How the French invented love: Renate Stendhal weighs in

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Renate Stendhal takes a long, thoughtful look at Marilyn Yalom‘s How the French Invented Love over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. (The Book Haven discussed Marilyn’s new book earlier here.)

Ms. Stendhal writes:

“Did the French invent love? Or would it be more true to say that love is endlessly reinvented every moment, in every culture, every epoch? What the French did is what Arabian and Persian cultures had done before them: invite the beastly, sexual part of human nature into culture. The French cultured and cultivated love from the Middle Ages onward until it became l’amour à la française — a reason for national pride. The clichés of French sexiness, French charm, French people’s ease about their own and their presidents’ affairs are hard to dispute; they go together with the well known sensuous importance in France of food and flirtation, verbal brilliance and fashion. There has been a recent flurry of books by Americans attempting to decode the better sex lives of the French and the enduring mystery of French women. (Among them, 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: A Witty Investigation into the Lives, and Little Secrets of French Women; French Women Don’t Sleep Alone; The Skinny, Sexy Mind: The Ultimate French Secret; and La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life.) Marilyn Yalom’s new study, How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance, reaches beyond the stereotypes by focusing on literature, making an erudite, elegant, and charming case for France’s love ‘invention.’”

I’m not sure that the idea that the French are the world experts in love isn’t itself a kind of invention.  It often goes at odds with my own observations of my French friends.  The sting of betrayal and the ugliness of lies hurt them just as much, and there, as everywhere, families are rent by the suppressed hostilities and the unspoken tensions.  (Look at all the lives that get ripped apart in Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, for pity sake!)  Maybe the idea that somewhere, somehow, sex doesn’t carry psychological price tags is one of our most pervasive myths. But that may be a minority opinion.

Marilyn certainly knows her stuff, whether giving her own opinion on Dominique Strauss-Kahn or then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, who made the unfortunate comment that it was ridiculous for civil service exams to include questions about the 1678 classic La Princesse de Clèves: “As president Sarkozy’s popularity declined among the French, sales of La Princesse de Clèves soared,” Marilyn Yalom observed.  As Stendhal writes, “Yalom’s literary examples of French passion and naughtiness are told in a relaxed, conversational tone that mixes her analyses of books and history with anecdotes about her own experience living and teaching in France.”

The relaxed, conversational tone – bien sûr!  Check out the LARB review here.


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