Frères Ennemis focuses on Franco-American tensions reflected in literature. Each chapter explores the evolution/devolution of the often fraught relations between the two nations, ranging from an initial French fear of American cultural dominance to the eventual realization that France could absorb this cultural invasion into its own traditions. We caught up with author William Cloonan to discuss this recent publication.
Firstly, could you tell us a bit about Frères Ennemis and what drew you to focus your work in this area?
I have always been intrigued by the ways the Americans and French manage to get on one another’s nerves. Loyal allies in every major conflict since the American revolution, each nation seems nevertheless gifted in creating annoyances for the other. Sometimes the differences are silly and sometimes serious. As I studied this bizarre phenomenon in literary texts I began to understand that the tensions were more political than personal and reflected the struggle of two great powers to achieve and maintain a preeminent position on the world stage.
The cover of your book features a particularly striking display of postwar French tensions. Where does the image come from, and what is its relevance to your book?
André Fougeron painted Atlantic Civilization (1953) to illustrate French leftist concerns about the growing influence and presence of the United States in France and Europe. The topics alluded to in the painting are serious, the German rearmament, racism, the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for spying, etc., but the figures seems caricatural, as if taken from a comic book. I felt this painting displayed both the serious and silly aspects of Franco-American relations which I wanted to discuss in my study.
In your study you introduce a concept called urban colonization. What do you mean by this expression, and how does it function thematically in Frères Ennemis?
Urban colonization is an expression I coined to describe the way a group of wealthy American expats essentially take over sections of Paris and transform them into an alternate universe which is neither France nor the United States. This is a world where the only French tolerated are either servants or nobles whose primary value is decorative. They enhance the grandeur of the Americans by being at their beck and call. While this tendency is most apparent in The Custom of the Country, it figures in every novel where the American expat community plays a role.
In your chapter on Jean Echenoz, you introduce the subject of the influx of American consumerism in postwar France. How is your treatment of this social phenomenon different from other analyses?
I argue that the disdain on the part of French intellectuals for American products, especially appliances (refrigerators, washing machines, vacuums, etc.) is greatly misplaced. As fond as the French have become of taking polls, it is a pity that grandmothers, daughters, sisters, –women in general—never seemed to have been consulted with regard to their sentiments concerning the influx of American household products. This discussion allows me also to challenge hoary concepts like “the American character,” and “France’s traditional way of life.” I argue these are largely empty phrases whose putative strength comes from their lacking any real substance.
You discuss the thematic importance of the English language in several chapters. Could you develop this idea and show how it plays an important role in several of the novels you discuss?
In my study, language is power. For the French to speak with Americans in both French and American novels, the language has to be English, and the predominant role of English reflects the growing political importance of the Unites States and the failing fortunes of France. The U.S. is the present and the future, while France is the past.
What are you working on next?
In the final chapter of my book, I point to an emerging trend in contemporary French fiction with regard to the United States. Due to a variety of social factors in both countries, among them 9/11, the election of Obama, racism in France and the rise of extreme right wing movements in the two countries, French novelists are developing a renewed curiosity about l’Amérique. Social criticism is still very much alive, but there are many fewer clichés about the States bandied about. I see this change primarily in three areas, the treatment of American movie stars and pop icons, the depiction of everyday life, and finally in the recent spate of parodies of American fiction by younger authors writing in French. This new direction in French literature will be the subject of my next book. Obviously, Trump’s effect on the image of Americans will be a crucial element in this study.
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