The Notebooks of Major Thompson by Pierre Daninos

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….


Filed under Daninos Pierre, Fiction

7 responses to “The Notebooks of Major Thompson by Pierre Daninos

  1. I must honestly say I couldn’t bring myself to read this. My set of prisms would make for a clash with this book.
    I think that there are no two people as different from each other as the British and the Americans while I would argue the French and the British are much closer but are not aware of it because of the language barrier.
    I don’t know when this was written but would think 40s or 50s.

  2. I chose this book for you because of our nationalities and because it shows a totally different approach than Edith Wharton’s “French Ways and their Meaning” to the same subject: the backbone of a people. Although I think you can’t meet a French and deduct he/she’ll behave according to the book, I can’t deny that there are general tendencies that this book points out in a funny way.

    For me, it is more a light and funny criticism of the French than anything else. Of course, since it was written in 1954, some things are dated. But underneath the apparent out-of-fashion descriptions, I can relate to many of the behaviours he mocks.

    Now, about handshake. In my copy, the chapter is entitled “Le pays du shake-hand.” Nobody says “shake-hand” anymore but it is an example of curious import of English words that only exist in French. For me, handshaking comes from England, I don’t know why I think that or if it is even true.
    About kissing on the cheeks. I’m not sure it was as developed as nowadays in 1954. Things were more formal. Still, there are some rules. You kiss your family and friends on the cheeks to say hello and good-bye. Men only kiss other men when they have a special bond with them (father/son, very close friends) Women get kissed all the time.
    What becomes tricky these days is work. On your first day, you discover if you landed in a no-kiss, kiss-all or kiss-close-colleagues company. No-kiss, is good for me, you don’t have to kiss everyone every morning and especially not the boss. Kiss-all is my former company: you kiss everybody on the cheeks every morning. In the middle, you only kiss the colleagues who have become friends. Since I don’t like almost stranger intruding my personal space and I can’t really hide it, I seem cold too. (we seem to have that in common) In French, to kiss on the cheeks like that is “faire la bise”

    Here is another version of the Cadillac quote by Romain Gary (unescapable, I’m afraid)
    “Tu sais, lorsqu’un Américain roule en Cadillac et qu’un autre Américain le voit, il se dit ‘un jour je roulerai moi aussi en Cadillac’. Mais un Français, quand il se fait narguer par une grosse bagnole, il râle: ‘ce salaud-là, il ne peut pas rouler en deux-chevaux comme tout le monde?’ ”
    Which means
    “You know, when an American drives a Cadillac and that another American sees him, the latter thinks ‘one day, I’ll drive a Cadillac too’. But a French, when someone shows off in a fancy ride, he grumbles ‘that bastard, can’t he drive a 2CV like everybody else?'”
    I’m glad you picked this one because it tells everything about a certain attitude towards life.

    About your intro. In French, “to take the French leave” is “filer à l’anglaise”. I think there are other examples like this one. And as far as veneral disease are concerned, people used to call a condom a “capote anglaise” Don’t ask me why.

    I love chapter 12, “40 millions of sportsmen”, which is still so true. This year, I received a calendar from the union in my company. They printed the dates of the presidential and parliamentary elections on it. So far so good. What I found funny is that they had the dates of the Tour de France and the Olympic Games printed on it too.

    I hope you enjoyed it anyway.

    • My impression was that the target audience is French. I did enjoy it and thought some parts were spot on. I remember the very biased history classes. Britain is not alone in this, of course, but I laughed at the governess describing Napoleon.

      Funny about the kiss ceremony as I think I’d never get it. In some films I see people kiss the air and barely touch cheeks. I was thinking about this when I noticed an article the other day “is it ok to give someone a hug at work?”

      Are the French obsessed with the queen as the author claims?

      • “faire la bise” can be very hypocrit. Kissing the air and barely touching is, I think, a symbol of Parisian upper classes, like women calling their friends “ma chérie” with a high-pitched and snob tone.
        So is it OK to give a hug at work, according to that article?
        I think you have a rather good impression of someone’s character when you shake hands with them.

        I guess the French were more obsessed with the queen in the 1950s than now. It was cleaner before Diana. But still, the last wedding was everywhere and I saw people watching it on TV in shops. I never understood that. I love Montaigne too much: “Sur le plus haut trône du monde, on n’est jamais assis que sur son cul”. (Even on the highest throne, one is only seated on their ass)

        • I didn’t read the article to be honest. The way I look at it, if you have to ask then the answer is NO. Besides I was reading Underground Time: the ultimate toxic workplace novel

  3. leroyhunter

    Why are foreigners so obsessed with the British royals? I’d say it was some kind of subconscious post-colonial malaise, except that clearly doesn’t explain France etc.

    In Ireland there’s a tendency to do the same thing with the US President, but the reasons for that are much more explicit and comprehensible. People still hark on about JFK visiting as if it was some kind of mythical event. Instinctively Irish people seem to class themselves as Democrats, but of course we all still shit a brick when Reagan dropped in in the 80s (happily I was abroad at the time).

    I’m amused by your royal indifference being interpreted as a diss of your own country. Americans have funny ideas about partiotism that don’t seem to make sense to a European perspective.

    • I’m thinking that they are fascinated as they don’t have any: idea.. rent them out.

      I always tell people that I have no time for the royals and we’ll talk again when they get jobs.

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