) or the processed food of comic romanticisation (A Year in Provence). Either way, the French are usually seen from the outside, through the prism of unchallenged, or unadmitted, British prejudice.

Lucy Wadham's elegant, measured and funny book is a case apart. To understand the French she went to the trouble of marrying a French man, living in France for 22 years and raising four French children. She remains very British, but has also become rather French. The British reader therefore gets the best of both worlds (and sometimes the worst).

It is as if Wadham is stranded mid-Manche. She is torn between a British compulsion to stick with the concrete and a French desire to explain everything. She veers between sweeping generalisation and penetrating insight (French) and wonderful anecdote and dry observation (British). She memorably describes Parisian zebra crossings for instance as being "like Bosnia's safe zones: places where, if you die, you may simply die with the knowledge that your killer was in the wrong".

Why are the French a nation of individuals who all insist on doing the same thing, individually? Why do the French have a teenage relationship with the state, constantly rebelling but still expecting their washing to be done for them? Why do the French have better and more sex than we do but also take more tranquillisers and have one of the highest suicide rates in Europe (more than double the UK)?

"You might ask," she writes, "why – in a society where the quality of life seems to be superior, where fertility and life expectancy and literacy are higher, where the crime rate is lower and teenage pregnancies fewer – so many people want to kill themselves." Wadham does not come close to the final answers to any of these questions: no one could. She does, however, take us further along the road than most.

She concludes that there is an elemental tragedy– itself a very French notion - at the core of French life. What makes the French miserable is also what makes them French. The French, she suggests, are driven by pleasure and beauty and nobility. They have an enormous capacity for abstraction. They love ideas and wit but distrust self-mocking humour. The ideal is always more important than reality; beauty is more important than truth.

These are the qualities that create the French capacity for the art de vivre. The same qualities destroy their joie de vivre. Life is never quite as perfect as the French insist that, in theory, it should be.

Not a bad stab at abstract French intellectualism by a Briton, but I prefer Wadham when she is in anecdotal, British mode. My favourite moment is where she decides to apply for French citizenship.

After suffering the bloody-mindedness and laziness of the woman at the citizenship desk, she says: "Your behaviour, your particular kind of rudeness, has made me realise that I have no wish to become French after all." "Good," the woman says, "taking back the forms with a flourish."

Some criticisms. What most of the book describes is not the French but one part of the Parisian bourgeoisie. I do not have the impression that my rural neighbours in Normandy like to spend long hours pondering the "function of art" before all jumping into bed together. At the end, Wadham concedes that another France exists (only one?) and that she has emigrated to it. She has taken up residence in the Cévennes.

It is also a weakness that she feels the need to pontificate on French wartime history, electoral politics and recent foreign policy. She suggests, absurdly, that President Sarkzoy was elected despite the "opposition of the media". Evidently, she reads only Le Monde and Libération and never watches the TF1 nightly TV news, which is the main conduit of political reality to the French and was utterly pro-Sarko during the 2007 campaign.

The book is muddled but, finally, that is also part of its charm. Unlike other manifestations of froglit, Wadham does not pretend to have understood, or summed up, France. She offers her considerable insights and her anecdotes and, like all critical Francophiles, continues to scratch her head in love and wonder. "Like the long-suffering spouse who realises, after all those years, that in spite of everything, there is no one in the world she would rather be with, I adore and despise this country in equal measure."

John Lichfield is Paris correspondent of 'The Independent'