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.”
She begins with language itself:
We English speakers often turn to French expressions for the vocabulary of love. We refer to tongue-locked embraces as “French kissing.” We have adopted the words “rendezvous,” “tête-à-tête,” and “ménage à trois” to suggest intimacy with a French flavor. Our words “courtesy” and “gallantry” come directly from the French, and “amour” doesn’t need to be translated.”
Readers are implicitly invited to extend the list themselves with other piquant adaptations and derivations — risqué, raffiné, déshabillé, décolleté, amour fou, and femme fatale, to name a few.
A former professor of French, Yalom weaves her literary thread through 900 years of French love stories, from such notorious lovers as Abélard and Héloïse to Sartre and Beauvoir, from troubadours like Chrétien de Troyes with his legendary Lancelot to Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, or Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M.
An essential ingredient of l’amour à la française...read more