America, with its clarities and contradictions, has always fascinated French writers. But the number of books published in the last ten years shows a renewed interested in l’Amérique, as this brief sampling of novels can attest.
The Francophone world might have been puzzled by Jimmy Carter, astonished by Ronald Reagan, annoyed by George W.H. Bush, flummoxed by Bill Clinton, and appalled by George W. Bush, but they did not know what to make of Barack Obama, the African-American with a seemingly unperturbable demeanor who was equally at ease discussing world crises and college basketball standings. Obama’s two mandates spurred an outburst of fiction written in French about the United States, some serious, some playful but in every case bent on reimagining the American experience.
Eric Vuillard’s Tristesse de la terre (2014) purports to be an exploration of the American character. Initially, it deals with one of the country’s most successful cabotins. Buffalo Bill was an inspired con man. He invented the “Wild West,” destroyed herds of buffalo, exploited Indians, and proposed a tidied-up version of the massacre at Wounded Knee. There is nothing particularly new about this. But Vuillard does not stop with Buffalo Bill. He continues with a brief addendum focusing on the long forgotten Wilson Alwyn Bentley, a New Englander who quietly and successfully devoted his life to the study of snowflakes. He made important scientific discoveries without having the slightest clue how he might profit from his findings. In Tristesse de la terre, Vuillard draws no startling conclusions about the American character. He seems content just allowing readers to contemplate two extremes of American comportment, each in its own way amazing.
Joël Dicker (Swiss) published a pastiche of the American detective novel: La vérité sur l’affaire Harry Québert (2012). The sleuth is a young Jewish novelist, Marcus Goldman, currently suffering from writer’s block. When he discovers that his mentor, Harry Québert, has been accused of murdering his 15-year-old mistress, Marcus rushes to his aid. What follows is a series of improbable adventures worthy of a television series intended to run one season. True to an American TV format, Marcus is seconded by a gruff, but kindly, Black detective. Eventually, they establish more or less the truth on the affair and more or less prove that Harry was innocent. This novel demonstrates a rather thorough knowledge of small town New England, so the reader can only assume an authorial clin d’œil when Marcus strolls into the local diner and orders a cognac.
In Théorie de la vilaine petite fille (2014), Hubert Haddad examines a group of American “stars” now forgotten. In 1848, Kate Fox claimed to be possessed of spiritual powers permitting her to communicate with the dead. Her sister Margaret soon discovered similar capacities and the oldest sister, Leah, grasped the financial advantages of this “spiritual gift.” For many years the sisters profited from their alleged talent, with Kate apparently believing she possessed some unique power. The women always attracted large crowds. Haddad makes no sustained effort to separate the intertwined strands of the genuine and the fraudulent in Margaret and especially Kate. He allows the phenomenon of the Fox sisters to remain a fascinating, yet very American, enigma.
Elvis is one of the greatest American icons. When Caroline De Mulder (Belgian) in Bye bye Elvis (2014) chronicles the King’s early life and success, few Elvis fans will experience any revelations. However, when she introduces the reclusive John White holed up in Paris, the story moves to another level. Oscar Wilde once suggested that when good Americans die, they go to Paris. De Mulder does him one better, by suggesting they might get there a bit earlier than predicted. Could the mysterious John White actually be the man who allegedly departed this life in Graceland on August 16, 1977?
No work better epitomizes the new fiction about the United States than Dominique Falkner’s Ça n’existe pas l’Amérique (2010). It chronicles the narrator’s trek from Chicago to Missoula, Montana. During his travels he encounters racism, remnants of Native American culture, and myriad churches. He also meets distinctive Americans. Dr. Evermore is the inventor of the Forevertron, a spaceship built entirely with scrap iron from his junk yard. It is a gigantic catapult intended to propel his wife and himself away from the earth when the time is right. Dr. Evermore’s response to the obvious question about departure dates remains vague.
Later, Falkner pauses to pay his respects to the memory of America’s only monarch. James Stang, born in 1813, converted to Mormonism at an early age, eventually founding his own community. A vision told Stang he was destined to be a great king ruling over a new church located on Beaver Island, Michigan. His charisma and self-coronation attracted a following. Unwisely, his first royal decree restored polygamy which led to his abrupt demise at the hands of two irate husbands. Still, he remains the United States’ only native-born king.
Falkner’s title is what makes his book typical of recent fiction about the United States. America, as a monolithic, homogenized entity does not exist and never did. Rather, myriad Americas exist with all their differences, dissonances and occasional harmonies. These are the clarities and contradictions that fascinated French writers during the Obama years. With Trump’s arrival, this enthusiasm waned, and the number of new novels about l’Amérique radically diminished. In Hervé Le Tellier’s Goncourt-winning L’Anomalie (2020), there is an American president, impatient with details and prone to dramatic public gestures of dubious merit, but his role is minor.
If Trump and his era inspired little fiction, it was probably because, despite all the flamboyance and drama of these four years, it was from a French perspective very much of a return to business as usual. The America First slogans, the repeated boasts that “America” was stronger than everyone else, the tendency to try and bully allies and to make unilateral decisions others were expected to endorse, combined with Trump’s tantrums and often infantile behavior, revived longstanding caricatures of the United States and its inhabitants.
The rights and wrongs of American behavior were argued most often and more effectively in public media by journalists, scholars and television talking heads, rather than creators of fiction. Polemics replaced narratives as the interest in investigating the ambiguities of the American character yielded to a desire for factual information. Potentially amusing and even perceptive speculation about the goings-on across the Atlantic Ocean fell out of fashion. Trump’s antics created worldwide attention; in many quarters he seemed to represent a break with tradition, but for literary artists he might have appeared to be just a louder, more vulgar version of a longstanding and simplistic image of l’Amérique.
William Cloonan is Richard Chapell Professor of Modern Languages (Emeritus) at Florida State University. His most recent book is Frères Ennemis: The French in American Literature, Americans in French Literature (Liverpool University Press, 2018). Portions of this article were drawn from this book.