VIVE LA DIFFERÈNCE…

With all the current brouhaha about Brexit and whether we were ever Europeans or even how many banks will relocate to Paris, I’m often reminded of the disparity in the reception my book Women received in this country against the reaction when it was published in France. To give a flavour of how English literary establishment reacted, I quote from an article by Siobhan Crozier in a frenzy of condemnation of Women when she stated it was ‘more pornographic than the Sunday Sport’. In writing her essay, she seemed to lose her marbles entirely.

Attallah gored [sic – ‘gorged’] himself on these women in long ‘questing’ interviews with those he’d enveigled into his master plan, the ones who still haven’t learnt to say no. He directs them to their fake marble pedestals as if he’s running a literary Miss World and then flays them of their private thoughts.

We are left pondering how many of Attallah’s subjects wish they’d had more sense for many of them emerge from the exercise more naked than their sisters in the Sunday Sport.

The person who derives the real satisfaction from Women has to be Naim Attallah himself, for many of his subjects must be cringing at what they’ve revealed to him.

He’s had the pleasure which he anticipated in meeting all these women whom he already admired. There’s no craft in it – it’s titillation in a fancy package for readers of the Sunday Times who can’t allow themselves a peek into the Sunday Sport. Attallah emerges from it not as a writer but like a schoolboy after a binge in the sweetshop. In his case, it’s his ego and not his belly that’s inflated.

Following the publication of Women in October 1987, I was approached by Carrere, the French media group and publishers, with a view to producing a French edition. Their only stipulation was that I should interview an additional thirty Frenchwomen almost immediately. They were in a great hurry to bring out the French-language version in March 1988, a mere six months after the appearance of the English edition. It looked an almost impossible task. They hired a team of translators to work round the clock on the English text while I frantically set about conducting the necessary interviews. The choice of women and arrangements to interview them were all done in conjunction with my own office in Paris. It was just left to me to brush up on my French and plunge into another voyage of discovery with renewed vigour and optimism. Strangely I had remained unaffected by the adverse critical reception I had received in the UK and felt undaunted by the idea that the whole thing might involve a repetition of the experience in France. My new list included writers, bankers, artists and stars of stage and screen, such as Arletty and Emmanuelle Béart, who had recently starred in Manon des Sources, the continuation of Claude Berri’s hit film based on Marcel Pagnol’s novel Jean de Florette, with Daniel Auteuil. Also there, among the politicians, was Edith Cresson, who was to become the first woman prime minister of France not many years later.

Despite the shortage of time, the French edition was published as planned and Carrere arranged for a launch party to be held on 22 March at the famous Parisian night-spot, Le Privilège. It was a most glamorous occasion, extensively covered by the French media and attended by hordes of celebrities. I was seated at dinner between Hélène Rochas, the parfumière, and Joan Juliet Buck, the American writer and then editor of French Vogue. The room teemed with beautiful women. Over the next few days I appeared on French television, discussing the book with some of the stars who featured in its pages. The French critics were unanimous in their plaudits, in sharp contrast with their counterparts in the UK. It was impossible to open a French newspaper without seeing some reference to the book. I felt euphoric at this unexpected show of appreciation and enthusiasm. And to crown it all, the book sold extremely well in France and our efforts were richly rewarded.

Looking through my archives, the retrospective impression is that more was written about the French edition than the already phenomenal amount about the English edition in Britain. The difference in coverage lay in the fact that while the Gallic approach was constructive the trend in the book’s home country was certainly destructive. Even after the furore surrounding the original publication of Women in hardback had died down, the appearance of a paperback edition in Britain a year later precipitated the same spitting of venom as before. It was as if those who had missed their chance at first publication now climbed aboard to make their voices heard from the bandwagon. But this was a new wave of women, some not so well known as their predecessors of a year earlier. They entered the fray as if to proclaim solidarity with their dissenting sisters.

In the meantime, a Japanese edition was in preparation. The divergence of opinion between the public at large, who welcomed the book, and the band of its detractors, who did not, posed many questions. Who matters most? Is it the reading public or the self-proclaimed arbiters whose judgement has proved on many occasions to be out of touch with the prevailing mood? Is our cultural life totally dependent on a select few whose opinions seldom reflect the thinking or aspirations of the ordinary man or woman? These questions have continued to trouble me. We seem to be burdened with an élitist literary establishment intent on keeping the myth of its infallibility going at all costs. In saying this I could hardly be accused of ‘sour grapes’; the English edition sold extremely well and I laughed all the way to the bank.

It was pleasing, when the dust died down, to read in the London Evening Standard that a sharp-eyed commentator had spotted three books prominently on display in a photograph of Michael Caine taken in the library of his Beverly Hills home and printed in Hello! magazine. Alongside Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals and Orville Shell’s Discos and Democracy was my book Women.

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