Alex Massie

The Fall of France? (Again?)

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So, unsurprisingly, Time Magazine's cover story (international edition) on The Death of French Culture is making waves on the eastern side of the Atlantic (once upon a time, Time might have devoted space to French culture in its US edition: that it wouldn't dream of doing so now tells us as much about the United States as it does about France).

Given that all countries enjoy introspection - what's the subject of any attempt at writing the fabled Great American Novel, if not America herself? - it's not shocking that Le Figaro should devote three pages to responding to Don Morrison's silly, exaggerated article. Silly and exaggerrated and irritating, I mean.

It can be disconcerting to find oneself agreeing with Bernard-Henri Levy but his analysis of this foolishness seems, in its guts, right to me. In this instance the portrait tells us as much about the artist as it does his subject. And it's not a pretty sight. The most striking aspect of Time's foolishness is its provincialism. Americans don't think of France as a home of culture anymore (where do they think might be then?) so obviously the Frogs have gone to the dogs.

Consider these alleged proofs of French decline:

1. "Only a handful of the season's new novels will find a publisher outside France. Fewer than a dozen make it to the U.S. in a typical year, while about 30% of all fiction sold in France is translated from English."

2. "France still churns out about 200 films a year... [but]... the only vaguely French film to win U.S. box-office glory this year was the animated Ratatouille — oops, that was made in the U.S. by Pixar."

3. "In an annual calculation by the German magazine Capital, the U.S. and Germany each have four of the world's 10 most widely exposed artists; France has none. An ArtPrice study of the 2006 contemporary-art market found that works by the leading European figure — Britain's Damien Hirst — sold for an average of $180,000. The top French artist on the list, Robert Combas, commanded $7,500 per work."

4. "France does have composers and conductors of international repute, but no equivalents of such 20th century giants as Debussy, Satie, Ravel and Milhaud. In popular music, French chanteurs and chanteuses such as Charles Trenet, Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf were once heard the world over. Today, Americans and Brits dominate the pop scene. Though the French music industry sold $1.7 billion worth of recordings and downloads last year, few performers are famous outside the country. Quick: name a French pop star who isn't Johnny Hallyday."

To take these in turn:

1. This is a damning assessment of American (and, to some extent, British) literary circles, the French, by contrast, might be complimented on their embrace of non-French writers.

2. Only a fool would assume that the health of the French movie industry is determined by the number of French movies (which don't even have the decency to be in English!) that prove popular at Cincinatti or Tulsa multiplexes. Equally, French movies are so terrible that Hollywood keeps remaking them... (Hang on, maybe that's true...but then that would say as much about the studios as it does about the French).

3. If the French have no Damien Hirst or are unprepared to lavish absurd sums of money on his sort of art then so much the better for them. Measuring art's worth by box office alone would force one to conclude that writing doesn't get any better than JK Rowling or that the Impressionists must have been useless because their work didn't command huge prices immediately. Then again, almost nobody bought Tender is the Night. Does that mean it was rubbish?

4. French culture is dead and unpopular abroad except where it isn't. But where it isn't doesn't count.  If you can't name a French pop star other than Johnny Hallyday then that's fine, but again, this probably says more about you than it does about French music. Besides, music peeps know that French hip-hop and rap is where the action is and that lots of that stuff is, or so my little sister tells me, excellent.

And so on and so on. It may be that French novels don't travel well, but it's hard to say that absent an opportunity to read them. Then again, French literary culture is, in many respects, in a much healthier state than its British or American equivalents. Perhaps the subsidies given to French artists have made artists lazy or encouraged introspection (though oddly, no-one ever bothers to condemn, say, Ireland for ts generous subsidies for artists), but I'm not sure the case is quite as clear as Mr Morrison suggests.

But, really, culture isn't some vast international pissing contest, no matter how attractive it is to turn it into some sort of artistic Olympiad. It seems much more significant that, as Time acknowledges:

French media give it [culture] vast amounts of airtime and column inches. Even fashion magazines carry serious book reviews, and the Nov. 5 announcement of the Prix Goncourt — one of more than 900 French literary prizes — was front-page news across the country. (It went to Gilles Leroy's novel Alabama Song.) Every French town of any size has its annual opera or theater festival, nearly every church its weekend organ or chamber-music recital.

Aye, that's a cultural desert right enough. To return to novelists' experience: even small provincial papers are happy - nay consider it their duty - to carry features on foreign writers whose work can't help but be all but unknown in France. Try imagining the Yorkshire Post or the Tennessean interviewing a French or Italian novelist publishing in English for the first time. Yeah, doesn't seem likely does it?

Given that they're a nation of hypochondriacs it's scarcely surprising that the French spend much time fretting over their supposed decline. Some of that is obviously real, forcing a reappraisal of what it means to be French. But so what? The notion, which Americans seem weirdly insistent upon believing, that France can only hope to succeed if it becomes more American (and hence, in some respects, ceases to be France) is very strange. So what if their cultural protectionism seems odd to the anglo-saxon mind? Let the French be French for crying out loud! Or, vive la differance!

Morrison concludes by conceding that French culture can be replenished by its immigrant population. Well, sure, but that's always been the case. The idea that France is some sort of monolith or that there's only one sort of Frenchness is absurd. Hyphenated Frenchness - whether that's from immigrants or parental blood or simple regionalism - has been around for a long time and continues to thrive today. Witness, for instance, the career of a novelist such as Andrei Makine. Born in Russia, sure, but living in France for 20 years and writing in French and, in my view, as fine a novelist as anyone alive today (and so, of course, is not mentioned by Mr Morrison).

Makine's story, like those of the hip-hoppers in the banlieues (to mention just a couple of examples) is just one more reminder that French culture is as moveable as ever and still a feast to be enjoyed.

[Via, Clive]

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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