Hungry French culture vultures feed on Eng Lit

ON A stage in Paris last week, an actor held up a canvas showing the heads of two men. Then he showed another to which a third face was added. After that he produced an X-ray revealing sketches under the oils of a fourth man and, subtly hidden, of a fifth man.

It was impossible to know if many of the members of the audience understood what Philippe Clevenot, playing Sir Anthony Blunt, was getting at. Or if they had understood the message conveyed by the Harry Lime theme 30 minutes previously. And what would Bud Flanagan singing 'Run, Rabbit, Run' at the play's end mean to a Parisian?

Yet the diptych of Alan Bennett's works, with the French title Espions et Celibataires (Spies and Bachelors), revolving around a story every Briton brought up in the 1950s and 1960s knows by heart, has been running at Paris's Theatre National de Chaillot to enthusiastic reviews.

The most memorable scene for the French is where a rather dotty but witty Queen expounds on art with the Master of her paintings. She describes a picture of the Annunciation she once saw in Venice as depicting a 'Virgin who looks as though she's just won the lotto and is requesting anonymity'.

The first half of Spies and Bachelors is An Englishman Abroad, devised for television. It shows a scruffy Guy Burgess drinking with the actress Coral Browne, and singing Offenbach duets with his accordion-playing Russian boyfriend perched on his knee. The second half, with Blunt in London and at times undergoing interrogation - 'Giotto had no perspective and neither did you' - is A Problem of Attribution.

It is difficult to imagine a more English play. Liberation suggested that Bennett wrote it with 'perhaps the desire to settle a score with Cambridge, where he studied thanks to a scholarship'.

Bennett's play represents a small part of the impact of what the French would call 'Anglo- Saxon' culture in modern France. By far the most popular film of recent months was Four Weddings and a Funeral. 'It doesn't take you anywhere, it's just fun,' said a 25-year-old Parisian. The Remains of the Day also played to full houses.

If the French are horrified by many aspects of Britain, traditions and the past fascinate them. At Paris's Carnavalet Museum, an exhibition is devoted to 'The English in Paris in the 19th Century' with paintings or caricatures by or of Britons living in France.

In the world of books, Remember Me by Mary Higgins Clark was the bestseller for the three months ending 30 September. 'Part of the reason is that there is a feeling that the French novel is dead and that the only original novels are coming from across the Atlantic,' said Jean-Michel Demetz, a cultural journalist at L'Express magazine.

Another forthcoming event will be the publication of a critique of American literature by Pascal Guignard, whose recent novel The American Occupation describes the Americanisation of French life in the 1950s when US soldiers were based on French soil. In French bookshops, US and British authors have as prominent a place as their native counterparts.

There is a phenomenal amount of translation from English into French, some of it ambitious. A S Byatt's Possession appeared in French translation last year complete with its screeds of 19th-century-style poetry; that prompted Liberation to run a detailed review of the book and a lengthy interview with the author.

The translations are not just of modern books. Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds appeared in a 1992 series called 'The Great Translations'.

'The French are reading English classics but they are not reading their own,' said Mr Demetz. 'They think they read them as children and that's enough, but it's not the same.'

Questioned about the merits of Trollope, one Parisian woman said she admired the sheer story-telling capacity. That is a common remark about a number of cross-Channel authors, such as the Brontes, Jane Austen or David Lodge.

Without the heavy-duty philosophy of many French writers, they manage to entertain and still get a message across.

'In France,' said Bruno Bayen, the French director of Spies and Bachelors, 'we always think that a conversation must reach a conclusion. They (the British) go for immediate pleasure even if it doesn't get anywhere. What Burgess in Moscow wanted to hear was London gossip. We often tend too much when we speak of modern times to be dramatic when it's good to smile.'

French playwrights, he said, could try to emulate the Bennett play in writing about mysteries in the lives of the late communist philosopher Louis Althusser or Jacques Verges, the lawyer who defended the Nazi Klaus Barbie and now represents terrorist Ilich 'Carlos' Ramirez Sanchez, 'but we do not have that imagination in France.'

(Photograph omitted)