Stephen Clarke has been described (it might even be on the book jacket?) as the anti-Mayle. I read A Year in Provence more than a decade ago, and I have fond memories of it (in particular Mayle’s literally hair raising descriptions of the madness inducing mistral). Having finished reading A Year in the Merde, I have to assume that maybe Clarke is the anti-Mayle because he’s caustic and not afraid to take a piss at the French? It’s unclear. The most anti-Maylean thing about him seems to be his character’s lack of interest in getting to know or wanting to understand the French. If memory serves (and maybe it doesn’t), Mayle dives in headlong, and the humor in his book is derived in part from his genuine desire not just for experience, but to belong. Clarke’s character, on the other hand, just seems down to fuck.
There were definitely some funny moments – his description of French bureaucracy made me both nostalgic for my time in France and SO glad I don’t live there anymore. In fact it was a story I was telling about my own attempt to procure a carte de séjour that prompted a friend of mine to ask whether or not I had ever read A Year in the Merde.
One passage that I loved describes the morning noise of the family who lives upstairs: “At 7:00 a.m. the alarm goes off, boom, Madame gets out of bed, puts on her deep-sea divers’ boots, and stomps across my ceiling to megaphone the kids awake. The kids drop bags of cannonballs onto the floor, then, apparently dragging several sledgehammers each, stampede into the kitchen. They grab their chunks of baguette and go and sit in front of the TV, which is always showing a cartoon about people who do nothing but scream at each other and explode.” Having lived for a time with a French family with small children, this seems to capture it well. And yet, there’s nothing about it (except perhaps the baguette) that’s typiquement français.
The main character, Paul West, does manage – at times – to express genuine affection for Paris. Passages like this one kept me reading, because in some ways it captures how I have felt the past few years when I’ve gone back – moving from the airport terminal into the bustle of the train station and then zooming off on the RER into town. “I was glad to arrive back in Paris. … Just getting off the train and stepping into the rush for the metro, I felt reenergized. It’s a city that pulls you along with it. I knew that I could now get served in cafés, barge my way to the front of lines, infuriate people just by shrugging. It was like being good at a particularly tough computer game.”
But on the whole I found myself distracted by how hard the main character tried to convince – and then incessantly remind – the reader that he’s a real man, a real straight man, a bonafide heter-OH-sexual. There are some downright Jamesian (alas E.L., not Henry) feats of language, too:
The place had long sofas, so we were able to snuggle up cozily, alternating talking, drinking, and other more intimate mouth activities.
Shall I? Mouth activities?!
And this: Sex for her was like a business model.
We did some swift, efficient asset stripping, carried out the required amount of research and development, and then I was invited to position my product in her niche market. I did my best to satisfy her high demand with as much supply as I could muster. After a period of violently fluctuating market penetration, the bubble finally burst and we sank back, our sales forces completely spent.
While I appreciated the character’s struggle with the French language, there was little to appreciate about the author’s struggle with English. And even in the story itself, there never seemed to be a real attempt to make sense of the nuance and the beauty of the language, only to capitalize on his confusion and use it as an excuse to make fun of what he did not understand.
One reviewer on Goodreads expressed surprise that there was a plot, which I found funny. Despite really struggling through passages like the ones above, I thought the plot was fine. My main takeaway from the novel, however, was that the protagonist is an insufferable douchebag. And yet, it was still fun to read. I decided to read it last week when I got home from spending more than three weeks in France, and in that way it served its purpose. It worked for me, not because of anything having to do with the book itself, but because it kept France close; it made the transition back to real life feel a little bit easier by helping me imagine that I was in France just a little bit longer.