Cultural historian Yalom (Birth of the Chess Queen, 2004, etc.) explicates Gallic attitudes toward the not-always-so-tender passion.
Tracing l’amour à la française “from the emergence of romance in the twelfth century until our own era,” the author employs an enjoyably downright style, blending in her own experiences in France over the course of 60 years as well as the personal stories of French friends. She begins with the troubadour poetry that established the idealized conventions of courtly love in medieval France, then moves on to the more cynical trope of gallant love, which emphasized physical passion. The distinction between a true emotional bond and mere lust runs through all of French literature, but they are not necessarily in conflict; Yalom notes the culture’s forthright acceptance of sexual pleasure, so much more problematic for puritanical Anglo-Saxons. The famous union of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who maintained an “essential” love while enjoying “contingent” loves with others, is a 20th-century example of the pragmatic French acknowledgment that marriage and passion don’t always go hand in hand. Yet Yalom finds many examples of French men and women (but mostly women) overwhelmed by all-consuming ardor, from Racine’s Phèdre to the “irresistible force that penetrates through the skin, regardless of its color,” in Marguerite Duras’ novel, The Lover. Yalom also covers homosexual love in the works of Proust, Gide and Colette, and she devotes a chapter to the “yearning for the mother” that fueled some decidedly sexual affairs between young men and older women in the novels of Stendhal, Balzac and others.
Yalom’s prose occasionally seems a bit breathless for an octogenarian author, but her first-person confidences give this an engagingly informal tone that matches the relatively light treatment of its subject.