Image: Brijesh Patel
July 28 2011
I have just returned from having the strange experience of being an author in France. As part of my double life, journalist by day and author (of not especially commercial history books) by night and at weekends, I am used to bringing out books. I rather enjoy the change in pace: putting together 100,000 words about some arcane aspect of life in some century gone by (I am sure by now you have read and re-read my book on gambling in the 19th century, Gentlemen & Blackguards; it is out in softback and perfect for the beach), and then dashing off to Geneva to marvel at the latest minute repeater. I have written a number of books and on the whole I have been left in peace to get on with it, leading me to the conclusion that being an author in Britain is a relatively prestige-free activity. If I had really craved public acclaim, I should have become an Association footballer.
However, in France there is a gratifying réclame that surrounds anyone who has put words between hard covers, no matter how light the subject matter. Over the past couple of years I have been working on a book about costume balls, which came into being following a discussion I had with Nicolas Bos and Stanislas de Quercize of Van Cleef & Arpels, about a collection of jewellery they wanted to design around the subject.
It was a topic that became increasingly interesting the more deeply I looked into it. More than mere parties, these elaborate evenings were pieces of performance art, often created using the skills of the leading talents of the day (Picasso, Dalí, Chanel, Dior, Cardin, Bérard, Satie, Cocteau et al). In their way they were a powerful and intriguing cultural force. Granted, Bals de Légende, as this book is called, may not have the gravitas of Niall Ferguson’s Ascent of Money, but – and call me superficial if you like – if, given the choice between attending a meeting of G8 finance ministers or Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, I know which one I would choose. Money has never particularly interested me, but what you can spend it on obsesses me.
Anyway, several months of pleasurable interviews and reading resulted in a big book, not excessively long in terms of words, but, with lavish illustrations and high production values, it weighs in at about six kilos. Perhaps not as well suited to the beach as a softback copy of G&B, nevertheless it could do passable structural service as the pad-stone supporting a load-bearing steel joist on a building site.
What surprised me was the interest shown in the book in Paris. The launch at Galignani, the famous Paris bookshop, was well attended and sales appeared brisk, but it was the interviews that were a real revelation. I suspect that it was the involvement of a leading jewellery house, but nevertheless I gave more interviews in the course of two days than I have had in a decade and a half or so of writing books. Nor was it just magazines, newspapers and television stations; proper French cultural giants of the stature of Catherine Deneuve were kind enough to seek me out and take an interest.
I was particularly intrigued that the tentations editor of Jours de Chasse, a Gallic field sports glossy, saw fit to interview me. Indeed I was tickled Tyrian (or do I mean hunting) pink that a magazine dedicated to, among other things, boar and pheasant shooting should demonstrate an interest in a book about costume balls; but then this is the sort of huntin’ and shootin’ magazine that dedicates eight and a half pages of its current issue to a feature about 19th-century dandy, novelist, critic and belle-lettrist Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly; and fills a further eight pages with a learned essay on the equestrian art of Carle Vernet, who put his paintbrush down for the last time in 1836. In the film Notting Hill, the fact that Hugh Grant attempts to interview Julia Roberts’ character claiming that he is a journalist from Horse & Hound always raises a laugh; however, in Paris it would appear that the sporting press is held in altogether higher cultural esteem.
And it struck me that this is one of the things that makes France, in spite of the EU, the euro and all that, France. Yes, the attention was gratifying to my vanity, but there is something reassuring about the adherence to a much cherished national stereotype of the national predisposition to ascribe an intellectual dimension to all manner of activities, whether game bird shooting or fancy dress parties. In France a philosopher such as Bernard-Henri Lévy can exert the influence that sends his country to war; across the English Channel, Alain de Botton is a TV personality.