L'Amour à la française
Contributor
Written by
Renate Stendhal
December 2012
Contributor
Written by
Renate Stendhal
December 2012

Is there anybody who isn’t curious about how they DO it, the French? Anybody who wouldn’t want to know all about l’amour à la française? An elegant, erudite and highly entertaining book  looks at French literature to tell us How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance. Author and She Writer Marilyn Yalom goes beyond the stereotypes which you can find in zillions of books on the topic (What French Women Know: About Love, Sex and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind; Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide for Finding Her inner French Girl; All You Need to Be Impossibly French; French Women Don’t Sleep Alone; The Skinny, Sexy Mind: The Ultimate French Secret; La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life;  – and the list goes on).

 

As a writer myself, after almost 20 years in Paris, I ate this book up like candy. Delicious bouts of nostalgia kept running through me, together with passionate page-by-page desires to grab those French classics as well as the arcane books and dive into a reading frenzy. Ah, La Princesse de Clèves – decried as irrelevant by ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and promptly embraced by thousands of readers! Les Liaisons dangereuses – still today on the list of required reading in French schools! And then the women troubadours, George Sand, Marguerite Duras, Simone de Beauvoir, Violette Leduc! Heroines of passion  -- all of them fabulous voices capable of TALKING about love the way only the French can… I recognized Frenchness on every page -- the cultural encouragement for women to be sexual and intellectual at the same time, and the permission for men to be sensuous and feminine, among many others. I was so charmed by the book that I felt I had to review it (see below).

Yalom, a senior professor of literature and a feminist, keeps a steady focus on women’s writing and women’s essential contribution to the cultural re-invention of love in France throughout the centuries. She brings in striking statistics about the difference between French and American attitudes (mentalités) toward love and passion. Her analysis of literature and cultural life in France (including recent scandals like the Strauss-Kahn affair) is written in an easy, relaxed manner, sprinkled with amusing personal experiences of living and teaching in France. And she always has a keen eye on language:

We English speakers often turn to French expressions for the vocabulary of love. We refer to tongue-locked embraces as “French kissing.” We have adopted the words “rendezvous,” “tête-à-tête,” and “ménage à trois” to suggest intimacy with a French flavor. Our words “courtesy” and “gallantry” come directly from the French, and “amour” doesn’t need to be translated.

If you would like to know more, read up an appetite, find out how Marilyn Yalom rediscovers what Gertrude Stein already knew, read the review in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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