French Letters

In their ceaseless quest to “prove” that Destry, a.k.a. President Barack Obama, is Wrong about Everything, the wingers flew into a flap last April when Obama gifted the Queen of England with an iPod. Mossback anglophiles on this side of the Great Water fulminated that such a gift was grossly declasse, evidence that Obama is a clueless moron.

These same people next swooned, calling for their servants to bring at once the claret, when it developed that during the iPod handover First Lady Michelle Obama “breached royal protocol” by placing her arm around the Queen—in response to the Queen placing her arm around her. Apparently commoners who dare touch the Queen are, even here in the 21st Century, supposed to have the offending member hacked off, presumably with an executioner’s axe, the bleeding arm then spiked for display at the foot of the Tower of London, for the delectation of the local ravens.

It is not known whether French President Nicolas Sarkozy laid hands on the Obama daughters during his visit this April to the White House. There has, however, occurred a dust-up similar to the Obama iPod Outrage, this time involving Sarkozy’s gift to the Obama girls of several issues of the popular French comic-book series Asterix. Writing in Le Monde, Franck Nouchi moans: “Were there not other works to offer to them that would evoke French genius?” And suggests that Malia, 11, and Sasha, 8, should have been subjected instead to Proust.

Asterix is a series of French comic books that have appeared periodically over the past 50 years. Written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo, the things have to date sold some 325 million copies worldwide.

The series concerns a village of ancient Gauls who resist Roman occupation, occasionally by means of a magic potion brewed by druids. The main character, Asterix, is wily and shrewd; his mammoth companion, Obelix, is a complete moron, though one possessing superhuman strength. Reflecting the well-known French dog disability, Obelix is accompanied everywhere by his pint-sized pooch Dogmatix.

Because they are French, creators Goscinny and Uderzo, as well as members of their families, have for more than 20 years engaged in huge screaming fights that rhythmically flow in and out of the courts and the public prints. Here’s a taste: Uderzo’s own daughter accused her father of “betray[ing] the Gaulish warrior to the modern-day Romans—the men of industry and finance.”

Asterix editions commonly trade in puns, caricatures, parody, gnomic references to French history and current events and personages, and brutal comedic attacks on peoples who are not French, as well as those who are.

Nouchi fretted in his Le Monde piece that Malia and Sasha not be presented with certain specified Asterix editions:

Let us hope that among the possible editions of Asterix [Sarkozy] did not choose “The Battle of the Chiefs,” “La Zizanie” or “Caesar’s Gift.”

Intrigued, I set about to discover what horrors might be contained in these comics that so concerned Nouchi.

“The Battle of the Chiefs,” a.k.a. “Asterix and the Big Fight,” appears to revolve around insanity. Obelix accidentally beans Gaulish champion Getaflix with a menhir, causing first amnesia and then bad craziness. A druid monikered Pscychoanalytix, who specializes in treating mental infirmities, is brought in to treat Getaflix, but he too is inadvertently brained by Obelix with a menhir, causing him to join Getaflix in the land of the mad. Everything eventually ends up alright when, during a mano-a-mano contest between the Gauls and the dread Romans, the Roman champion, Cassius Ceramix, is likewise bonked with a menhir. Ceramix is considered in France to be a parody of Muhammed Ali, and the entire issue is regarded as a savage attack on psychiatry.

“Caesar’s Gift” is awash in alcohol. Roman legionaries Egganlettus and Tremensdelirious consume vast quantities to celebrate their final night as Roman soldiers; the next morn, all retirees will receive generous land grants, as a reward for their services. Tremensdelirious, however, begins to bibulously express his true opinion of Julius Caeser, which earns him a trip to the pokey. The next morning, Caesar puckishly gives Tremensdelirious as a parting gift a Gaulish village that has not actually been conquered by the Romans. Tremensdelirious proceeds to liquidly make his way to “his” village; on the way, he successfully trades it for some wine. Ownership passes to a couple named Angina and Influenza; when they reach “their” village, they are lodged in an abandoned building that reeks seriously of dead fish, the odor so powerful it periodically causes the villagers to come to blows. Influenza apparently engages in Unlicensed Sexual Activity with Asterix; Influenza is called “Zaza” for short, presumably an assault on Zsa Zsa Gabor. The French recognize the latter part of this story, unnarrated here by me, as a vicious parody of the 1974 French presidential election.

“La Zizanie,” known in ‘Merican as “Asterix and the Roman Agent,” features a natural-born troublemaker, Detritus (“trash”), who is dispatched by Caesar to the Gauls to cause them to fight among themselves. At this he succeeds admirably—too admirably, as, in the course of an extremely convoluted plot, he eventually so confuses and bamboozles all around him that he is ultimately assumed to be himself a Gaul double-agent, and is returned in chains by outraged legionaries to Rome. In France this issue is recognized as a commentary on the titanic warfare that broke out amongst the staff of the French publication Pilote during the madness of May 1968.

Nouchi shamelessly transforms the latter half of his Le Monde piece into a public Proustgasm:

If, perchance, in the coming years the Sarkozys had to return to the White House, they could think of bringing In Search of Lost Time. In the introduction to the beautiful edition of Swann’s Way, published by GF- Flammarion (2009), the American writer Daniel Mendelsohn explains why he likes Proust so much. “I was 20-years-old and I was in my second year of classical studies at the University of Virginia,” remembers the author of The Lost (winner of the Prix Médicis for foreign writers in 2007). With Jenny, one of his Hellenistic friends, he decided to read a few pages of Swann’s Way out loud every day. “It was love at first sight from the first lines,” Mendelsohn adds. “As soon as Jenny started to read, I was struck by the feeling of recognition, I was certain that this book would accompany me all my life.”

In the interesting report “Proust Found” in the latest edition of Magazine Littéraire, Antoine Compagnon writes the following: “We must read Proust—quickly, but also slowly, while laughing but also at times crying, with a grain of salt, but also with the greatest seriousness (…) To read the In Search (of Lost Time)’—and also other novels — helps one to become the author of one’s life.” We should all read (or re-read) In Search of Lost Time.

Whenever I think of Proust, I think first of the Weldon Kees poem, “Problems of a Journalist”:

“I want to get away somewhere and re-read Proust,”
Said an editor of Fortune to a man on
Time.
But the fire roared and died, the phoenix quacked like a goose,
And all roads to the country fray like shawls
Outside the dusk of suburbs. Pacing the halls
Where mile-high windows frame a dream with witnesses,
You taste, fantast and epicure,
the names of towns along the coast,
Black roadsters throbbing on the highways blue with rain
Toward one lamp, burning on those sentences.

“I want to get away somewhere and re-read Proust,”
Said an editor of
Newsweek to a man on Look.
Dachaus with telephones, Siberias with bonuses.
One reads, as winter settles on the twon,
The evening paper, in an Irving Place cafe.

Like most of the people in America who say they would like to “re-read Proust,” I have never actually read the man all the way through the first time. I have read in him, but not all of him. For many years I fancied that I would wait until I could read him in French, but I know now I will probably never learn enough French to even keep me from being arrested over there, much less to get through Proust. I realize I need, soon, to get to it, before I am unable to read him even in English.

In his Proustgasm, Nouchi intimates that one must encounter Proust when one is 20. But neither Malia nor Sasha will attain that age even if their father serves two terms in the White House. Malia is currently 11, and Sasha 8. It’s always going to be a little early for the Proust, dude.

So why not instead Alexandre Dumas? Like Malia and Sasha, and their father, Dumas was of mixed race; Dumas’ father, Thomas-Alexandre, was renowned as “the Black General” of Napoleon’s armies—”Schwarze Teufel,” or “Black Devil,” the Austrians called him, after he beat them like a gong at Adige. As is currently true of their father, Dumas’ work was consistently undervalued because of his race: former French President Jacques Chirac, to his credit, in 2002 had Dumas’ remains unearthed and solemnly transferred, French-style, to the Pantheon of Paris, the final resting place of French literary luminaries like Victor Hugo and Emile Zola. Chirac explicitly acknowledged that Dumas’ tardy transfer was due to French racism.

Although I have not read Proust, I have read everything written by Dumas that has ever been translated into English. And while he is best known in this land for the rowdy boy sagas The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas penned many works in which women are at the center, something that would presumably be of interest to Malia and Sasha. Rather than heaving Proust their way, Sarkozy on his next sojourn could instead present the presidential daughters with works like Olympe de Cleves, Comtesse de Charny, Marguerite de Valois, La Dame de Monsoreau, The Regent’s Daughter, The Queen’s NecklaceThe War of Women, or The Page of The Duke of Savoy.

Then there’s always Colette . . . .

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3 Responses to “French Letters”


  1. 1 smelfo May 30, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Bravo. You weigh in about this international flap courageously. Why don’t you send the girls the Dumas?

    signed,
    http://farm1.static.flickr.com/83/226707793_459caf41a3.jpg

  2. 2 smelfo May 30, 2010 at 9:55 am

    P.S. Nice image of the menhirs.

  3. 3 Jacki June 8, 2013 at 1:47 am

    Very nice write-up. I absolutely love this site. Keep writing!


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