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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Digital Project Manager/BA

£300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An experienced Digital/Ecommerc...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Test Lead (C#, Java, HTML, SQL) Kingston Finance

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A Global Financial Service Organi...

Access/Teradata Developer, Banking, Bristol £400pd

£375 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Access / Teradata Developer - Banking - Bristol -...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home