Friday, 24 June 2011

France Made Fun

I had expected this to be out on in the Sunday Star's ReadsMonthly, not today. I wonder what will that section feature?

Not much else I have to say about this review, other than it took me 2½ days to finish. With this, Stephen Clarke and Dan Simmons are now the authors whose works I've reviewed the most. Not sure if that's a good thing... .

France made fun
Sample these sharp and humorous takes on all things French sparingly

first published in The Star, 24 June 2011

Stephen Clarke is funny, which is to be expected of a writer who cut his teeth writing comedy sketches for the BBC. After moving to France, he turned his incisive wit on his adopted homeland, resulting in a series of novels and several non-fiction books that are mostly about the pleasures and perils of living in that country.

Talk to the Snail was how I got to know Clarke ("French comprehension", Reads, StarMag, Dec 30, 2007). His handy, hilarious survival guide to France was chock-full of myth-busting anecdotes. "... if you want to know France, don't ask a Frenchman. He'll only give you the version he wants you to hear," says Clarke. "He won't mention that French women have just about the highest Prozac consumption in the world.... Or that the French are mad about hamburgers...."

Stephen Clarke's 1000 Years of Annoying the French (left) and
Paris Revealed - more of the French than you can handle

That book didn't shock, but it left me quite breathless by making me laugh my lungs flat. It's just that all these hidden, surreal sides of France are so over the top, they look more natural and less funny in fiction – I decided that I find Clarke funnier when he's not writing fiction. So when I came across a 2010 non-fiction release I hadn't seen, as well as a title released earlier this year, I couldn't resist asking to review both.

1000 Years Of Annoying The French, which sounds like Clarke's job description, is a brick-like tome that tries to "set the record straight" about the long tragicomedy that is the French-English relationship. A healthy portion of it, however, appears dedicated to what Clarke does best, which he suggests is nothing new. From William the Conqueror to the diplomatic gaffes suffered by current French president Nicolas Sarkozy, all forms of insults have been flying between Britain and France for centuries. Kind of like Malaysia-Singapore, only much longer.

From 1000 Years, it seems the French may have exaggerated notions of their place in history. In his own inimitable way, Clarke mercilessly tears down each "historical fact" and uncovers some surprising things:

  • Clarke says that William the Conqueror was not a French king because he was of Viking descent, drank little wine, and was faithful to his wife.
  • Mary, Queen of Scots, had French blood and upbringing. As Clarke states, "She was as Scottish as foie gras-flavoured haggis."
  • The fearsome guillotine used to dispatch various French royals and nobles during the French Revolution was a British invention.
  • France's exorbitant demands for war-time reparations from Germany after World War I might have bred the resentment that would later fuel Hitler's rise and start World War II.

Here, Clarke shows his work as an acerbic, wittier, and less genteel David Attenborough of the history of Anglo-French relations. Each sequence of events is threaded together well, with references to previous chapters and modern events, plus accompanying footnotes to make the history more interesting, entertaining even.

Case in point: The English may have killed Joan of Arc (see chapter four), but it seems that France allowed them to. Centuries later, after World War I, France had her made a saint (see chapter 24). Clarke notes the irony. "Yes, just eighteen months after Britain had sacrificed a whole generation of its young men to defend Joan of Arc's homeland against invasion, the French adopted an anti-English patron saint." Merci beaucoup, les amis (thanks a lot, buddy), indeed.

This history book with a difference was every bit the enjoyable read it promised to be. I can't say quite as much about the other book. Returning to the present day and familiar territory, Clarke zooms in on his home city. Paris Revealed: The Secret Life Of A City is essentially Talk to the Snail Lite, focusing specifically on the "secrets" of the city. Clarke lays bare the mysteries behind the some Parisian eccentricities: the signage, the people, the architecture ... the works.

Treasures in this box includes a map and brief descriptions of Paris's 20 arrondissements (administrative districts); survival tips, such as how to become a Parisian and how not to annoy other Parisians; and addresses of caf├ęs, restaurants, museums and other places of interest. Choice bits and helpful information about the "city of lovers" are divided into helpful sections: Parisians, Pavements, Water, History, Romance, Fashion, and so on.

Though it veers towards TMI territory, it isn't Clarke's intention to scare people away from Paris. He hopes the book will complete the "glitzy, romanticised" image of the city that often graces travel brochures, making her personality more real and fully rounded. "After all, you don't truly fall in love with someone until you know what makes them tick." Well put.

Even so, Paris Revealed is pretty lightweight reading, compared to 1000 Years. Though a good mix of fact and fun, it has little of the zing that Talk to the Snail has. By the time I was halfway through, Clarke-fatigue had set in. The writing started appearing dry and a little self-indulgent. The jokes get old rather quickly, and the use of French phrases in punch lines soon becomes a bad idea, especially if the reader doesn't know the language. Do I smell an author's impending burnout?

I hope not. Few can write like Clarke, and it would be a pity were he to keel over after flogging the old French nag for so long. Every book in his repertoire so far revolves around taking the mickey out of France – which the French themselves have begun doing, as recent headlines suggest. Perhaps a new source of inspiration is in order. Italy, maybe?

In spite of it all, Clarke remains a must-read on my shelf, and I'd recommend (some of) his books to anyone who's interested. It's just that his stuff is like foie gras: rich, and should only be consumed on occasion – preferably in small, manageable portions.

1000 Years of Annoying the French
Stephen Clarke
Black Swan (2010)
686 pages
ISBN: 978-0-552-77575-5

Paris Revealed
The Secret Life of a City

Stephen Clarke
Bantam Press (2011)
306 pages
ISBN: 978-0-593-06711-6


  1. Love 1000 years... and Paris. I agree, the former is way funnier.

  2. Khairul H: Yes, looks like Clarke's practically scraping the bottom of the barrel in Paris. Time he took a break.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment! Your blog is fun.


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