In How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance, scholar Marilyn Yalom analyzes matters of the heart in French literature from the 17th to the 21st century.
Generations of young French readers, as you say, have learned about love through the classics. What books influenced your own perspective on love in your teenage years?
I was most influenced by women writers: Louisa May Alcott in Little Women, Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre, and Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights. All sentiment and no sex!
You explain the roots of the difference between American and French culture when it comes to aspects of love. In the re-reading that you did for this book, what surprised you?
Most of the books held up on a second or third or fourth reading, for example, The Princess of Cleves, Dangerous Liaisons, The Lover, and of course Madame Bovary. But I was surprised to see that Rousseau’s New Eloise was so long-winded and even boring at times. George Sand is still impressive as a person, as were Sartre and Beauvoir in their early relationship.
What do you think keeps Americans puritanical and enables the French to accept almost anything?
The French believe that love is embedded in the flesh. They have little tolerance for ethereal ideas of nonconsummated love. They prize the sensual in love as in all other aspects of life (e.g., food, wine, and fashion). They believe that erotic love has its own justification and do not coat it over with morality the way that we Americans do.
American women, in my experience, cringe at the thought of willfully ignoring extramarital affairs. Do you see a literary root for Anne Sinclair’s behavior (in last year’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn case)? Is there a disconnect between her feminism and her nonreaction to his dalliances?
She has taken the position of many French wives in that they turn a blind eye to their husbands’ affairs. However, since the 12th century, with Tristan and Iseut and Lancelot and Guinevere, the more prominent literary model has been that of a husband, wife, and her lover.
Has the Strauss-Kahn affair changed the French attitude toward the sexual behavior of their public figures?
Public figures will certainly be more cautious, at least for a while. I hope that French women will be more outspoken in refusing to exchange sexual favors for professional advancement. French feminists have used the Strauss-Kahn incident to further their agenda, but it remains to be seen if their outcry will produce results.