The Rules: Version Française
By CAROLINE WEBER
How the French Play the Game of Life
By Elaine Sciolino
Illustrated. 338 pp. Times Books/Henry Holt & Company. $27.
In “De la Séduction” (“On Seduction”), the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard defined his subject as “the mastery of the symbolic universe.” His point was that in contrast to political power, which involves “the mastery of the real universe,” seduction is a deft manipulation of rituals and codes, “a never ending game” that seducer and seduced play for its own sake, delighting in its elegant formulas and subtle challenges. Understood in this way, seduction is less a means to sexual conquest than an end in itself, an exquisitely refined form of social interaction. As the celebrity intellectual (and self-styled séducteur) Bernard-Henri Lévy has put it: “Civilization is seduction. What separates man from the animals is seduction.”
If all of this sounds terribly highfalutin and Gallic, well, it is. According to Elaine Sciolino, the American-born author of “La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life,” the intricately, often rigidly formalized pursuit of pleasure constitutes France’s “unofficial ideology, a guiding principle codified in everyday assumptions and patterns of behavior so well established and habitual that they are automatic.” Automatic, that is, to the French — but obscure, confounding and sometimes exasperating to outsiders, a group in which Sciolino, a Paris correspondent and former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, readily includes herself. Armed with an expatriate’s sociological curiosity and a Rolodex full of A-list names, she sets out to navigate the “complex maze” of unwritten rules and unspoken assumptions that inform many of the French capital’s fabled enticements: food and wine, lingerie and fashion, clever badinage and suave gallantry. In each of these areas, she uncovers the sophisticated protocol that holds sway — and that serves not just to distinguish the (foreign) ignoramus from the (native) initiate, but also “to regulate the daily interplay of seduction” that is, ultimately, the Parisian’s raison d’être.
At its best, “La Seduction” crackles with the sharp, rueful wit of an outsider who has achieved some insight into Gallic dos and don’ts largely by running afoul of them herself. Elaborating, for instance, on the truism that “in Paris, women and men are supposed to please each other on the street,” and thus never go out in public without looking impeccably put together, she offers herself as a comic counter-example. One weekend afternoon, while making cookies with her daughters, Sciolino realizes she has run out of butter, and so she decides to make an impromptu run to the store clad in flour-coated jogging gear. But no sooner does she venture out into her genteel and elegant neighborhood than she bumps into an acquaintance from the French Foreign Ministry who, giving her the once-over, promptly makes “what he considered an important point with as much seriousness as if he were delivering diplomatic démarche to a recalcitrant ally. ‘The rue du Bac is not the Upper West Side.’ ” To her indignant — and quintessentially American — reply, “This is my neighborhood . . . so I can dress however I want,” the diplomat ripostes: “You can. But you shouldn’t.”
Its humor aside, this brief exchange expresses with neat precision the Gallic approach to virtually all arenas in which seduction reigns — or should, in the French view, reign — supreme. You can, the erstwhile Chanel model and muse Inès de la Fressange informs Sciolino, remain faithful to your husband instead of taking a lover — but you shouldn’t. (“You have your foundation as a couple, a history, a marriage. You’ve built something you can be proud of, and this tiny romance in Paris is not going to disrupt it.”) You can wear under-things that are “sporty, a neutral color, and without lace” — but you shouldn’t. (Why should you, when a visit to the luxe lingerie purveyor Chantal Thomass reveals that you can just as easily enhance the erotic by making “elaborately constructed and decorated panties and bras” a part of your daily uniform?) You can, believing that you’re obeying French dining etiquette, say Bon appétit at the start of a meal — but you shouldn’t. (As Sciolino correctly notes, “it’s too direct a reference to the body.”) You can treat food as mere fuel, rather than as a source of aesthetic and sensual gratification — but you shouldn’t. (Under the tutelage of Guy Savoy, a Michelin-starred chef, the author learns to savor even such improbable treats as sautéed carrot leaves.) Time and again, an artful cultivation of enjoyment trounces those dread American defects — prudery, pragmatism and clumsy naïveté — and shows that “even the ordinary can be made exceptional.”
As appealing as it may be, the Frenchness-as-seduction model has its drawbacks, most recently showcased by the former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s indictment on charges of sexual assault in New York. As it happens, Sciolino mentions Strauss-Kahn’s long history as a reputed womanizer — and the blind eye his compatriots have, until recently at least, chosen to turn to it. Although of course Sciolino couldn’t have anticipated the current scandal, her inclusion of Strauss-Kahn in the category of “seductive” leaders raises questions about the distinction between “pleasurable” and “predatory.”
Even on less controversial topics, the book’s “seductiveness” thesis is applied so broadly and indiscriminately by both the author and those she interviews that it ceases to mean much of anything at all: “the human body is the basic tool of seduction”; the kiss is a “natural weapon in seduction”; “the meal is an instrument of seduction”; “voice is a fantastic arm of seduction”; “perfume can play a central role in a seduction campaign”; Versailles “is a place built for seduction”; “maybe rudeness is a perverse form of seduction”; “what is diplomacy if not one never ending seduction?” Unfortunately, such sweeping formulaic statements violate one of the most important laws of séduction à la française, as defined by one of Sciolino’s own favorite sources, the advertising mogul and power-broker Jacques Séguéla: “The real seduction, in the end, is in words.” The author herself confirms this truism when she notes, apropos of “verbal seduction,” that “for those who master this art, life can be more interesting, more rewarding and more pleasurable, although often less efficient than going directly to the goal.” Carefully researched and lucidly argued, “La Seduction” develops a wonderfully suggestive theory of French pleasure, but in practice, its sometimes schematic thinking and clunky prose would have benefited from a touch more je ne sais quoi — just a little soupçon of seductive allure.
Caroline Weber, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is the author of “Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.”