More from Englishman Clarke on the cultural collision he underwent upon his move to France.
As in A Year in the Merde (2005), narrator Paul West stands in for the author. Still itchy in his French skin, Paul finds that when he starts to display signs of outrage, his French girlfriend reminds him, “You are English. You must show your phlegm.” But he is slowly becoming Gallified, learning “how to barge in front of someone to nab a Parisian café table.” Paul is trying to start an English-style tea room in Paris, and he describes all the expected bureaucratic travails, but what is on his mind first and foremost is sex. Yes, he knows how to enjoy a sunset and tuck into the food and tip a glass (he’s turned that last into an art form), but his eye is keen on anatomy. Even when looking at his girlfriend’s mother, he observes that “her buttocks were bouncing around in the nightdress like two bald men trying to escape from a tent.” And to his specific amorous interest, he brings a Wodehousean turn of phrase (if ever Wodehouse had talked of sex): “As soon as your fingers so much as brushed against each other’s skin, the other parts of your body start saying they’d like to join in with this skin-brushing business.” One minute he is worried that his girlfriend has altogether too much knowledge about erections, the next he is appreciative of another woman’s eyes, “curacao blue and apparently back-lit.” Though a slave to his libido, Paul is also a comic, canny observer of French rural customs and English business practices alike. Plus ça change, plus ç’est la même chose.
Graceful in his inappropriateness, tactless only with his readers, Paul as hero provides plenty of good, plain-old inept fun.