And God Created the French
Jeffrey J. Cormier is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in Canadian society
at McGill University.
Louis-Bernard Robitaille has been an acute connoisseur of all things
French: French literature, French music and film, French politics, and
French social habits. Every morning for the past few years, readers of
Montreal’s La Presse have opened their Sunday paper to read his
ironic—and more often than not caustic—reflections on their
francophone cousins. So in 1995, when the original French version was
published, this book became a bestseller.
It is easy to see why. Robitaille’s gift is his uncanny ability to
render somewhat banal and stereotypical national characteristics into
witty, stylized prose. He can be bitingly critical, especially when
dealing with the “Americanization” of French culture (think of
EuroDisney or the penchant of the average French teenager for American
music), but also unapologetic in his praise (as when he interviews
Catherine Deneuve). Their politics are tribal, their social codes
mysterious, their history suffocating—yet we love them all the same,
he seems to say.
Therein lies the major problem with this current English version of the
book: who exactly is the “we”? It is easy to understand the appeal
of Robitaille’s half-hearted anthropological observations for a
francophone Quebecker; after all, they may speak the same language. Or
perhaps there lingers some kind of unconscious collective inferiority
complex, something that seems to motivate much of what Robitaille
writes. While this is a very polished book, it is difficult to say who
would be interested in it outside a small circle of francophiles (who,
most likely, will want to read the original French version).
Of course, the appeal might be Robitaille himself, in which case it
would have been nice to see some reference to where and when the
articles were previously published. The chapter dealing with the
popularity of Canadian authors in France, the ex-patriot Mavis Gallant,
and the mutual misunder-standings between France and Quebec , however,