Cowboys learn their lit - from the French

France and the US are not exactly best friends right now. So when I learned that arguably the largest symposium of French and American writers ever assembled in the United States was meeting in Tallahassee this winter, I decided to read a well-received contemporary French novel and an American one simultaneously. I wanted to discover some essential difference between the two cultures as well as - who knows? - a possible common ground.

Every night, I read two very different books, alternating chapters as one might follow a bite of grilled fish with a forkful of potato. The French novel was "Atomised," by Michel Houellebecq, the story of two half-brothers, one a molecular biologist and the other a libertine. The real subject, though, is the fragmentation of contemporary society and the transformation of the state into a soulless technocracy. Here's a single sentence that gives a sense of Houellebecq's style and focus: "All across the surface of the globe, a weary, exhausted humanity, filled with self doubt and uncertain of its history, prepared itself as best it could to enter a new millennium."

The other novel on my night table was "The Buffalo Soldier," by American author Chris Bohjalian, which begins with the death of two small girls in a flash flood. In the aftermath, the parents, a highway patrolman and his wife, begin to heal their torn lives, but then the husband has an affair with a woman who becomes pregnant. Again, a representative sentence: "Monday afternoon he switched on his lights and his siren and pressed hard on the accelerator, savoring the fact that he was on the long straightaway just north of New Haven Junction on 7 and the snow and ice had been cleared from the road."

Now, not all French novels are sprawling epics of social transformation, and there's a lot more to American fiction than the quasi-documentary approach. But there's no getting around the fact that different cultures see things differently, and the Houellebecq and Bohjalian novels represent not only dominant trends in their two countries but also a fundamental disparity between the way French and Americans view the world.

Philosophical underpinnings

The essential French philosopher is Descartes, whose "I think, therefore I am" defines humanity as the species that lives in its head. (Even such celebrated contemporaries as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are simply using the tools Descartes handed them.)

And the essential American philosopher is - well, there isn't one. The closest figure to Descartes in this country would be Thomas Jefferson, a statesman whose philosophical beliefs were to his actual practices as the bones are to the body: indispensable, though not the first thing you notice. A Cartesian is happy in his room - in his brain, really. A Jeffersonian is only happy in the world, enjoying life and liberty while pursuing an even greater happiness.

Indeed, our prototypical American is liable to be so here-and-now that she probably couldn't name a contemporary French writer other than Houellebecq, and that only because the latter was sued for defamation by Muslim clerics last year after he called Islam "the stupidest religion." (A Paris court cleared him of the charges.)

The French, on the other hand, with their greater number of competing daily newspapers, many of which have entire sections devoted not just to book reviews but to literature per se, are likely to be much better informed about intellectual and artistic developments in this country.

Cowboy poetry

What's surprising, though, is their taste in current American literature. When the planners of the symposium (which met Feb. 24 to March 1 on the campus of Florida State University) asked the visiting novelists from France what single American author they'd like to meet, the answer was not Saul Bellow or John Updike or Philip Roth or, for that matter, any writer even vaguely like themselves, but Jim Harrison, the notoriously hard-living author of "Legends of the Fall" and other tales of frontier struggle.

Actually, the French have always been enamored of American depictions of cops, cowboys, sharecroppers, and other rugged individualists. Jean Paul Sartre spoke of John Steinbeck and Erskine Caldwell as though they were the equals of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, though today not even English majors read "Cannery Row" or "God's Little Acre" in great numbers.

When symposium participant Didier Daeninckx, whose novel "Meutres pour mémoire" has been translated in the US as "Murder in Memoriam," listed American writers important to the French of his generation, he named Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Hemingway, Richard Wright, Nathaniel West, and Horace McCoy.

This was the only time I've ever seen 20 English professors furrow their brows as they silently mouthed the words "Horace who?" (Make that 21, actually, since I did the same.) McCoy turns out to be the author of "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" the 1935 novel that was made into a movie in 1969. His other tough-guy novels have titles like "No Pockets in a Shroud" and "Corruption City."

And, yes, he too was a favorite of Sartre. After a while, it begins to make sense that the term used to describe books by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Horace McCoy, and other hard-boiled Americans isn't an English word at all but the French "noir."

Opposites attract?

But another symposium participant, American novelist Janet Burroway, pointed out that while the French were discovering American tough-guy writers, their counterparts in this country were devouring the more cerebral works of Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. In the words of symposium organizer Alec Har-greaves, "We all seek our opposite, don't we?"

After five days of readings and panel discussions, the French and American writers agreed on one other thing: In their lifetimes, the past has disappeared, and as there seems to be little interest in planning for a future, the result is just one enormous present.

Suddenly, the Houellebecq and Bohjalian novels didn't seem that far apart to me. The one showed an entire society disintegrating; the other concentrated on a few ordinary people living their lives. Yet in their different ways, each novel is saying, "This is life right now."

And that's why we need to read the French and vice versa, because there's more to life than one novel or one novelist or even any single culture can say.

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