Friday, September 05, 2003

In an old joke about the French, a trio of little boys is ambling through Paris when they spy an amorous couple through an open bedroom window. "Look," says the six-year-old, "they're fighting!" "Non," replies the eight-year-old, "they are making love!" "Oui," concludes the ten-year-old, "and rather badly."

I am reminded of this joke by the controversy over Frederic Beigbeder's new novel, "Windows on the World", which imagines the fates of the diners at the restaurant of the same name atop the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, 2001. In one widely-quoted passage, a collection of affluent, materialistic Americans, identified only by their designer attire, spend their last moments discussing their cars, homes and investments before losing themselves in a frenzy of sexual coupling as the flames rise around them.

In other words, Beigbeder paints these Americans as embodying the very crudest stereotypes of....the French. They revel in fine luxuries. They pay close attention to fashion. They value self-interested pragmatism before moral principle. And they embrace a sophisticated, carefree sexual hedonism. One would expect any Parisian to feel a warm glow of fellow-feeling when reading this description of Americans by a Frenchman. Why, then, would anyone interpret it as critical of--let alone insulting to--Americans?

The problem, it seems, is that the Americans in the passage are portrayed as French without the style. Their fashions are mass-market American fashions like Kenneth Cole and Ralph Lauren. Their luxuries are modern and unsophisticated: a Porsche, a villa in Hawaii, a health spa membership. Their venality is in the service of increased wealth rather than elevated social status. And they kiss "comme dans un bon porno californien".

Worst of all, they don't spend a single moment sneering contemptuously at those they deem culturally beneath them. For that alone, the Americans in the novel (and in real life) have clearly failed to live up to the Gallic standard, and have thus earned an eternity of callous French ridicule. Rather badly, indeed.

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