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

La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life started life as a New York Times article that’s definitely worth reading and retains some of the humor of the book (sample: “The Customer Is Always Wrong”). And the way to read La Seduction is as a comedy. It’s not very deep, but there’s something hilarious about Sciolino’s ceaseless focus on the myriad forms of French seduction, which take a primarily erotic term and extend it as a metaphor throughout French life, or at least a certain segment of French life. There’s a sense of bemusement throughout the book, as when Sciolino indulges a fascination with French sexual practices:

Unlike Americans, who are forced to take up the mantle of purity just when assuming high office might give them an advantage in the sexual game, French politicians are allowed to enjoy their enhance opportunities. This reality flows from centuries of precedent. The kings took sexual seduction to new heights. There was a hierarchy to the women in their lives: wives, significant others (known as ‘favorites’), and women passing through through the court who provided fleeting adventures. To make sure no one forgets France’s royal history today, the kings’ escapades are routinely retold in cover stories in mainstream weekly news magazines.

Notice the Americanisms creeping in her prose: they’re “allowed to enjoy,” rather just “enjoy” or some other verb. They’ve been granted implicit permission to be naughty, and the words that point out that implication sound American. Sciolino takes the role of tut-tutting American even when she doesn’t mean to; whether this is ingrained in her upbringing or part of her schtick is hard to say. France comes off as wildly appealing in this book, which is perhaps as it should be. Sciolino makes it sound delightfully cultured a lot of the time; she doesn’t focus much on what it’s like not to have a lot of money in France, but I bet that would be pretty different. The threads of appeal and privilege come together at moments, like this one:

Growing up in france, my two daughters were allowed to drink legally as teenagers. Champagne was served at their senior prom. They developed a healthy respect for moderation. Perhaps the biggest cultural shock they faced in college in the United States was binge drinking.

The integration of wine into daily life starts early.

If you normalize drinking, it won’t be as much of a problem and can simply be a pleasure. I wonder too if part of the issue is development patterns in the United States: everyone, almost everywhere, has to drive everywhere. So drinking naturally becomes more of a problem, since it’s intertwined with driving. And because it’s forbidden whole institutions, like college fraternities, and cultures, like the high school kegger, grow up to enable drinking. Sciolino doesn’t go in this direction, but she could: she’s bent on staying observational. It’s amusing to watch an anthropologist at work, especially one who’s divided between admiration and distaste. We get this in Sciolino’s discussion of sexual politics, which frankly sound like a lot more fun in France:

The game of the sexes also extends deep into the workplace. In the United States, the mildest playfulness during business hours and in a business setting is forbidden; in France, it is encouraged. In American corporations, men are told routinely that they cross the line when they compliment a female employee on the color of her dress or the style of her hair. In France, flirtation is part of the job.

This also applies to universities: one has the presumed right to be free from unwanted advances, which also has the effect of frequently being free from wanted advances, since it’s hard to tell one from the other until the advance has been made. Much of Sciolino’s chapter deals with this French attitude, where so much is, in one woman’s words, “based on humor, irony, complicity, and what is left unsaid.” Sciolino continues by asking a small, unrepresentative survey of women “whether they are outraged by the perpetual game of seduction in their professional lives. I found that if American women engage in a perpetual battle of the sexes, French women are more likely to collaborate with the opposite sex.” The battle is a game: notice the difference in metaphors. She goes on to say that “The most exasperating thing I heard was that there are no fixed rules. You just have to intuit them, as if you are feeling your way up a vertical rock formation.” Dealing with ambiguity is hard, but, to some people, fun. Yet social rules are notoriously hard to encode; if they weren’t, there wouldn’t be innumerable advice columns advising people on social issues. When you encode a rule like “don’t comment on someone’s shirt,” you get a presumed benefit—someone who doesn’t wish to be complimented on his shirt doesn’t have to be—and a presumed drawback—someone who wishes people would notice her shirt finds that they don’t. One could say that American sexual politics are more rule-based and business less so, while the French do the opposite.

One hundred and fifty pages later, we’re still talking about the sex thing:

[Carla Bruni] didn’t seem to care what others thought of her. She reportedly told Michelle Obama that she and Sarkozy had been late to meet a foreign head of state because they were having sex, a story recounted by journalist Jonathan Alter in his book The Promise. ‘Bruni wanted to know if, like the Sarkozys, Michelle and the president had ever kept anyone waiting that way,’ Alter wrote. ‘Michelle laughed nervously and said no.’ “

It’s hard not to laugh at this paragraph, not just for the reason, but for the question that implies a shared intimacy that evidently has not quite developed, based on the adverb “nervously;” indeed, the whole book makes France sound intensely comic in a way I’d never considered before. If you want to have the stereotype that French people are busily drinking wine, having sex, and discoursing about philosophy, this is not the book for you: although Sciolino takes time to cite statistics about the fall in wine consumption (50% of earlier highs) and the prevalence of fast food (more than 1,000 McDonald’s are open for service in France), the overall feel of the anecdotes is toward whispering about sex and outrageous dalliances, even if said things are more whispered about than done.

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