Sunday, March 7, 2010


Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French

Stephen Clarke moved to Paris more than a decade ago from London, wrote a couple novels about France, and then decided to write a declarative book about how to understand the French: Talk to the Snail. This is a fine idea, and the book contains many fine ideas. Even some passable jokes and amusing observations. He was able to get a few positive French reviews, and does not appear to have been deported - so his largely mocking roast of French culture and social habits didn't cut too deeply or inaccurately. He even said some nice things, quite sincerely.

All that said, I struggled mightily to like this book. One of the main theories I have for why this was so difficult for me is that he's kind of a jerk, and allows this fact to surface in his writing.

One of the better examples is in his last chapter (or "commandment" - the book is organized into 11 commandments used to understand the French), where he talks about how to deal with falling in love with French people. He talks about the different kinds of French lovers, introducing his three main archetypes with:
"Some French men are considerate, good listeners, stylish, funny, and always available to take a woman out for a great evening. As in so many other countries, they are gay. Or they are straight and on their best behavior because they haven't yet got the girl into bed."
Ha ha! Men who try to be considerate to others and not oafish boors must be gay, everywhere! And this is implied to be a bad thing! Ha! Ha! If this were the only instance of this sort of implication, I'd brush it off as a joke, but this seems to really mark his personality, and unfortunately it colors the rest of the book.

He also litters the book with lots of unfunny jokes. Not just the "no pun intended" when there was not actually a pun made. When he talks about the French habit of smoking wherever, whenever they like, I expected some good humor and observations. He does this here and there, and it's mildly pleasant (while at the same time worrying for someone planning a trip to France who hates cigarettes). But then he tries this:
"One Californian occasionally tries the UN-sanction approach. 'You're not going to smoke any more!' he tells baffled French smokers, who wonder what he is going to do about it. Invade their table, maybe? This frontal attack never works. At best it causes a colonial war."
Ha ha! Colonial war! Wait, what? How did we get to Algeria, or perhaps India or Vietnam? Are colonial wars like French natives ignoring tourists? I can't see the next laborious "punny" setup in the next paragraph because you're too far in the weeds.

On the whole, I enjoyed the general intent of the book - a loving, playful, embittered roast of the French. I learned a bit, laughed at times, and gained more of an understanding about a culture (from, obviously, one person's perspective). But all of that was almost undone by the author's pervasive, jerky personality thrusting itself through the prose.

The main reason it got three stars instead of two is his educational discussion of French swearing. My favorite is "Tu me fais chier" which means "You're boring me to death here (literally, you are making me shit)." I just love that - there's no equivalent in English in the least. In French, if someone is boring you, they are making you shit. Thank you, Stephen Clarke, for I never would have known this without having read your silly book.

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