Despite endless exposure, the French mystery remains intact: a language that, in its purest expressions, defies translation, and a ravenous intellectual passion from which Anglo-Saxons generally avert their gaze. Often repulsed, rarely encouraged, the British have had to satisfy their intense curiosity about the French as best they might- hence the variety of interpretations ranging from ‘Oo, là là’ and the beret basque, to loud contempt for the Revolution and all its works. What little curiosity about us the French may have had seems to have vanished with the furled umbrella and stiff upper lip: who remembers Colonel Bramble and Major Thompson, those creations of Maurois and Daninos, heroes of the only French novels about England to set beside the rows and rows of English novels about France, from Dickens and Henry through Charles Morgan and Alex Comfort to Julian Barnes and Sebastian Faulks?
The inaccessibility of quintessential Frenchness comes out in the translation of novels into English. The looser and more concrete and localised – and often the less French – a novel may be, the more chance it has of finding favour on this side of the Channel. Les Miserables, Proust, Le