French Seduction: An American’s Encounter with France, Her Father, and the Holocaust (Carroll & Graf, $23.95) is feminist art historian Eunice Lipton’s passionate attempt to reconcile opposing characteristics in French culture and society. An amalgam of history and personal narrative (as was the author’s wonderful study of Manet’s model in Alias Olympia), French Seduction scrutinizes both what is so enticing and so repellent about France. Lipton, whose father romanticized Paris for her and who today lives there half the year, has sustained a rocky love affair with this most sensuous of European cities.
Lipton is nothing if not attuned to her senses, and Paris satisfies them on a grand scale. “What is one to make of the 350 cheeses fabricated all over France?” she asks, giving us proof — as she often does in this book — that the French are eager to serve their appetites and are endlessly resourceful in doing so. Yet Lipton’s love of France plays on her conscience and, it seems, drove her to write this book.
The author tries to broker a peace between both her own conflicts and those of her beloved France. She skillfully draws from examples in history, literature, and art to establish the great duality of France’s nature: on the one hand idealistic, generous, refined, enlightened, and chic; on the other racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic — a former leader in the arts quickly sinking into complacency. While she is drawn to paintings of the leisure class engaged in sybaritic pleasures, she is tugged back to her working-class roots and to her indignation over social injustices. But where Lipton can — and does — acknowledge her contradictions, she makes it clear the French are not so willing to concede theirs.
Behaviors that challenge the ideals of the French Republic are in constant evidence. The Republic stands for collective rights and is famous for taking care of its citizens; its social system provides a modicum of security from cradle to grave. But to enjoy what France has to offer, Lipton points out, you have to observe its rules. If you are a French citizen of Algerian descent, you are obliged to speak French and play down your Muslim identity. Better yet, you’d best remain unemployed in your high-rise ghetto in the suburbs while the French French revel in their state jobs that are guaranteed for life.
That anti-Semitism has had an insidious influence on French history and has survived into the present is not news, but Lipton puts it in the context of France’s long legacy of disdaining and fearing the Other. The warm reception of African- American soldiers and expatriates, for instance, was perhaps more a matter of the French impressing themselves with their adventurous spirit than it was the result of true open-mindedness.
Lipton’s tough political-mindedness is what makes this memoir expansive. Her discursive style is for the most part redeemed by her scholarship, although she is less successful at integrating reflections about her father into her thesis. Still, he was a difficult man who treated her with a baffling inconsistency, and her relationship with France does have echoes of this earlier, primal relationship — which is why we believe her when she says, “seduction and betrayal, I’m afraid, is a trajectory I call home.”
Patricia Grossman is the author of five novels. Brian in Three Seasons won a Ferro-Grumly Award for best LGBT fiction for 2006.