Preface for France

Oddly enough, the French word cliché doesn’t mean “cliché,” the way we use it in English. It means snapshot, which is a good place to start when thinking about a country imagined almost entirely in clichés. Quick: What comes to mind when you hear the word “France”? Paris and the Eiffel Tower? Good food, snooty waiters, and dogs in restaurants? The Resistance, chain-smoking kids, Cartier-Bresson photographs? Astérix, Charles de Gaulle, the Normandy beaches? Though clichés, these all contain an underlying grain of truth. And it’s interesting how different they are from each other. Not surprising if you consider that France has as wide a range of landscapes and people as the United States, all squeezed into a country the size of Texas.

France has another distinction, though it is not unique. Like England and Russia, it’s intensely capital-conscious. A map of French highways and railroad lines looks like a diagram of the nerves and blood vessels, with the brain and heart right in the center, on the banks of the Seine. Take a French train from anywhere A to anyplace B, and there’s a fair chance it will enter Paris at the Gare du Nord and leave from Gare Montparnasse. Parisians speak of “the provinces,” but so do the provincials in Bordeaux and Lyon.

When you set out to explore France, whether on foot or in your imagination, it’s always fun to start in Paris. It’s not called the City of Light for nothing, and its charms are considerable. But if Paris is where good Americans go when they die, as Oscar Wilde said, that leaves the rest of France to those of us who are less good and more venturesome.

So, free yourself from Paris’s seductive embrace, and move beyond its boulevards périphériques, which sounds so much nicer than “bypass” or “ring road.” (Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady: “The French don’t care what you do, actually, so long as you pronounce it properly.”) Travel a few miles out of the city, and you discover why the word “suburb” doesn’t quite work in France. Sure, Paris has leafy middle-class exurbs, like the one where Christian Lehmann says he became a bookish young criminal. But it also has gritty slums and backwaters of urban anomie—just ask Samuel Benchetrit or Frédéric Fajardie.

Next, go south for a swirl of sunshine and mystery with stories by Colette, Pierre Magnan, Le Clézio, and especially François Maspero, who lends mythic dimensions to a 1942 train trip along the coast of Provence. Head west, and catch the chill wind off the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel. Annie Ernaux and Eric Holder describe women whose attitudes or appearances make them profoundly alien to their birthplaces. Jean Failler and Anna Gavalda enjoy laughing at their characters’ expense, albeit in the nicest possible way.

East of Paris lie history and remembrance, war-ravaged fields with new grass and old memories. The stories by Gabriel Chevallier and Marcel Aymé are humorous tales of country life, but those by Annie Saumont and Didier Daeninckx are war stories, and they toll a deeper tone. Finally, Dominique Jamet takes us on his personal Tour de France, a voyage of the mind in which his hero is always homeward bound.

For an editor, choosing a handful of stories to represent a country as complex as France is no easy task. That said, many of the stories in this volume do fall into recognizable patterns. My late coeditor, Anna Livia, picked Marcel Aymé’s country classic “The Dogs in Our Life,” so I paired it with Luc Lang’s “Dog Mind,” which is about the sticky problem of dogs in the city. Because of the jarring contrast in their suburban settings, I also chose two stories about stealing, “The Book Thief” and “An Ear for an Ear.” In general I looked for stories with roots, ones like the truffles in Pierre Magnan’s “Garcinets Pass,” which will grow nowhere else.

Short-story writers are often urged by their publishers to write “real” books, that is, novels. French authors may be under special pressure, with towering novelists like Balzac and Zola casting long shadows across their bookshelves. Also, it’s been argued that France doesn’t have as venerable a short-story tradition as England or Russia. A nouvelle, as it’s called, is viewed as a sketch or an anecdote, and the very word suggests a piece of news more than a work of literature.

In fact, writers from Jules Verne to Albert Camus by way of Alphonse Daudet and Prosper Mérimée have written wonderful short stories. Guy de Maupassant was probably the master of the form, and gave the world the deathless phrase “Mademoiselle Fifi.” Ironically, de Maupassant was so prolific that some of his contemporaries considered him a hack. But examine one of those stories, and you’ll see that it’s constructed as ingeniously as clockwork.

Short-story authors revel in a form that gives the writer the greatest freedom and the most constraint, and many prefer it to novels. As Annie Saumont, the grande dame of the modern French short story, said in a recent interview, “Whenever I set out to write a novel, it always ends in about ten pages.”

When one of these masters gets to work, it’s like watching a magician pull rabbits out of a hat, except that instead of rabbits, they’re mynah birds, or maybe parrots, each speaking in a distinctive voice. Like France itself, their variety is amazing.

I hope this collection does justice to that variety. Some of the stories are funny, some are sad, a few are mysterious. The excerpts may seem to end too soon, but that’s all to the good. These pieces are neither bonbons nor full-course meals. They’re more like hearty appetizers. You’re at a bountiful buffet, and you should feel free to come back for more.

William Rodarmor

Berkeley, California

Posted on 21 September 2010

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