Pierre Daninos

Creator of Major Thompson, the typical Englishman in France
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Pierre Daninos, writer and journalist: born Paris 26 May 1913; married 1942 Jane Marrain (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1968 Marie-Pierre Dourneau; died Paris 7 January 2005.

In 1993, at the age of 80, the journalist and writer Pierre Daninos, in a light-hearted retrospective, published a collection of his contributions to Le Figaro under the title 40 ans de vacances ("Forty-Year Holiday"). That title has some of the mischief and exultation of a schoolboy playing hookey. A photograph shows him with the grin of a Cheshire Cat.

Those 40 years of truancy from the daily drudgery of adult existence take us back to 1954, when Daninos became world-famous with his surprise best-seller Les Carnets du Major W. Marmaduke Thompson (translated into English as Major Thompson Lives in France and Discovers the French, 1955), whose eponymous hero, an ex-Indian Army officer, is rather bizarrely married to a Frenchwoman. This convenient alliance allows the Major to explore the jungle of French life and bag any number of cultural, social and linguistic tigers.

The book - which, too, began as a series of columns in Le Figaro - was translated into 28 languages, including Finnish, Japanese and Russian. It wowed the Americans, and almost immediately Preston Sturges filmed it with Jack Buchanan as the hero. Les Carnets du Major Thompson (1955) - in the United States it went under the almost libellous title of The French, They are a Funny Race - was a flop, badly made and with an almost incomprehensible dubbed soundtrack. It should have been an all-singing, all-dancing musical with the immaculate Fred Astaire.

On the covers of the book appeared a caricature by Walter Goetz of a figure popularly believed in France to be a typical Britisher or un anglais correct. He is a spry Jermyn Street gent, fresh out of the famous baths in crisply tailored black jacket and striped trousers and wearing the inevitable bowler hat (chapeau melon). With his impeccably furled umbrella he might be taken for the Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. He sports a still-adventurous snow-white moustache, and grimly grips a pipe in his mouth, with a copy of The Times neatly folded under an elbow.

There was a succession of sequels (including Le Secret du Major Thompson, 1956, or Major Thompson and I, and Le Major tricolore, 1968, or Major Thompson Goes French) until 2000, when Daninos signed off the series with Les Derniers carnets du Major Thompson ("The Last Notebooks of Major Thompson"), whose cover displays one of Ronald Searle's inimitable versions of the Major - who was soon to be seen in Madame Tussauds and in the Paris equivalent, the Musée Grévin, where a fresh copy of The Times was slipped under his left arm every morning.

The Daily Mail sent a reporter to find out who he really was. Major W. Marmaduke Thompson, he discovered, was a Frenchman who could not even speak English like a vache espanole. He had seen Second World War service as a liaison officer at Dunkirk. When he began his series in Le Figaro, he kept in mind a British officer he had encountered on the beach at Dunkirk. Daninos commented:

From the moment I experienced that trick of memory, I lived as an Englishman in France. I even read the instructions in elevators as an Englishman might. He helped me to see France and the French in a different way, and enabled me to write things I would never have imagined without him.

It was a curious case of cultural transmogrification, and one that made his fortune.

All through the post-war years and beyond, the Major Thompson image was for foreigners (and even some Brits) the ne plus ultra of British masculine elegance. Simply everybody knew him. A Parisian concierge once took him to court for libelling the profession of that once ever-present, ever-watchful gorgon of apartment buildings. The Major could have been seriously studied by Foreign Service aspirants. The British were able to appreciate the joke, but many foreigners took it seriously, and their perception of the standard British businessman was stamped forever by the Thompson type. He also had an influence on the way foreigners dressed: it is no secret that the formal Western sartorial style of many Japanese "genitalmen" was based on the Major's image.

There was even a famous letter from President Charles de Gaulle to the author about a similar kind of book, Un Certain Monsieur Blot (A Certain Monsieur Blot, 1960), which did for the business community what the Major did for the French view of the British. (To an English ear, the family name "Blot" is uncomfortably reminiscent of a "blot on the escutcheon" and indeed several owners of that name complained about being held up to ridicule, but in fact the French telephone directory has page after page of Blots). Le Grand Raide, or "The Big Stiff" as the French were fond of calling the General, praised the author for his portrayals of a certain type of bumptious minor official who can make life a misery in France.

In fact, such Daninos satirical creations as the Major and Monsieur Blot were so popular abroad because he pitilessly "sent up" well-known French singularities of speech and comportment. In this respect he was a classic French observer criticising his fellow countrymen's behaviour abroad, in the breed of the great philosopher Charles de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, composer of the heavenly entertainments of Les Lettres persanes (Persian Letters, 1721). His near contemporary Jonathan Swift similarly cast an inventive Irish eye on the world with Gulliver's Travels (1726).

Daninos had already enjoyed successes with his earlier works. One of the very first, Le Carnet du bon Dieu ("The Notebook of the Good God", 1947), surprised the blasé post-war avant-garde by winning the Prix Interallié. An older writer, André Maurois, had already shown him the way with his book about the First World War Les Silences du Colonel Bramble (The Silence of Colonel Bramble, 1918), another title with (for the French at least) a mysteriously seductive British name, and an eternal best-seller. So Daninos was carrying on an already well-established literary genre.

The difference was that it was bang up to date, and he observed the rules of the game in which the foreign observer is patently fictitious - a literary contrivance that Daninos carried on throughout his works, with piquant asides to his supposed translator. The humour is kindly but not without amusingly acid comments in a manner reminiscent of the great satirists Jane Austen and Ivy Compton-Burnett, a barbed wit discreetly blunted in Daninos' case for his "common reader". He loves life and people too much to be really vicious.

Later in life, he might have had every excuse to appear so. In 1967, after a terrible car accident, his wife Marie-Pierre said:

In his coma, he never stopped talking, as if he was dictating his essays for Le Figaro.

Unconscious, disfigured, all smashed-up, during seven days of coma between life and death, he was still funny, brilliantly witty . . .

There would seem to be a special relationship between humour and the unconscious that specialists have investigated from Swift to Stephen Leacock, from Cervantes to Thackeray. But Daninos too could analyse his own lapses into unconscious humour, particularly in his 1966 book Le 36ème dessous ("Story of My Second Depression"). This work, like none of his others, has the desperate sincerity of analysis struggling with the crippling anguish of self-doubt. The humorist here unveils some very intimate failures that are not at all funny.

In his tribute to Pierre Daninos, the French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a man who always seems singularly lacking in a sense of humour, had the wit to quote him thus: "Humour is a joyful plant showered with sadness."

James Kirkup