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

The success of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (his highest grossing film in North America) may suggest that France still has a place in the American mind, where it has resided since the birth of this young nation. But is it the authentic France – France as it is – or a France of the imagination that Americans harbor? That question cannot be answered, as there are more than 300 million Americans. What can be claimed, though, is that the authentic France partly consists of that France of the imagination – Paris, for example, is romantic partly because the city is imagined to be romantic. Despite this, it is quite common that Americans tend to think of the French (or at least the Parisians) as brusque, and the French-American relationships have been stormy for a long time, almost since the very beginning. It is, to use a simplistic phrase, a clash of cultures, and over the years many Americans have attempted to explain French culture to their fellow compatriots.

La Seduction is Paris correspondent Elaine Sciolino’s contribution to the ongoing conversation, and even if the book is too closely tied to the journalist’s age group (not young) and socioeconomic altitude (wealthy) to be fair to France as a whole, La Seduction is insightful, informative, and entertaining. Sciolino lets the reader use her amused eyes as she observes the behavior of the French intelligentsia, guided by the desire to seduce (“séduir”), but while the correspondent does this she also reveals how deeply American (whatever that is) she remains, despite her years in France. The book, then, is not only a book about France, but also a book about America.

Her main question is: How do the French “play the game of life”? According to the journalist, it can be summarized in one word, “séduction,” and in France, “séduction” encompasses a “grand mosaic of meanings. What is constant,” she says, “is the intent: to attract or influence, to win over, even if just in fun.”

Even in this age of “déclinisme” – which began with the German invasion of 1940 – the French remain devoted to the “pursuit of pleasure and the need to be artful, exquisite, witty, and sensuous,” and the trait runs so deep that it has become part of the land- and cityscapes of France – the country itself is seductive. To quote the Gil Pender of Midnight in Paris, “What is it with this city? I need to write a letter to the Chamber of Commerce.”

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