Updated Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 07:01 AM
'How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance'
by Marilyn Yalom
HarperPerennial, 416 pp., $15.99
Few things define the French more vividly than romance and love.
For hundreds of years, the French have obsessed over love and sex, in art, literature and poetry. From the middle ages to modern day, French culture has played an outsized role in fashioning concepts of chivalry, gallantry, and appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) relations between men and women. Even in English, we turn to French to speak of love: "French kissing," "liaison," or "rendezvous."
In "How The French Invented Love" author Marilyn Yalom surveys French literature through the ages, tracing the development of the concept of "love" and "romance." A French professor working on "gender research" at Stanford University, she is well suited to the task, displaying an easy familiarity with 900 years of French literature.
To the French, the story of Abelard and Heloise is as familiar as Romeo and Juliet are to Americans or the British. In 1115, he was a 37-year-old cleric, philosopher and famously popular teacher; she was a brilliant 15-year-old niece of a church official. They became lovers, were married, then became victims of an angry uncle who castrated Abelard. She became a nun; he a monk. But their correspondence burned with a passion she could not quench, and 900 years later, still smolders.
Edmond Rostand's play, Cyrano de Bergerac, is the most frequently performed French play in history. Cyrano, witty and articulate, but cursed with coarse looks, sacrificed his own love for Roxane to assist his friend Christian, who coveted the same woman but who had no gift for language. With Cyrano's help, Christian won her to his side, then died a tragic death. Roxane retreated to a convent and only after many long years and on his deathbed does she discover that it was Cyrano all along who spoke for Christian.
Yalom surveys the delicate art of seduction, perfected by the French royalty who seemingly spent more time focused on the opposite sex than the, ahem, affairs of state. In 1782, for example, Choderlos de Laclos published "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," a radically different portrayal of love. Far from a romance, the novel traces the story of two ex-lovers who use sex as a competitive game, leaving their degraded "conquests" in their wake. The book remains required reading in French high schools (imagine the outcry if added to the curriculum of an American high school). But it was an apt critique of the Ancien Régime on the eve of the French Revolution.
Yalom covers the famous love letters of star-crossed lovers, gay love, republican love in the time of the Revolution, and the "sentimental education" offered by the sexual initiation of a younger man by an older woman. It's a fascinating short course through French literature, history and changing attitudes toward sex and love, all of which heavily influenced western thought over the last millennium.
But even so, French and American perspectives remain markedly different. Americans scratched their heads in wonder at the state funeral for French President François Mitterand in 1996, attended by both his wife, Danielle, and his longtime mistress, Anne Pingeot. The French, in turn, were baffled by the impeachment of an American President for an office dalliance with an intern.
But as Yalom demonstrates, these are the very questions that have been debated throughout history, much of it defined by French literature, culture and language. The French may not have "invented" love but they certainly have spent a lot of time exploring its application.