July 2011

Kate Deimling

nonfiction

La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life by Elaine Sciolino

La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life's problems start at its title. In French, séduction has an acute accent on the e, so the title should either read La Séduction (French) or Seduction (English). This criticism may seem petty, but it actually symbolizes what's wrong with the entire undertaking. While Sciolino claims to provide insight into the French way of life, she's actually applying a distorting American lens through which the clichés of French life come into sharp focus, aided and abetted by the French public figures who ham it up during leading interviews with her.

This is not to knock Sciolino's own French, or her ability to blend in. She is the New York Times's Paris bureau chief, and clearly expresses herself charmingly and fluently among the high-placed individuals to whom she has access. She starts off by examining the verb séduire, noting that it not only means "to seduce," but also "to charm" or "to attract," and provides examples from newspapers and advertising. But she's mostly interested in the word's sexual meaning, interviewing figures such as fifty-something French actress Arielle Dombasle and sixty-nine-year-old advertising magnate Maurice Lévy. While reading Sciolino's stories of Lévy and other older men showing her the proper way of hand kissing, I couldn't help thinking of Maurice Chevalier, who could speak excellent unaccented English, but put on a heavy French accent because it charmed the Americans. I've lived in Paris, and I never witnessed a single case of hand kissing. Nor are any of my female French friends so calculating or hung up as to hide their naked bodies from their boyfriends or husbands, as Dombasle recommends. (This advice, coupled with the actress's obvious multiple plastic surgeries, suggests that she's dealing with her own personal demons.)

Instead of being a book about seduction in France, this is instead (as are so many journalistic undertakings these days) a book about writing a book about seduction in France. For the most part, the chapters are collections of interchangeable anecdotes, culled from interviews with people such as a perfume executive, the former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and even the gardener at Versailles. There is hardly any research, despite the presence of a nine-page bibliography. I couldn't believe my eyes when two research assistants were thanked in the acknowledgements. (I guess their job was to type up a big list of books for the bibliography.) Sciolino gets special permission to see a rare example of a seventeenth-century carte de tendre (an imaginary allegorical map of intimate relationships), but has nothing to say about it.

Readers who come to this book with no knowledge of France may encounter some interesting tidbits about perfume choices or lingerie types. And I suppose some readers may find Sciolino's defense of wearing sweatpants in public endearing. She can be disconcertingly frank -- the fact that she misidentified the capital of Israel as Jerusalem instead of Tel Aviv when hosting a party for the new French ambassador to Israel is rather disturbing coming from someone who has written a book on Iran and served as the Times's U.N. bureau chief.

One encounter is particularly revealing -- though not in the way that Sciolino intended. She goes to see Marc Fumaroli, an authority on Renaissance and classical French literature. He gets irritated when she starts asking him questions: "I don't understand journalists who come and say, 'You have written a book. Explain to me what's in it.' My book explains everything in itself, Madame! No? The questions you ask me prove that you haven't understood what I mean, you see? That's what disturbs me. If you don't get it, I can't set you straight!" Sciolino interprets this as Fumaroli's failure to play the game of seduction with her, and concludes her account by writing, "As I went to shake his hand to say good-bye, I looked closely at his face. It had a pasty matte finish, as if he were wearing makeup. Perhaps he felt he had to keep himself hidden." Um, no. It's embarrassingly clear that he simply thinks she hasn't done her homework. In addition to criticizing the academic's skin tone, she omits his book from her bibliography. Sciolino clearly wants interesting characters that will tell her what she wants to hear, not academics whose research requires an intellectual investment.

La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life by Elaine Sciolino
Times Books
ISBN: 978-0805091151
352 pages