Contributed to Raceweb by “High Rise”
First published in 1955 then again in 1957 – this is a musing on the differences between the French and English as seen through the eyes of the Major himself.
Daninos first came across the English when acting as a French army liaison officer with the BEF during its retreat to Dunkirk, through which time he seems to have formed an affection for the genre of the typical Indian Army public school Brit. Indeed, he later maintained that the major was a combination of several officers that he had met. Certainly, the picture that adorns the front of the book is stereotypical of a foreigner’s view of English major. As Englishmen, however, we are able to spot many things that are wrong. The major is dressed in a very neat three-piece (of course) tweed suit, but this is paired with a bowler hat and an umbrella implying London wear, which it would not have been. Moreover, combining a check suit, a striped tie, and a striped shirt is something that any self-respecting major of my father’s generation would recoil at. Fashion faux pas aside, the Major has a real twinkle to his eye and is clearly a nice man. The twinkle may also come from the fact that the major has seen the light and recently married a Frenchwoman -of which more later.
Daninos uses the Major to describe the French to us in an affectionate but incisive manner. Chapters are devoted to driving, food, and the funniest of all to the French, an obsession with handshaking. All of these foibles are seen through the prism of the Major’s jaundiced eye which is coupled with his refusal to believe that anything the French do is in any way the equivalent to the English way of doing things. However, halfway through the Major writes a chapter that details his first marriage to the aristocratic Ursula. They met through a mutual love of horses but the marriage is loveless, and seldom consummated one. It grinds to a halt and then she falls off a horse (prewar) whilst the Major is still stationed in India. This allows him (post-war) to marry a Frenchwomen called Martine. The passion she brings to the marital bed completely beguiles the Major and he takes up the residency in France that allows him to be the mouthpiece of Daninos’s affectionate satire. When he repeats the enthusiastic inquiries that she uses to see if he has enjoyed himself as much as she has, he observes that Ursula would simply have asked if he “felt better”. Unsurprisingly, from that moment he becomes a convinced Francophile.
The second book is narrated mostly by Daninos himself with the Major demanding the occasional chapter to argue that the writer is being too hard on the stiffness of the English and on the impossibility of any Frenchman being able to understand either the country or its customs. Martine accompanies the Major on a visit to his cold house in Hampshire as do their friends the Pochets, together with Daninos. Increasingly one can sense that the Major is starting to doubt whether he really wants to live in England although he is determined to win the argument that his two sons by Martine be educated in the public school system, an argument in which he is destined for defeat. The Major remains a proud man but he becomes more French at each page. The final part of the second volume is devoted to a visit that all five of them undertake to America. One can imagine that the Americans come in for some stick and they do. This is the weakest part of the two books since Americans have been satirised before and by better writers but there is an underlying gentleness to the writing that makes it affectionate and so makes for a more incisive analysis than biting sarcasm can ever achieve.
The end of the book is really very touching, as the writer urges us to allow for the fact we all like to feel unique, special, and important and so must be allowed to do so.
Amen to that.