I have a very clear memory of a history class in which the subject of venereal disease was mentioned. I’ve long since forgotten how the topic started, but I recall the teacher explaining that the French called it, “the English disease,” and the British called it “the French disease.” This memory flooded back as I read The Notebooks of Major Thompson by Pierre Daninos, the second book from a virtual book exchange with Emma. I hadn’t heard of the book before, and since I enjoy comic fiction, I looked forward to reading it. The secondary title to the book is: An Englishman Discovers France and the French, and I suspect Emma selected this particular book as she knows that I enjoy watching films or reading books about people’s behaviour abroad. (Suggestions welcome)
Translated by Robin Farn, the novel includes a number of illustrations by Walter Goetz. The book is written from the viewpoint of Major Marmaduke Thompson, a rather affable fellow who finds himself, in late middle age, married for the second time to a French woman named Martine. He’s now living in France and trying to understand the natives. Several times throughout the book, Thompson references the author as P.C. Daninos–a man “who is naturally distressed that he is not English,” and that Thompson first met when Daninos was a liasion officer of Thompson’s battalion. It is Daninos, according to Thompson, who edits the ‘notebooks.’
Each chapter takes a loose approach to a topic in which Major Thompson attempts to illuminate the differences between the French and the British–the “two most dissimilar peoples on the earth,” and chapter 1: What is a Frenchman? starts with an anecdote of sorts in which Major Thompson claims that a brain surgeon friend of his “opened up an Englishman” in his Harley Street office and found a number of items–most of which are indelibly connected to the British “royal” family. In contrast Thompson begins his definition of the French as a people of vast “contradictions.” He can’t make sense of the fact that this is a nation of Republicans who worship the queen of England. I don’t know enough French people to know if this is true, so I can’t comment on that, but as a relic of the British Empire, Thompson seems a little uneasy about the French Revolution. The topic crops up frequently in his “notebooks” almost as if he’s afraid another revolution might suddenly erupt at any moment, and at one point he calls the French “these guillotiners of kings.” To give you an idea of the sort of humour within the book, here’s a quote:
The American pedestrian who sees a millionaire going past in a Cadillac dreams secretly of the day when he will be driving his own; the French pedestrian who sees a millionaire going past in a Cadillac dreams of the day he will get him out of it and make him walk like everyone else.
He doesn’t say what a British pedestrian would do…
Chapter 4-The Land of the Handshake had me a bit confused. I always see French people kissing each other on the cheeks, and I’m not sure of the etiquette of that custom. Thompson argues that “for the French–and for many others–England is the land of the handshake.” He then argues against this position and states that the French have perfected the art of handshaking to include “various nuances.”
According to Thompson’s fictional biography he appears to have retired from the army in 1945, and so he is a relic of the British Empire, serving in India, Palestine, and Egypt. He makes a perfect stock character for an Englishman, a great stereotype, and yet at the same time he is a bit dated. I, for one, can’t relate to some of his “Englishness” as his background is pro-royal, aristocratic privilege. But at the same time, I can relate entirely to other sections: The Case of Count Renauld de la Chasselière in which Thompson describes the “silences” of the British, for example. I’m frequently told I’m ‘aloof’ and ‘cold’.
Readers brings their own experiences to the books they read, and so I read this book through a rather complicated prism. I’m probably a different sort of reader for this book as I’m British but live in America, and so while I read Thompson’s attempts to understand the French, I brought in my own experiences of being British in yet another foreign country. When Thompson made comparisons between the French and the British attitudes towards royalty for example, I found myself marvelling all over again about the royal worship I’ve encountered in America. For some reason, most Americans seem to think I should worship the royal family, and that I glue myself to the television set for every so-called royal wedding as if I feel some connection. I have literally been lectured by Americans for not having ‘proper respect’ which is hilarious to me since America had a revolution, ostensibly (yes we can argue that other motives were afoot) to get rid of the monarchy. But I digress….
My favorite chapter was My Dear Hereditary Enemy in which Thompson discusses the upbringing of his son and the dreaded governess Miss ffyfth–a formidable woman whose history lessons include a pro-British (read anti-French) version of history:
Meanwhile, Miss ffyfth was striding onward through history. She was sorry for Joan of Arc, who was burned as a witch, but she was careful to point out that the tribunal which condemned her was composed of Frenchmen, and that King Charles VII did nothing to aid the girl (monstrous!). Soon she would get to Napoleon. Without even speaking of Trafalgar or Waterloo; Wellington had already beaten Napoleon at vimieiro–remember: Vi-miei-ro. In the end, the tiresome little man with his funny hat had never been able to realize his dream, which was to go to England. For there was the sea–la mer–and, above all, the Br–the Brr–the British navy, dear….