Sciolino, Elaine, La séduction: Comment les Français jouent au jeu de la vie

Reviewed by Dr. George Simons at    Amazon Review

Seduced by Seduction

Couldn't keep my hands off! Took her to bed with me. Sent her around to see my friends. Yes, La Seduction seduced me, one of the best-authored reads I have had all year. It not only explained a lot about the country I now live in, but about me, and how and why I choose to live here, my cultural successes, my failures and my challenges. A perfect complement to the insights to the USA found in Nathalie Monsainte-Baudry's recently reviewed book Française et Américaine.

Since the year of my freshman French class, I have known that I would someday live in France. The enthusiasm of our prof, fresh from his doctorate at the Sorbonne--we were his first-class--was contagious. However, it took a reading of La Séduction for me to realize why. Certainly he had been seduced and he seduced us. It wasn't just his energy or his friendliness, attractive enough in themselves, but I see now that it was the deep pleasure he reflected in recounting the stories of his sojourn in France and in his appreciation of French language and literature, a pleasure that he passed on to us, the desire to know more and find out and enjoy for ourselves.

In those rather rigid times, he was an exception to the established pieties and dour discipline then surrounding student life. Père Hilaire was a Benedictine monk, but France was the woman of his life. He helped us discover the honesty of pleasure, which US novelist Edith Wharton described as the "general fearless and joyful contact with life." It is a Catholic sense of forbidden pleasure, rather than the Puritan one, best described by Heinrich Heine when he said, in the French of his adopted Paris, "Dieu me pardonnera. C'est son métier."(God will forgive me. It's his job.)

Sciolino's book might be described as an account of her own discovery of the seduction of France, starting with a baisemain from the president of France, himself. She explores her encounters with not just the language, the people, the diplomacy, the history, the gastronomy, but also the intelligence, the delicious rumors, the simple sexiness of it all. My colleagues Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron, authors of the Cultural Detective: France, in attempting to sort out the core values of its people, identified savoir-faire and savoir-vivre as key in comprehending French culture. La Séduction provides a rich, erotic, colorful and pleasurable picture of what these actually mean both in everyday practice and at the pinnacles of public performance.

Despite the fact that Sciolino, a stellar journalist, hobnobs with levels of society and government that most of us don't have access to, what she describes is tangible at every level in French society. She speaks from her acquaintance with presidents and policymakers, intellectuals, novelists, poets, artists, designers, architects and critics, those who are able to articulate the cultural discourse of the nation, those who are shaped by and continue to shape the beauty and desirability of France.

In my intercultural trainings, I sometimes show participants a cartoon in which a French manager is greeting a German team. Each of the German Fachleute (professional specialists) is carrying a briefcase labeled with his trade, be it engineering, accounting, production, sales, etc. The French manager, on the other hand is alone, but wearing a stack of hats on which is inscribed, "Je sais tout" (I know everything). This touch of intercultural humor is not meant to mock either the Germans or the French, but simply to show differences in the way they operate. In France the politician is more likely to be novelist and poet as well, rather than boxed in by whatever his professional specialty may be. Life would not be pleasurable without being well rounded, multidimensional.

France is a beautiful country. But it is also a regard, a seductive way of looking at things, a way of life where anticipation, foreplay and the lingering satisfaction of digestion are paramount. It is never, "slam, bam, thank you, Ma'am." It is a place where secrets excite, yes, where rumors and good taste may trump facts and practicality, often to the disdain and disappointment of the uninitiated. Yes, even the language sounds sexy, and it is, but it is never banal, naked or gross. Savoir-faire and savoir-vivre, the ability to seduce, with words, appearance, character and the scent of flowers result in disregard for what other cultures may see as peccadilloes or even mortal sins.

France is not what she once was, but she is who she is. She may have her rigidity, her economic, political and multicultural challenges, yet in a world where French is no longer the lingua franca of international diplomacy and where empire is passé, there is a stubbornness and irresistible charm to her grandeur. On the other hand, some may too easily dismiss her as lightweight. "Quelle drageuse!" (What flirt she is!)

Some time ago, an eminent interculturalist asked me to tell him what were one or two of the best books on culture that I had read during the past year. At that point, to his surprise and disappointment, I cited a novel and an autobiography. Certainly one must stay up-to-date with his or her professional research and publication, but I have found it invaluable to read around the edges of my field as well as plowing its center. Such rich, first hand expositions as La Séduction challenge us and keep us honest. It is as good as bread. France is, of course, much more than what is presented in this single perspective, but what Sciolino has provides is powerful point of view, a lens with which to understand and pull into focus the French cultural landscape and the behavior of people in it.

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