Book Review: They Eat Horses, Don’t They? The Truth about the French by Piu Marie Eatwell
(Head of Zeus) HB £15.99 eBook £7.99
Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams
I was very struck by the opening lines of Piu Marie Eatwell’s prologue in which she writes of what had been intended as a weekend break in Paris but which has now extended for over ten years living in France, meeting and marrying her husband, working, and raising her three children there. She writes, “It was on a sunny August bank holiday that I checked into a hotel in the Latin Quarter […] I never did get to stay in that hotel (spending that whole first weekend with my future husband).”
Inherent in those lines, for me, was what I have always found about Paris that it is both everything I expect it to be and nothing that I expect it to be (as I imagine French visitors to/residents of London equally find). Eatwell doesn’t elucidate further about that weekend, but reading it one does imagine that in the lead up to going away the Left Bank hotel was a central tenet in the dream of an idealised, romantic, cinematically perfect Parisian weekend… but in reality it became purely a left luggage locker, as she met the man she would later marry elsewhere in the city. Although, of course, meeting your future husband on a weekend break in Paris does rather compound the perception of Paris as the most romantic city on earth.
As a student at Université Paris IV, despite it being the 2000s not the 1940s/50s, my friends at home in Britain envisaged that my time would be spent clad in a black roll neck striking existential poses in Left Bank cafés that had long been artistic and intellectual hang-outs. Whilst it’s true that pre- and post- lectures I would go for coffee a lot with French student friends in Saint-Germain-des-Prés the favoured rendezvous was Starbucks in Odéon… which isn’t to say the conversations weren’t as erudite or that there wasn’t just as much people watching.
As Eatwell writes, “one can still check out Les Deux Magots or Café de Flore, if forking out a fortune for a continental breakfast is not an issue. But don’t expect to find a philosopher sitting next to you if you do.” This is in the section of the book in which she explores the reality of Myths about Paris, in this case that, ‘The Left Bank is a haven of writers and intellectuals’. The book as whole explores 45 preconceptions about France that are widely held in Britain and also to a degree in the USA.
Ranging from the titular and of the moment ‘They eat horses, don’t they?’ to myths about French women: being the most stylish in the world/not getting fat/not shaving, from ‘The French are obsessed with sex’ and that their children don’t throw food, through to ‘The French are a nation of cheese-eating surrender mokeys’, ‘Paris is the European capital of canine excreta’, and ‘The Paris Métro stinks’.
In each case Eatwell, who trained as a barrister and worked in chambers in London, before working for international law firms in London and Paris, explores the background and evidence for each cultural claim and then gives a verdict on each as to whether they are straightforwardly true or false, or somewhere contradictorily between the two, or equally whether they were once true but no longer are. Her ruling on the veracity is then carried at the end of each entry in a caption next to a Myth Evaluation logo. This is a fun device and often brings extra illumination.
I particularly liked her Myth Evaluation to ‘The Paris Métro stinks: “True: The Parisian Métro still smells most peculiar, although garlic and Gitanes have now been replaced by unusual chemical odours. However, for complex socio-cultural reasons comprehensible only to Left Bank intellectuals and Deconstructionist philosophers, the unique and irrepressible odour of the Paris Métro is not noxious, but apparently – in anthropological terms – a nexus of urban experiences encompassing alienation, excitement, repulsion, danger”.
The book is as thoroughly engaging as it is wonderfully well researched. Eatwell has drawn on a wealth of sources including books, periodicals, company and governmental surveys, statistics, reports, films and music, interviewing/statement taking from almost everyone she spoke to, be they English or French, and also her own observations and experience garnered from living in France for over a decade. Writing with wit, erudition, insight, and a lightness of touch (I am trying to ignore the part of my brain that is insisting on making a soufflé allusion here) They Eat Horses, Don’t They? is highly readable and personable whilst also being a fascinating, immaculately considered and referenced discourse on its theme.
In considering her findings at the end of the book, Eatwell who was born in Calcutta but raised in Britain, and studied at Oxford University, explains that although writing the book taught her a great deal more about France and the French it also “taught me even more about myself – or rather, I should say, about us, the Anglo-Saxons” and also that the relationship between Britain and France has always been very different to Britain’s relationship with any other country. “Underlying all these myths we construct about France,” she writes, “there lies a romantic and indefinable yearning… a sense of emulation, jealousy and desire”.
Her idea chimes with a very similar thought that had struck me when I was again studying outside Britain, this time in Finland (underscoring the Herderian idea of gaining insights into one’s nationality when abroad) – although I would suggest that the feelings she describes go both ways across the Channel.
One morning in the student accommodation kitchen I glanced across at the television – the sound was muted but the news was showing then French President, Jacques Chirac, and British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, arriving at the unveiling of the Airbus A380, in France. Both leaders made their way along the front row of seats from opposite ends, warmly greeting everyone they passed along the way but studiously not making eye contact with each other. When they arrived at their seats, next to each other in the centre, they made a great play of not greeting each other, other than a fleeting ‘covert’ glance, and then sat down taking great pains to do so at oblique angles to each other. This was representative of diplomatic bad feeling at the time, but what hit me watching the images without commentary was how extraordinarily coquettish it looked.
As though Britain and France are the archetypal boy and girl in the playground hitting each other, when in fact they want to kiss each other, making up and spreading bad stories about each other in the fear that someone might realise their true feelings.
Reading They Eat Horses, Don’t They? provides a fascinating insight into this love/hate affair that has played out across the Channel and across the centuries, and I heartily recommend the book.