cover image The French Art of Not Trying Too Hard

The French Art of Not Trying Too Hard

Ollivier Pourriol, trans. from the French by Helen Stevenson. Penguin, $20 (240p) ISBN 978-0-14-313549-4

French novelist Pourriol makes his English-language debut with a disappointing study of the elusive state of ease. For Pourriol, “ease,” or effortlessness, is enigmatic, and, unfortunately, his observations on it are frustratingly contradictory. For instance, achieving a state of grace (or to be “in the zone”) will remain elusive to anyone who tries, pays attention, rehearses, or even thinks about it; and yet one has to train, work smart, and put in “10,000 hours” of practice to become successful at it. Repetitive lessons are extrapolated from the experience of tightrope walkers (to take the first step you must be sure of the last), deep-sea divers, and hypnotists (“elementary dreaming can make effort easy”), as well as the works of Emile “Alain” Chartier, Rene Descartes, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Pourriol’s oversimplified deduction that ease is achieved when one is not thinking is best exemplified by an anecdote about actor Gérard Depardieu, who claim that he acts best when reciting lines in a foreign language he doesn’t know. A later chapter, meanwhile, consists of a retelling of one of Pourriol’s tutoring sessions that devolves into a rambling lecture and summation of the book’s core tenets. Perhaps the recommendation to not try so hard to gain understanding will be of use to readers when trying to parse this unconvincing guide. (Sept.)