What exactly is French love?
by Herve Le Tellier
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 Other Press newsletter. Click here to subscribe.
I am French and I have written a “love story.” I’ve been intrigued to read in various places that it is “very French.” What on earth does very French mean? I know three things that are indubitably French: French kissing, French fries, and the French cancan, a dance in which the bare facts are furtively revealed, and one that is still danced in the Moulin Rouge to this day.
But what exactly is “French love”? Now, don’t let’s go boasting: I am no specialist when it comes to love, even though I may have said “I love you” to other women besides my mother, and they have politely replied the same, some of them—and this is truly unbelievable—actually meaning it. But I have put some thought into what “French love” might be, and what color France might inject into the subject of love. French love (now, this is just a working hypothesis) could be something like French cooking, which has a very distinctive habit of appropriating or rejecting influences so that they can coexist.
Throughout its history, France (at this point, kindly refer to a map) has rubbed shoulders with Germany, Italy and England (at least). During the course of invasions and occupations, we have borrowed from them: pasta, for example, and a particular method of smoking meat or of making grapes into wine. When it comes to love, we have done a bit of sifting: from the suicidal suffering of the young Werther, the archetypal German myth, France banished the tragic element; from the Italians, the only nation to have invented a song whose only lyrics are “Te Amo” repeated indefinitely, France adopted prolixity; from English Puritanism, “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy” (I am unashamedly quoting Mencken), France has not taken a great deal. France also chopped off its king’s head. That’s quite something, a king’s head. Since 1789, her people have demanded liberty, equality and fraternity, three words that they engrave on every town hall (not that they always apply them, of course, but that is another story). These three exacting concepts must surely have some echo in relationships of love. Shall we say that, just as the Revolution is a question of language, love can be seen as a world in which every individual strives to find his or her way through the words they speak as well as the sex they have.
I do realize that this is too ambitious a subject to be fully developed here. Still, I would like to think that our national Eros has strong rebellious tendencies and insists on more truth than compromise. In any event, I will be back for more.
Hervé Le Tellier is a writer, a journalist, a mathematician, a food critic, and a teacher. He has been a member of the Oulipo since 1992 and one of the “papous” of the famous France Culture radio show. He is the author of more than twenty books. He is the author of the recent novel Enough About Love and a novella, The Intervention of a Good Man, which earned him the Prix Guanahani.