French

Bannier, Pierre. Pleins feux sur… Columbo. Paris: Horizon illimité, 2005. ISBN 2-84787-141-1.
It seems like the most implausible formula for a successful television series: no violence, no sex, no car chases, a one-eyed hero who is the antithesis of glamorous, detests guns, and drives a beat-up Peugeot 403. In almost every episode the viewer knows “whodunit” before the detective appears on the screen, and in most cases the story doesn't revolve around his discovery of the perpetrator, but rather obtaining evidence to prove their guilt, the latter done without derring-do or scientific wizardry, but rather endless, often seemingly aimless dialogue between the killer and the tenacious inspector. Yet “Columbo”, which rarely deviated from this formula, worked so well it ran (including pilot episodes) for thirty-five years in two separate series (1968–1978 and 1989–1994) and subsequent telefilm specials through 2003 (a complete episode guide is available online).

Columbo, as much a morality play about persistence and cunning triumphing over the wealthy, powerful, and famous as it is a mystery (creators of the series Richard Levinson and William Link said the character was inspired by Porfiry Petrovich in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries), translates well into almost any language and culture. This book provides the French perspective on the phénomène Columbo. In addition to a comprehensive history of the character and series (did you know that the character which became Columbo first appeared in a story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 1960, or that Peter Falk was neither the first nor the second, but the third actor to portray Columbo?), details specific to l'Hexagone abound: a profile of Serge Sauvion, the actor who does the uncanny French doublage of Peter Falk's voice in the series, Marc Gallier, the “French Columbo”, and the stage adaptation in 2005 of Une femme de trop (based on the original stage play by Levinson and Link which became the pilot of the television series) starring Pascal Brunner. This being a French take on popular culture, there is even a chapter (pp. 74–77) providing a Marxish analysis of class conflict in Columbo! A complete episode guide with both original English and French titles and profiles of prominent guest villains rounds out the book.

For a hardcover, glossy paper, coffee table book, many of the colour pictures are hideously reproduced; they look like they were blown up from thumbnail images found on the Internet with pixel artefacts so prominent that in some cases you can barely make out what the picture is supposed to be. Other illustrations desperately need the hue, saturation, and contrast adjustment you'd expect to be routine pre-press steps for a publication of this type and price range. There are also a number of errors in transcribing English words in the text—sadly, this is not uncommon in French publications; even Jules Verne did it.

April 2006 Permalink

Charpak, Georges et Richard L. Garwin. Feux follets et champignons nucléaires. Paris: Odile Jacob, [1997] 2000. ISBN 978-2-7381-0857-9.
Georges Charpak won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1992, and was the last person, as of this writing, to have won an unshared Physics Nobel. Richard Garwin is a quintessential “defence intellectual”: he studied under Fermi, did the detailed design of Ivy Mike, the first thermonuclear bomb, has been a member of Jason and adviser on issues of nuclear arms control and disarmament for decades, and has been a passionate advocate against ballistic missile defence and for reducing the number of nuclear warheads and the state of alert of strategic nuclear forces.

In this book the authors, who do not agree on everything and take the liberty to break out from the main text on several occasions to present their individual viewpoints, assess the state of nuclear energy—civil and military—at the turn of the century and try to chart a reasonable path into the future which is consistent with the aspirations of people in developing countries, the needs of a burgeoning population, and the necessity of protecting the environment both from potential risks from nuclear technology but also the consequences of not employing it as a source of energy. (Even taking Chernobyl into account, the total radiation emitted by coal-fired power plants is far greater than that of all nuclear stations combined: coal contains thorium, and when it is burned, it escapes in flue gases or is captured and disposed of in landfills. And that's not even mentioning the carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels.)

The reader of this book will learn a great deal about the details of nuclear energy: perhaps more than some will have the patience to endure. I made it through, and now I really understand, for the first time, why light water reactors have a negative thermal coefficient: as the core gets hotter, the U-238 atoms are increasingly agitated by the heat, and consequently are more likely due to Doppler shift to fall into one of the resonances where their neutron absorption is dramatically enhanced.

Charpak and Garwin are in complete agreement that civil nuclear power should be the primary source of new electrical generation capacity until and unless something better (such as fusion) comes along. They differ strongly on the issue of fuel cycle and waste management: Charpak argues for the French approach of reprocessing spent fuel, extracting the bred plutonium, and burning it in power reactors in the form of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. Garwin argues for the U.S. approach of a once-through fuel cycle, with used fuel buried, its plutonium energy content discarded in the interest of “economy”. Charpak points out that the French approach drastically reduces the volume of nuclear waste to be buried, and observes that France does not have a Nevada in which to bury it.

Both authors concur that breeder reactors will eventually have a rôle to play in nuclear power generation. Not only do breeders multiply the energy which can be recovered from natural uranium by a factor of fifty, they can be used to “burn up” many of the radioactive waste products of conventional light water reactors. Several next-generation reactor concepts are discussed, including Carlo Rubbia's energy amplifier, in which the core is inherently subcritical, and designs for more conventional reactors which are inherently safe in the event of loss of control feedback or cooling. They conclude, however, that further technology maturation is required before breeders enter into full production use and that, in retrospect, Superphénix was premature.

The last third of the book is devoted to nuclear weapons and the prospects for reducing the inventory of declared nuclear powers, increasing stability, and preventing proliferation. There is, as you would expect from Garwin, a great deal of bashing the concept of ballistic missile defence (“It can't possibly work, and if it did it would be bad”). This is quite dated, as many of the arguments and the lengthy reprinted article date from the mid 1980s when the threat was a massive “war-gasm” salvo launch of thousands of ICBMs from the Soviet Union, not one or two missiles from a rogue despot who's feeling “ronery”. The authors quite reasonably argue that current nuclear force levels are absurd, and that an arsenal about the size of France's (on the order of 500 warheads) should suffice for any conceivable deterrent purpose. They dance around the option of eliminating nuclear arms entirely, and conclude that such a goal is probably unachievable in a world in which such a posture would create an incentive for a rogue state to acquire even one or two weapons. They suggest a small deterrent force operated by an international authority—good luck with that!

This is a thoughtful book which encourages rational people to think for themselves about the energy choices facing humanity in the coming decades. It counters emotional appeals and scare trigger words with the best antidote: numbers. Numbers which demonstrate, for example, that the inherent radiation of atoms in the human body (mostly C-14 and K-40) and the variation in natural background radiation from one place to another on Earth is vastly greater than the dose received from all kinds of nuclear technology. The Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents are examined in detail, and the lessons learnt for safely operating nuclear power stations are explored. I found the sections on nuclear weapons weaker and substantially more dated. Although the book was originally published well after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the perspective is still very much that of superpower confrontation, not the risk of proliferation to rogue states and terrorist groups. Certainly, responsibly disposing of the excess fissile material produced by the superpowers in their grotesquely hypertrophied arsenals (ideally by burning it up in civil power reactors, as opposed to insanely dumping it into a hole in the ground to remain a risk for hundreds of thousands of years, as some “green” advocates urge) is an important way to reduce the risks of proliferation, but events subsequent to the publication of this book have shown that states are capable of mounting their own indigenous nuclear weapons programs under the eyes of international inspectors. Will an “international community” which is incapable of stopping such clandestine weapons programs have any deterrent credibility even if armed with its own nuclear-tipped missiles?

An English translation of this book, entitled Megawatts and Megatons, is available.

September 2009 Permalink

Charpak, Georges et Henri Broch. Devenez sorciers, devenez savants. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2002. ISBN 2-7381-1093-2.

June 2002 Permalink

Djavann, Chahdortt. Que pense Allah de l'Europe?. Paris: Gallimard, 2004. ISBN 2-07-077202-0.
The author came of age in revolutionary Iran. After ten years living in Paris, she sees the conflict over the Islamic veil in French society as one in which those she calls “islamists” use the words of the West in ways which mean one thing to westerners and something entirely different to partisans of their own cause. She argues what while freedom of religion is a Western value which cannot be compromised, neither should it be manipulated to subvert the social liberty which is equally a contribution of the West to civilisation. Europe, she believes, is particularly vulnerable to infiltration by those who do not share its values but can employ its traditions and institutions to subvert them. This is not a book length treatment, but rather an essay of 55 pages. For a less personally impassioned but more in-depth view of the situation across the Channel, see Le Londonistan (July 2003).

October 2004 Permalink

Fallaci, Oriana. La rage et l'orgueil. Paris: Plon, 2002. ISBN 2-259-19712-4.
An English translation of this book was published in October 2002.

June 2002 Permalink

Fallaci, Oriana. La Force de la Raison. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2004. ISBN 2-268-05264-8.
If, fifty years from now, there still are historians permitted to chronicle the civilisation of Western Europe (which, if the trends described in this book persist, may not be the way to bet), Fallaci may be seen as a figure like Churchill in the 1930s, willing to speak the truth about a clear and present danger, notwithstanding the derision and abuse doing so engenders from those who prefer to live the easy life, avoid difficult decisions, and hope things will just get better. In this, and her earlier La rage et l'orgueil (June 2002), Fallaci warns, in stark and uncompromising terms verging occasionally on a rant, of the increasing Islamicisation of Western Europe, and decries the politicians, church figures, and media whose inaction or active efforts aid and abet it. She argues that what is at risk is nothing less than European civilisation itself, which Islamic figures openly predict among themselves eventually being transformed through the inexorable power of demographics and immigration into an Islamic Republic of “Eurabia”. The analysis of the “natural alliance” between the extreme political left and radical Islam is brilliant, and brings to mind L'Islam révolutionnaire (December 2003) by terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez). There is a shameful little piece of paper tipped into the pages of the book by the publisher, who felt no need for a disclaimer when earlier publishing the screed by mass murderer “Carlos”. In language worthy of Pierre Laval, they defend its publication in the interest of presenting a «différent» viewpoint, and ask readers to approach it “critically, in light of the present-day international context” (my translation).

December 2004 Permalink

Faverjon, Philippe. Les mensonges de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Paris: Perrin, 2004. ISBN 2-262-01949-5.
“In wartime,” said Winston Churchill, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” This book examines lies, big and small, variously motivated, made by the principal combatants in World War II, from the fabricated attack on a German radio station used as a pretext to launch the invasion of Poland which ignited the conflict, to conspiracy theories about the Yalta conference which sketched the map of postwar Europe as the war drew to a close. The nature of the lies discussed in the various chapters differs greatly—some are propaganda addressed to other countries, others intended to deceive domestic populations; some are strategic disinformation, while still others are delusions readily accepted by audiences who preferred them to the facts. Although most chapters end with a paragraph which sets the stage for the next, each is essentially a stand-alone essay which can be read on its own, and the book can be browsed in any order. The author is either (take your pick) scrupulous in his attention to historical accuracy or, (if you prefer) almost entirely in agreement with my own viewpoint on these matters. There is no “big message”, philosophical or otherwise, here, nor any partisan agenda—this is simply a catalogue of deception in wartime based on well-documented historical examples which, translated into the context of current events, can aid in critical analysis of conventional wisdom and mass stampede media coverage of present-day conflicts.

July 2005 Permalink

Ferri, Jean-Yves and Didier Conrad. Astérix: Le Papyrus de César. Vanves, France: Editions Albert René, 2015. ISBN 978-2-86497-271-6.
The publication of Julius Cæsar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War) (August 2007) made a sensation in Rome and amplified the already exalted reputation of Cæsar. Unknown before now, the original manuscript included a chapter which candidly recounted the Roman army's failure to conquer the Gauls of Armorique, home of the fierce warrior Astérix, his inseparable companion Obélix, and the rest of the villagers whose adventures have been chronicled in the thirty-five volumes preceding this one. On the advice of his editor, Bonus Promoplus, Cæsar agrees to remove the chapter chronicling his one reverse from the document which has come down the centuries to us.

Unfortunately for Promoplus, one of his scribes, Bigdata, flees with a copy of the suppressed chapter and delivers it to Doublepolémix, notorious Gallic activist and colporteur sans frontières, who makes the journey to the village of the irréductibles in Armorique.

The Roman Empire, always eager to exploit new technology, has moved beyond the slow diffusion of news by scrolls to newsmongers like Rézowifix, embracing wireless communication. A network of Urgent Delivery Pigeons, operated by pigeon masters like Antivirus, is able to quickly transmit short messages anywhere in the Empire. Unfortunately, like the Internet protocol, messages do not always arrive at the destination nor in the sequence sent….

When news of the missing manuscript reaches Rome, Prompolus mounts an expedition to Gaul to recover it before it can damage the reputation of Cæsar and his own career. With battle imminent, the Gauls resort to Druid technology to back up the manuscript. The story unfolds with the actions, twists, and turns one expects from Astérix, and a satisfying conclusion.

This album is, at this writing, the number one best-selling book at Amazon.fr.

December 2015 Permalink

Ferro, Marc. Suez — 1956. Bruxelles: Éditions Complexe, 1982. ISBN 2-87027-101-8.

October 2001 Permalink

Ferro, Marc. Le choc de l'Islam. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2002. ISBN 2-7381-1146-7.

October 2002 Permalink

Ferro, Marc. Les tabous de l'histoire. Paris: NiL, 2002. ISBN 2-84111-147-4.

April 2003 Permalink

Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Astérix chez les Helvètes. Paris: Hachette, [1970] 2004. ISBN 2-01-210016-3.

April 2005 Permalink

Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Le ciel lui tombe sur la tête. Paris: Albert René, 2005. ISBN 2-86497-170-4.
Credit me with some restraint—I waited ten whole days after volume 33 of the Astérix saga appeared before devouring it in one sitting. If it isn't sufficiently obvious from the author's remark at the end of the album, note that planet “Tadsylwien” is an anagram of “Walt Disney”. The diffuse reflection of the countryside in the spherical spaceship on p. 8 is magnificently done.

October 2005 Permalink

Guedj, Denis. Le mètre du monde. Paris: Seuil, 2000. ISBN 2-02-049989-4.
When thinking about management lessons one can learn from the French Revolution, I sometimes wonder if Louis XVI, sometime in the interval between when the Revolution lost its mind and he lost his head, ever thought, “Memo to file: when running a country seething with discontent, it's a really poor idea to invite people to compile lists of things they detest about the current regime.” Yet, that's exactly what he did in 1788, soliciting cahiers de doléances (literally, “notebooks of complaints”) to be presented to the Estates-General when it met in May of 1789. There were many, many things about which to complain in the latter years of the Ancien Régime, but one which appeared on almost every one of the lists was the lack of uniformity in weights and measures. Not only was there a bewildering multitude of different measures in use (around 2000 in France alone), but the value of measures with the same name differed from one region to another, a legacy of feudal days when one of the rights of the lord was to define the weights and measures in his fiefdom. How far is “three leagues down the road?” Well, that depends on what you mean by “league”, which was almost 40% longer in Provence than in Paris. The most common unit of weight, the “livre”, had more than two hundred different definitions across the country. And if that weren't bad enough, unscrupulous merchants and tax collectors would exploit the differences and lack of standards to cheat those bewildered by the complexity.

Revolutions, and the French Revolution in particular, have a way of going far beyond the intentions of those who launch them. The multitudes who pleaded for uniformity in weights and measures almost unanimously intended, and would have been entirely satisfied with, a standardisation of the values of the commonly used measures of length, weight, volume, and area. But perpetuating these relics of tyranny was an affront to the revolutionary spirit of remaking the world, and faced with a series of successive decisions, the revolutionary assembly chose the most ambitious and least grounded in the past on each occasion: to entirely replace all measures in use with entirely new ones, to use identical measures for every purpose (traditional measures used different units depending upon what was being measured), to abandon historical subdivisions of units in favour of a purely decimal system, and to ground all of the units in quantities based in nature and capable of being determined by anybody at any time, given only the definition.

Thus was the metric system born, and seldom have so many eminent figures been involved in what many might consider an arcane sideshow to revolution: Concordet, Coulomb, Lavoisier, Laplace, Talleyrand, Bailly, Delambre, Cassini, Legendre, Lagrange, and more. The fundamental unit, the metre, was defined in terms of the Earth's meridian, and since earlier measures failed to meet the standard of revolutionary perfection, a project was launched to measure the meridian through the Paris Observatory from Dunkirk to Barcelona. Imagine trying to make a precision measurement over such a distance as revolution, terror, hyper-inflation, counter-revolution, and war between France and Spain raged all around the savants and their surveying instruments. So long and fraught with misadventures was the process of creating the metric system that while the original decree ordering its development was signed by Louis XVI, it was officially adopted only a few months before Napoleon took power in 1799. Yet despite all of these difficulties and misadventures, the final measure of the meridian accepted in 1799 differed from the best modern measurements by only about ten metres over a baseline of more than 1000 kilometres.

This book tells the story of the metric system and the measurement of the meridian upon which it was based, against the background of revolutionary France. The author pulls no punches in discussing technical detail—again and again, just when you expect he's going to gloss over something, you turn the page or read a footnote and there it is. Writing for a largely French audience, the author may assume the reader better acquainted with the chronology, people, and events of the Revolution than readers hailing from other lands are likely to be; the chronology at the end of the book is an excellent resource when you forget what happened when. There is no index. This seems to be one of those odd cultural things; I've found French books whose counterparts published in English would almost certainly be indexed to frequently lack this valuable attribute—I have no idea why this is the case.

One of the many fascinating factoids I gleaned from this book is that the country with the longest continuous use of the metric system is not France! Napoleon replaced the metric system with the mesures usuelles in 1812, redefining the traditional measures in terms of metric base units. The metric system was not reestablished in France until 1840, by which time Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg had already adopted it.

April 2007 Permalink

Guéhenno, Jean-Marie. La fin de la démocratie. Paris: Flammarion, 1993. ISBN 2-08-081322-6.
This book, written over a decade ago, provides a unique take on what is now called “globalisation” and the evolution of transnational institutions. It has been remarkably prophetic in the years since its publication and a useful model for thinking about such issues today. Guéhenno argues that the concept of the nation-state emerged in Europe and North America due to their common history. The inviolability of borders, parliamentary democracy as a guarantor of liberty, and the concept of shared goals for the people of a nation are all linked to this peculiar history and consequently non-portable to regions with different histories and cultural heritages. He interprets most of disastrous post-colonial history of the third world as a mistaken attempt to implant the European nation-state model where the precursors and prerequisites for it do not exist. The process of globalisation and the consequent transformation of hierarchical power structures, both political and economic, into self-organising and dynamic networks is seen as rendering the nation-state obsolete even in the West, bringing to a close a form of organisation dating from the Enlightenment, replacing democratic rule with a system of administrative rules and regulations similar to the laws of the Roman Empire. While offering hope of eliminating the causes of the large-scale conflicts which characterised the 20th century, this scenario has distinct downsides: an increased homogenisation of global cultures and people into conformist “interchangeable parts”, a growing sense that while the system works, it lacks a purpose, erosion of social solidarity in favour of insecurity at all levels, pervasive corruption of public officials, and the emergence of diffuse violence which, while less extreme than 20th century wars, is also far more common and difficult to deter. That's a pretty good description of the last decade as I saw it, and an excellent list of things to ponder in the years to come. An English translation, The End of the Nation-State, is now available; I've not read it.

January 2004 Permalink

Hergé [Georges Remi]. Les aventures de Tintin au pays des Soviets. Bruxelles: Casterman, [1930] 1999. ISBN 2-203-00100-3.

October 2001 Permalink

Houellebecq, Michel. Soumission. Paris: J'ai Lu, [2015] 2016. ISBN 978-2-290-11361-5.
If you examine the Pew Research Center's table of Muslim Population by Country, giving the percent Muslim population for countries and territories, one striking thing is apparent. Here are the results, binned into quintiles.

Quintile   % Muslim   Countries
1 100–80 36
2 80–60 5
3 60–40 8
4 40–20 7
5 20–0 132

The distribution in this table is strongly bimodal—instead of the Gaussian (normal, or “bell curve”) distribution one encounters so often in the natural and social sciences, the countries cluster at the extremes: 36 are 80% or more Muslim, 132 are 20% or less Muslim, and only a total of 20 fall in the middle between 20% and 80%. What is going on?

I believe this is evidence for an Islamic population fraction greater than some threshold above 20% being an attractor in the sense of dynamical systems theory. With the Islamic doctrine of its superiority to other religions and destiny to bring other lands into its orbit, plus scripturally-sanctioned discrimination against non-believers, once a Muslim community reaches a certain critical mass, and if it retains its identity and coherence, resisting assimilation into the host culture, it will tend to grow not just organically but by making conversion (whether sincere or motivated by self-interest) an attractive alternative for those who encounter Muslims in their everyday life.

If this analysis is correct, what is the critical threshold? Well, that's the big question, particularly for countries in Europe which have admitted substantial Muslim populations that are growing faster than the indigenous population due to a higher birthrate and ongoing immigration, and where there is substantial evidence that subsequent generations are retaining their identity as a distinct culture apart from that of the country where they were born. What happens as the threshold is crossed, and what does it mean for the original residents and institutions of these countries?

That is the question explored in this satirical novel set in the year 2022, in the period surrounding the French presidential election of that year. In the 2017 election, the Front national narrowly won the first round of the election, but was defeated in the second round by an alliance between the socialists and traditional right, resulting in the election of a socialist president in a country with a centre-right majority.

Five years after an election which satisfied few people, the electoral landscape has shifted substantially. A new party, the Fraternité musulmane (Muslim Brotherhood), led by the telegenic, pro-European, and moderate Mohammed Ben Abbes, French-born son of a Tunisian immigrant, has grown to rival the socialist party for second place behind the Front national, which remains safely ahead in projections for the first round. When the votes are counted, the unthinkable has happened: all of the traditional government parties are eliminated, and the second round will be a run-off between FN leader Marine Le Pen and Ben Abbes.

These events are experienced and recounted by “François” (no last name is given), a fortyish professor of literature at the Sorbonne, a leading expert on the 19th century French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, who was considered a founder of the decadent movement, but later in life reverted to Catholicism and became a Benedictine oblate. François is living what may be described as a modern version of the decadent life. Single, living alone in a small apartment where he subsists mostly on microwaved dinners, he has become convinced his intellectual life peaked with the publication of his thesis on Huysmans and holds nothing other than going through the motions teaching his classes at the university. His amorous life is largely confined to a serial set of affairs with his students, most of which end with the academic year when they “meet someone” and, in the gaps, liaisons with “escorts” in which he indulges in the kind of perversion the decadents celebrated in their writings.

About the only thing which interests him is politics and the election, but not as a participant but observer watching television by himself. After the first round election, there is the stunning news that in order to prevent a Front national victory, the Muslim brotherhood, socialist, and traditional right parties have formed an alliance supporting Ben Abbes for president, with an agreed division of ministries among the parties. Myriam, François' current girlfriend, leaves with her Jewish family to settle in Israel, joining many of her faith who anticipate what is coming, having seen it so many times before in the history of their people.

François follows in the footsteps of Huysmans, visiting the Benedictine monastery in Martel, a village said to have been founded by Charles Martel, who defeated the Muslim invasion of Europe in a.d. 732 at the Battle of Tours. He finds no solace nor inspiration there and returns to Paris where, with the alliance triumphant in the second round of the election and Ben Abbes president, changes are immediately apparent.

Ethnic strife has fallen to a low level: the Muslim community sees itself ascendant and has no need for political agitation. The unemployment rate has fallen to historical lows: forcing women out of the workforce will do that, especially when they are no longer counted in the statistics. Polygamy has been legalised, as part of the elimination of gender equality under the law. More and more women on the street dress modestly and wear the veil. The Sorbonne has been “privatised”, becoming the Islamic University of Paris, and all non-Muslim faculty, including François, have been dismissed. With generous funding from the petro-monarchies of the Gulf, François and other now-redundant academics receive lifetime pensions sufficient that they never need work again, but it grates upon them to see intellectual inferiors, after a cynical and insincere conversion to Islam, replace them at salaries often three times higher than they received.

Unemployed, François grasps at an opportunity to edit a new edition of Huysmans for Pléiade, and encounters Robert Rediger, an ambitious academic who has been appointed rector of the Islamic University and has the ear of Ben Abbes. They later meet at Rediger's house, where, over a fine wine, he gives François a copy of his introductory book on Islam, explains the benefits of polygamy and arranged marriage to a man of his social standing, and the opportunities open to Islamic converts in the new university.

Eventually, François, like France, ends in submission.

As G. K. Chesterton never actually said, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn't then believe in nothing; he believes anything.” (The false quotation appears to be a synthesis of similar sentiments expressed by Chesterton in a number of different works.) Whatever the attribution, there is truth in it. François is an embodiment of post-Christian Europe, where the nucleus around which Western civilisation has been built since the fall of the Roman Empire has evaporated, leaving a void which deprives people of the purpose, optimism, and self-confidence of their forbears. Such a vacuum is more likely to be filled with something—anything, than long endure, especially when an aggressive, virile, ambitious, and prolific competitor has established itself in the lands of the decadent.

An English translation is available. This book is not recommended for young readers due to a number of sex scenes I found gratuitous and, even to this non-young reader, somewhat icky. This is a social satire, not a forecast of the future, but I found it more plausible than many scenarios envisioned for a Muslim conquest of Europe. I'll leave you to discover for yourself how the clever Ben Abbes envisions co-opting Eurocrats in his project of grand unification.

April 2017 Permalink

Lebeau, Caroline. Les nouvelles preuves sur l'assassinat de J. F. Kennedy. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2003. ISBN 2-268-04915-9.
If you don't live in Europe, you may not be fully aware just how deranged the Looney Left can be in their hatred of Western civilisation, individual liberty, and the United States in particular. This book, from the same publisher who included a weasel-word disclaimer in each copy of Oriana Fallaci's La Force de la Raison (December 2004), bears, on its cover, in 42 point white type on a red background, the subtitle «Le clan Bush est-il coupable?»—“Is the Bush clan guilty?” This book was prominently displayed in French language bookstores in 2004. The rambling narrative and tangled illogic finally pile up to give an impression reminiscent of the JFK assassination headline in The Onion's Our Dumb Century: “Kennedy Slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, Teamsters, Freemasons”. Lebeau declines to implicate the Masons, but fleshes out the list, adding multinational corporations, defence contractors, the Pentagon, Khrushchev, anti-Casto Cuban exiles, a cabal within the Italian army (I'm not making this up—see pp. 167–168), H.L. Hunt, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, the mayor of Dallas … and the Bush family, inter alia. George W. Bush, who was 17 years old at the time, is not accused of being a part of the «énorme complot», but his father is, based essentially on the deduction: “Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Dallas is in Texas. George H. W. Bush lived in Texas at the time—guilty, guilty, guilty!

“Independent investigative journalist” Lebeau is so meticulous in her “investigations” that she confuses JFK's older brother's first and middle names, misspells Nixon's middle name, calls the Warren Report the product of a Republican administration, confuses electoral votes with Senate seats, consistently misspells “grassy knoll”, thinks a “dum-dum” bullet is explosive, that Gerald Ford was an ex-FBI agent, and confuses H. L. Hunt and E. Howard Hunt on the authority of “journalist” Mumia Abu-Jamal, not noting that he is a convicted cop killer. Her studies in economics permit her to calculate (p. 175) that out of a total cost of 80 billion dollars, the Vietnam war yielded total profits to the military-industrial complex and bankers of 220 trillion dollars, which is about two centuries worth of the U.S. gross national product as of 1970. Some of the illustrations in the book appear to have been photographed off a television screen, and many of the original documents reproduced are partially or entirely illegible.

March 2005 Permalink

Lelièvre, Domnique. L'Empire américain en échec sous l'éclairage de la Chine impériale. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2004. ISBN 2-84855-097-X.
This is a very odd book. About one third of the text is a fairly conventional indictment of the emerging U.S. “virtuous empire” along the lines of America the Virtuous (earlier this month), along with the evils of globalisation, laissez-faire capitalism, cultural imperialism, and the usual scélérats du jour. But the author, who has published three earlier books of Chinese history, anchors his analysis of current events in parallels between the present day United States and the early Ming dynasty in China, particularly the reign of Zhu Di (朱棣), the Emperor Yongle (永樂), A.D. 1403-1424. (Windows users: if you didn't see the Chinese characters in the last sentence and wish to, you'll need to install Chinese language support using the Control Panel / Regional Options / Language Settings item, enabling “Simplified Chinese”. This may require you to load the original Windows install CD, reboot your machine after the installation is complete, and doubtless will differ in detail from one version of Windows to another. It may be a global village, but it can sure take a lot of work to get from one hut to the next.) Similarities certainly exist, some of them striking: both nations had overwhelming naval superiority and command of the seas, believed themselves to be the pinnacle of civilisation, sought large-scale hegemony (from the west coast of Africa to east Asia in the case of China, global for the U.S.), preferred docile vassal states to allies, were willing to intervene militarily to preserve order and their own self-interests, but for the most part renounced colonisation, annexation, territorial expansion, and religious proselytising. Both were tolerant, multi-cultural, multi-racial societies which believed their values universal and applicable to all humanity. Both suffered attacks from Islamic raiders, the Mongols under Tamerlane (Timur) and his successors in the case of Ming China. And both even fought unsuccessful wars in what is now Vietnam which ended in ignominious withdrawals. All of this is interesting, but how useful it is in pondering the contemporary situation is problematic, for along with the parallels, there are striking differences in addition to the six centuries of separation in time and all that implies for cultural and technological development including communications, weapons, and forms of government. Ming dynasty China was the archetypal oriental despotism, where the emperor's word was law, and the administrative and military bureaucracy was in the hands of eunuchs. The U.S., on the other hand, seems split right about down the middle regarding its imperial destiny, and many observers of U.S. foreign and military policy believe it suffers a surfeit of balls, not their absence. Fifteenth century China was self-sufficient in everything except horses, and its trade with vassal states consisted of symbolic potlatch-type tribute payments in luxury goods. The U.S., on the other hand, is the world's largest debtor nation, whose economy is dependent not only on an assured supply of imported petroleum, but also a wide variety of manufactured goods, access to cheap offshore labour, and the capital flows which permit financing its chronic trade deficits. I could go on listing fundamental differences which make any argument by analogy between these two nations highly suspect, but I'll close by noting that China's entire career as would-be hegemon began with Yongle and barely outlasted his reign—six of the seven expeditions of the great Ming fleet occurred during his years on the throne. Afterward China turned inward and largely ignored the rest of the world until the Europeans came knocking in the 19th century. Is it likely the U.S. drift toward empire which occupied most of the last century will end so suddenly and permanently? Stranger things have happened, but I wouldn't bet on it.

August 2004 Permalink

Lime, Jean-Hugues. Le roi de Clipperton. Paris: Le Cherche Midi, 2002. ISBN 2-86274-947-8.
This fascinating novel, reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, is based on events which actually occurred during the Mexican occupation of Clipperton Island from 1910 through 1917. (After World War I, the island returned to French possession, as it remains today; it has been uninhabited since 1917.) There is one instance of bad astronomy here: in chapter 4, set on the evening of November 30th, 1910, the Moon is described as «…très lumineuse…. On y voyait comme en plein jour.» (“…very luminous;…. One could see like in broad daylight” [my translation]). But on that night, the Moon was not visible at all! Here is the sky above Clipperton at about 21:00 local time courtesy of Your Sky. (Note that in Universal time it's already the morning of December 1st, and that I have supplied the actual latitude of Clipperton, which is shown as one minute of latitude too far North in the map on page 8.) In fact, the Moon was only 17 hours before new as shown by Earth and Moon Viewer, and hence wasn't visible from anywhere on Earth on that night. Special thanks to the person who recommended this book using the recommendation form! This was an excellent read which I'd otherwise never have discovered.

November 2003 Permalink

Lindenberg, Daniel. Le rappel à l'ordre. Paris: Seuil, 2002. ISBN 2-02-055816-5.

May 2003 Permalink

Meyssan, Thierry. L'effroyable imposture. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2002. ISBN 2-912362-44-X.
An English translation of this book was published in August 2002.

July 2002 Permalink

Meyssan, Thierry ed. Le Pentagate. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2002. ISBN 2-912362-77-6.
This book is available online in both Web and PDF editions from the book's Web site. An English translation is available, but only in a print edition, not online.

June 2004 Permalink

Minc, Alain. Épîtres à nos nouveaux maîtres. Paris: Grasset, 2002. ISBN 2-24-661981-5.

May 2003 Permalink

Orsenna, Erik. La grammaire est une chanson douce. Paris: Poche, 2001. ISBN 2-253-14910-1.
Ten year old Jeanne and her insufferable fourteen year old brother survive a shipwreck and find themselves on an enchanted island where words come alive and grammar escapes the rationalistic prison of Madame Jargonos and her Cartesian colleagues in the black helicopters (nice touch, that) to emerge as the intuitive music of thought and expression. As Jeanne recovers her ability to speak, we discover the joy of forging phrases from the raw material of living words with the tools of grammar. The result of Jeanne's day in the factory on page 129 is a pure delight. The author is a member of l'Académie française.

January 2005 Permalink

Orsenna, Erik. Les Chevaliers du Subjonctif. Paris: Stock, 2004. ISBN 2-234-05698-5.
Two years have passed since Jeanne and her brother Thomas were marooned on the enchanted island of words in La grammaire est une chanson douce (January 2005). In this sequel, Jeanne takes to the air in a glider with a diminutive cartographer to map the Archipelago of Conjugation and search for her brother who has vanished. Jeanne's luck with voyages hasn't changed—the glider crashes on the Island of the Subjunctives, where Jeanne encounters its strange inhabitants, guardians of the verbs which speak of what may be, or may not—the mode of dreams and love (for what is love if not hope and doubt?), the domain of the subjunctive. To employ a subjunctive survival from old French, oft-spoken but rarely thought of as such, « Vive le subjonctif ! ».

The author has been a member of the French Conseil d'État since 1985, has written more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, is an accomplished sailor and president of the Centre de la mer, and was elected to l'Académie française in 1998. For additional information, visit his beautiful and creatively designed Web site, where you will find a map of the Archipelago of Conjugation and the first chapter of the book in both text and audio editions.

Can you spot the perspective error made by the artist on the front cover? (Hint: the same goof occurs in the opening title sequence of Star Trek: Voyager.)

April 2005 Permalink

Raspail, Jean. Le Camp des Saints. Paris: Robert Laffont, [1973, 1978, 1985] 2006. ISBN 978-2-221-08840-1.
This is one of the most hauntingly prophetic works of fiction I have ever read. Although not a single word has been changed from its original publication in 1973 to the present edition, it is at times simply difficult to believe you're reading a book which was published thirty-five years ago. The novel is a metaphorical, often almost surreal exploration of the consequences of unrestricted immigration from the third world into the first world: Europe and France in particular, and how the instincts of openness, compassion, and generosity which characterise first world countries can sow the seeds of their destruction if they result in developed countries being submerged in waves of immigration of those who do not share their values, culture, and by their sheer numbers and rate of arrival, cannot be assimilated into the society which welcomes them.

The story is built around a spontaneous, almost supernatural, migration of almost a million desperate famine-struck residents from the Ganges on a fleet of decrepit ships, to the “promised land”, and the reaction of the developed countries along their path and in France as they approach and debark. Raspail has perfect pitch when it comes to the prattling of bien pensants, feckless politicians, international commissions chartered to talk about a crisis until it turns into catastrophe, humanitarians bent on demonstrating their good intentions whatever the cost to those they're supposed to be helping and those who fund their efforts, media and pundits bent on indoctrination instead of factual reporting, post-Christian clerics, and the rest of the intellectual scum which rises to the top and suffocates the rationality which has characterised Western civilisation for centuries and created the prosperity and liberty which makes it a magnet for people around the world aspiring to individual achievement.

Frankly addressing the roots of Western exceptionalism and the internal rot which imperils it, especially in the context of mass immigration, is a sure way to get yourself branded a racist, and that has, of course been the case with this book. There are, to be sure, many mentions of “whites” and “blacks”, but I perceive no evidence that the author imputes superiority to the first or inferiority to the second: they are simply labels for the cultures from which those actors in the story hail. One character, Hamadura, identified as a dark skinned “Français de Pondichéry” says (p. 357, my translation), “To be white, in my opinion, is not a colour of skin, but a state of mind”. Precisely—anybody, whatever their race or origin, can join the first world, but the first world has a limited capacity to assimilate new arrivals knowing nothing of its culture and history, and risks being submerged if too many arrive, particularly if well-intentioned cultural elites encourage them not to assimilate but instead work for political power and agendas hostile to the Enlightenment values of the West. As Jim Bennett observed, “Democracy, immigration, multiculturalism. Pick any two.”

Now, this is a novel from 1973, not a treatise on immigration and multiculturalism in present-day Europe, and the voyage of the fleet of the Ganges is a metaphor for the influx of immigrants into Europe which has already provoked many of the cringing compromises of fundamental Western values prophesied, of which I'm sure most readers in the 1970s would have said, “It can't happen here”. Imagine an editor fearing for his life for having published a cartoon (p. 343), or Switzerland being forced to cede the values which have kept it peaceful and prosperous by the muscle of those who surround it and the intellectual corruption of its own elites. It's all here, and much more. There's even a Pope Benedict XVI (albeit very unlike the present occupant of the throne of St. Peter).

This is an ambitious literary work, and challenging for non mother tongue readers. The vocabulary is enormous, including a number of words you won't find even in the Micro Bob. Idioms, many quite obscure (for example “Les carottes sont cuites”—all is lost), abound, and references to them appear obliquely in the text. The apocalyptic tone of the book (whose title is taken from Rev. 20:9) is reinforced by many allusions to that Biblical prophecy. This is a difficult read, which careens among tragedy, satire, and farce, forcing the reader to look beyond political nostrums about the destiny of the West and seriously ask what the consequences of mass immigration without assimilation and the accommodation by the West of values inimical to its own are likely to be. And when you think that Jean Respail saw all of this coming more than three decades ago, it almost makes you shiver. I spent almost three weeks working my way through this book, but although it was difficult, I always looked forward to picking it up, so rewarding was it to grasp the genius of the narrative and the masterful use of the language.

An English translation is available. Given the language, idioms, wordplay, and literary allusions in the original French, this work would be challenging to faithfully render into another language. I have not read the translation and cannot comment upon how well it accomplished this formidable task.

For more information about the author and his works, visit his official Web site.

June 2008 Permalink

Solé, Robert. Le grand voyage de l'obélisque. Paris: Seuil, 2004. ISBN 2-02-039279-8.
No, this is not an Astérix book—it's “obélisque”, not “Obélix”! This is the story of how an obelisk of Ramses II happened to end up in the middle of la Place de la Concorde in Paris. Moving a 22 metre, 220 metric ton chunk of granite from the banks of the Nile to the banks of the Seine in the 1830s was not a simple task—it involved a purpose-built ship, an expedition of more than two and a half years with a crew of 121, twelve of whom died in Egypt from cholera and dysentery, and the combined muscle power of 350 artillerymen in Paris to erect the obelisk where it stands today. One has to be impressed with the ancient Egyptians, who managed much the same more than thirty centuries earlier. The book includes a complete transcription and translation of the hieroglyphic inscriptions—Ramses II must have set the all-time record for effort expended in publishing banal text.

May 2004 Permalink

Stepczynski, Marian. Dollar: Histoire, actualité et avenir de la monnaie impériale. Lausanne: Éditions Favre, 2003. ISBN 2-8289-0730-9.
In the final paragraph on page 81, in the sentence which begins «À fin septembre 1972», 2002 is intended, not 1972.

November 2003 Permalink

Stöhlker, Klaus J. Adieu la Suisse—Good Morning Switzerland. Le Mont-sur-Lausanne: Éditions LEP, 2003. ISBN 2-606-01086-8.
This is a French translation of the original German edition, which has the same French-and-English title. The French edition can be found in almost any bookshop in la Suisse romande, but I know of no online source.

March 2004 Permalink

Todd, Emmanuel. Après l'empire. Paris: Gallimard, 2002. ISBN 2-07-076710-8.
An English translation is scheduled to be published in January 2004.

November 2002 Permalink

Todd, Emmanuel. Après la démocratie. Paris: Gallimard, 2009. ISBN 978-2-07-078683-1.
This book is simultaneously enlightening, thought-provoking, and infuriating. The author is known for having forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1976 and, in 2002, the end of U.S. hegemony in the political, military, and financial spheres, as we are currently witnessing. In the present work, he returns his focus to Europe, and France in particular, and examines how the economic consequences of globalisation, the emergence of low-wage economies such as China and India in direct competition with workers in the developed West, the expansion of college education from a small fraction to around a third of the population, changes in the structure of the family due to a longer lifespan and marital customs, the near eclipse of Christianity as a social and moral force in Western Europe, and the collapse of traditional political parties with which individuals would identify over long periods of time have led to a crisis in confidence among the voting public in the élites who (especially in France) have traditionally governed them, escalating to a point where serious thinkers question the continued viability of democratic governance.

Dubiety about democracy is neither limited to the author nor to France: right-like-a-stopped-clock pundit Thomas Friedman has written admiringly of China's autocracy compared to the United States, Gaia theorist James Lovelock argues that “climate change” may require the West to “put democracy on hold for a while” while other ManBearPig fabulists argue that the “failure of democracy” on this issue requires it to give way to “a form of authoritarian government by experts”.

The take in the present book is somewhat different, drawing on Todd's demographic and anthropological approach to history and policy. He argues that liberal democracy, as it emerged in Britain, France, and the United States, had as a necessary condition a level of literacy among the population of between one third and two thirds. With a lower level of literacy the general population is unable to obtain the information they need to form their own conclusions, and if a society reaches a very high level of literacy without having adopted democratic governance (for example Germany from Bismarck through World War II or the Soviet Union), then the governing structure is probably sufficiently entrenched so as to manage the flow of information to the populace and suppress democratic movements. (Actually, the author would like to believe that broad-based literacy is a necessary and sufficient condition for democracy in the long run, but to this reader he didn't make the sale.)

Once democratic governance is established, literacy tends to rise toward 100% both because governments promote it by funding education and because the citizenry has an incentive to learn to read and write in order to participate in the political process. A society with universal literacy and primary education, but only a very small class with advanced education tends to be stable, because broad political movements can communicate with the population, and the élites which make up the political and administrative class must be responsive to the electorate in order to keep their jobs. With the broad population starting out with pretty much the same educational and economic level, the resulting society tends toward egalitarianism in wealth distribution and opportunity for advancement based upon merit and enterprise. Such a society will be an engine of innovation and production, and will produce wealth which elevates the standard of living of its population, yielding overall contentment which stabilises the society against radical change.

In the twentieth century, and particularly in the latter half, growing prosperity in developed nations led to a social experiment on a massive scale entirely unprecedented in human history. For the first time, universal secondary education was seen as a social good (and enforced by compulsory education and rising school-leaving ages), with higher (college/university) education for the largest possible fraction of the population becoming the ultimate goal. Indeed, political rhetoric in the United States presently advocates making college education available for all. In France, the number of students in “tertiary” education (the emerging term of art, to avoid calling it “superior”, which would imply that those without it are inferior) burgeoned from 200,000 in 1950 to 2,179,000 in 1995, an increase of 990%, while total population grew just 39% (p. 56). Since then, the rate of higher education has remained almost constant, with the number of students growing only 4% between 1995 and 2005, precisely the increase in population during that decade. The same plateau was achieved earlier in the U.S., while Britain, which began the large-scale expansion of higher education later, only attained a comparable level in recent years, so it's too early to tell whether that will also prove a ceiling there as well.

The author calls this “stagnation” in education and blames it for a cultural pessimism afflicting all parts of the political spectrum. (He does not discuss the dumbing-down of college education which has accompanied its expansion and the attendant devaluing of the credential; this may be less the case on the Continent than in the Anglosphere.) At the same time, these societies now have a substantial portion of their population, around one third, equipped nominally with education previously reserved for a tiny élite, whose career prospects are limited simply because there aren't enough positions at the top to go around. At the same time, the educational stratification of the society into a tiny governing class, a substantial educated class inclined to feel entitled to economic rewards for all the years of their lives spent sitting in classrooms, and a majority with a secondary education strikes a blow at egalitarianism, especially in France where broad-based equality of results has been a central part of the national identity since the Revolution.

The pessimism created by this educational stagnation has, in the author's view, been multiplied to the point of crisis by what he considers to be a disastrous embrace of free trade. While he applauds the dismantling of customs barriers in Europe and supported the European “Constitution”, he blames the abundance of low-wage workers in China and India for what he sees as relentless pressure on salaries in Europe and the loss of jobs due to outsourcing of manufacturing and, increasingly, service and knowledge worker jobs. He sees this as benefiting a tiny class, maybe 1% of the population, to the detriment of all the rest. Popular dissatisfaction with this situation, and frustration in an environment where all major political parties across the ideological spectrum are staunch defenders of free trade, has led to the phenomenon of “wipeout” elections, where the dominant political party is ejected in disgust, only to be replaced by another which continues the same policies and in turn is rejected by the electorate.

Where will it all end? Well, as the author sees it, with Nicholas Sarkozy. He regards Sarkozy and everything he represents with such an actinic detestation that one expects the crackling of sparks and odour of ozone when opening the book. Indeed, he uses Sarkozy's personal shortcomings as a metaphor for what's wrong with France, and as the structure of the book as a whole. And yet he is forced to come to terms with the fact that Sarkozy was elected with the votes of 53% of French voters after, in the first round, effectively wiping out the National Front, Communists, and Greens. And yet, echoing voter discontent, in the municipal elections a year later, the left was seen as the overall winner.

How can a democratic society continue to function when the electorate repeatedly empowers people who are neither competent to govern nor aligned with the self-interest of the nation and its population? The author sees only three alternatives. The first (p. 232) is the redefinition of the state from a universal polity open to all races, creeds, and philosophies to a racially or ethnically defined state united in opposition to an “other”. The author sees Sarkozy's hostility to immigrants in France as evidence for such a redefinition in France, but does not believe that it will be successful in diverting the electorate's attention from a falling standard of living due to globalisation, not from the immigrant population. The second possibility he envisions (p. 239) is the elimination, either outright or effectively, of universal suffrage at the national level and its replacement by government by unelected bureaucratic experts with authoritarian powers, along the general lines of the China so admired by Thomas Friedman. Elections would be retained for local officials, preserving the appearance of democracy while decoupling it from governance at the national level. Lest this seem an absurd possibility, as the author notes on p. 246, this is precisely the model emerging for continental-scale government in the European Union. Voters in member states elect members to a European “parliament” which has little real power, while the sovereignty of national governments is inexorably ceded to the unelected European Commission. Note that only a few member states allowed their voters a referendum on the European “constitution” or its zombie reanimation, the Treaty of Lisbon.

The third alternative, presented in the conclusion to the work, is the only one the author sees as preserving democracy. This would be for the economic core of Europe, led by France and Germany, to adopt an explicit policy of protectionism, imposing tariffs on imports from low-wage producers with the goal of offsetting the wage differential and putting an end to the pressure on European workers, the outsourcing of jobs, and the consequent destruction of the middle class. This would end the social and economic pessimism in European societies, realign the policies of the governing class with the electorate, and restore the confidence among voters in those they elect which is essential for democracy to survive. (Due to its centuries-long commitment to free trade and alignment with the United States, Todd does not expect Great Britain to join such a protectionist regime, but believes that if France and Germany were to proclaim such a policy, their economic might and influence in the European Union would be sufficient to pull in the rest of the Continent and build a Wirtschaftsfestung Europa from the Atlantic to the Russian border.) In such a case, and only in that case, the author contends, will what comes after democracy be democracy.

As I noted at the start of these comments, I found this book, among other things, infuriating. If that's all it were, I would neither have finished it nor spent the time to write such a lengthy review, however. The work is worth reading, if for nothing else, to get a sense of the angst and malaise in present-day Europe, where it is beginning to dawn upon the architects and supporters of the social democratic welfare state that it is not only no longer competitive in the global economy but also unsustainable within its own borders in the face of a demographic collapse and failure to generate new enterprises and employment brought about by its own policies. Amidst foreboding that there are bad times just around the corner iTunes Store, and faced with an electorate which empowers candidates which leftists despise for being “populist”, “crude”, and otherwise not the right kind of people, there is a tendency among the Left to claim that “democracy is broken”, and that only radical, transformative change (imposed from the top down, against the will of the majority, if necessary) can save democracy from itself. This book is, I believe, an exemplar of this genre. I would expect several such books authored by leftist intellectuals to appear in the United States in the first years of a Palin administration.

What is particularly aggravating about the book is its refusal to look at the causes of the problems it proposes to address through a protectionist policy. Free trade did not create the regime of high taxation, crushing social charges, inability to dismiss incompetent workers, short work weeks and long vacations, high minimum wages and other deterrents to entry level jobs, and regulatory sclerosis which have made European industry uncompetitive, and high tariffs alone will not solve any of these problems, but rather simply allow them to persist for a while within a European bubble increasingly decoupled from the world economy. That's pretty much what the Soviet Union did for seventy years, if you think about it, and how well did that work out for the Soviet people?

Todd is so focused on protectionism as panacea that he Panglosses over major structural problems in Europe which would be entirely unaffected by its adoption. He dismisses demographic collapse as a problem for France, noting that the total fertility rate has risen over the last several years back to around 2 children per woman, the replacement rate. What he doesn't mention is that this is largely due to a high fertility rate among Muslim immigrants from North Africa, whose failure to assimilate and enter the economy is a growing crisis in France along with other Western European countries. The author dismisses this with a wave of the hand, accusing Sarkozy of provoking the “youth” riots of 2005 to further his own career, and argues that episode was genuinely discouraged young versus the ruling class and had little to do with Islam or ethnic conflict. One wonders how much time Dr. Todd has spent in the “no go” Muslim banlieues of Paris and other large European cities.

Further, Todd supports immigration and denounces restrictionists as opportunists seeking to distract the electorate with a scapegoat. But how is protectionism (closing the border to products from low wage countries) going to work, precisely, if the borders remain open to people from the Third World, many lacking any skills equipping them to participate in a modern industrialised society, and bringing with them, in many cases, belief systems hostile to the plurality, egalitarianism, secularism, and tolerance of European nations? If the descendants of immigrants do not assimilate, they pose a potentially disastrous social and political problem, while if they do, their entry into the job market will put pressure on wages just as surely as goods imported from China.

Given Todd's record in predicting events conventional wisdom deemed inconceivable, one should be cautious in dismissing his analysis here, especially as it drawn from the same kind of reasoning based in demographics, anthropology, and economics which informs his other work. If nothing else, it provides an excellent view of how more than fifty years journey down the social democratic road to serfdom brings into doubt how long the “democratic” part, as well as the society, can endure.

April 2010 Permalink

Verne, Jules. Autour de la lune. Paris: Poche, [1870] 1974. ISBN 2-253-00587-8.
Now available online at this site.

August 2001 Permalink

Verne, Jules. La chasse au météore. Version d'origine. Paris: Éditions de l'Archipel, [1901, 1986] 2002. ISBN 2-84187-384-6.
This novel, one of three written by Verne in 1901, remained unpublished at the time of his death in 1905. At the behest of Verne's publisher, Jules Hetzel, Verne's son Michel “revised” the text in an attempt to recast what Verne intended as satirical work into the mold of an “Extraordinary Adventure”, butchering it in the opinion of many Verne scholars. In 1978 the original handwritten manuscript was discovered among a collection of Verne's papers. This edition, published under the direction of the Société Jules Verne, reproduces that text, and is the sole authentic edition. As of this writing, no English translation is available—all existing English editions are based upon the Michel Verne “revision”.

October 2002 Permalink

Verne, Jules. Voyage au centre de la terre. Paris: Gallimard, [1864] 1998. ISBN 2-07-051437-4.
A free electronic edition of this text is available from Project Gutenberg. This classic adventure is endlessly adaptable: you may prefer a translation in English, German, or Spanish. The 1959 movie with James Mason and Pat Boone is a fine flick but substantially departs from Verne's story in many ways: of the three principal characters in the novel, two are rather unsympathetic and the third taciturn in the extreme—while Verne was just having his usual fun with Teutonic and Nordic stereotypes, one can see that this wouldn't work for Hollywood. Rick Wakeman's musical edition is, however, remarkably faithful to the original.

April 2004 Permalink

Verne, Jules. Voyage à reculons en Angleterre et en Écosse. Paris: Le Cherche Midi, 1989. ISBN 2-86274-147-7.
As a child, Jules Verne was fascinated by the stories of his ancestor who came to France from exotic Scotland to serve as an archer in the guard of Louis XI. Verne's attraction to Scotland was reinforced by his life-long love of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and when in 1859, at age 31, he had a chance to visit that enchanting ancestral land, he jumped at the opportunity. This novel is a thinly fictionalised account of his “backwards voyage” to Scotland and England. “Backwards” («à reculons») because he and his travelling companion began their trip from Paris into the North by heading South to Bordeaux, where they had arranged economical passage on a ship bound for Liverpool, then on to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and then back by way of London and Dieppe—en sens inverse of most Parisian tourists. The theme of “backwards” surfaces regularly in the narrative, most amusingly on p. 110 where they find themselves advancing to the rear after having inadvertently wandered onto a nude beach.

So prolific was Jules Verne that more than a century and a half after he began his writing career, new manuscripts keep turning up among his voluminous papers. In the last two decades, Paris au XXe siècle, the original un-mangled version of La chasse au météore (October 2002), and the present volume have finally made their way into print. Verne transformed the account of his own trip into a fictionalised travel narrative of a kind quite common in the 19th century but rarely encountered today. The fictional form gave him freedom to add humour, accentuate detail, and highlight aspects of the country and culture he was visiting without crossing the line into that other venerable literary genre, the travel tall tale. One suspects that the pub brawl in chapter 16 is an example of such embroidery, along with the remarkable steam powered contraption on p. 159 which prefigured Mrs. Tweedy's infernal machine in Chicken Run. The description of the weather, however, seems entirely authentic. Verne offered the manuscript to Hetzel, who published most of his work, but it was rejected and remained forgotten until it was discovered in a cache of Verne papers acquired by the city of Nantes in 1981. This 1989 edition is its first appearance in print, and includes six pages of notes on the history of the work and its significance in Verne's œuvre, notes on changes in the manuscript made by Verne, and a facsimile manuscript page.

What is remarkable in reading this novel is the extent to which it is a fully-developed “template” for Verne's subsequent Voyages extraordinaires: here we have an excitable and naïve voyager (think Michel Ardan or Passepartout) paired with a more stolid and knowledgeable companion (Barbicane or Phileas Fogg), the encyclopedist's exultation in enumeration, fascination with all forms of locomotion, and fun with language and dialect (particularly poor Jacques who beats the Dickens out of the language of Shakespeare). Often, when reading the early works of writers, you sense them “finding their voice”—not here. Verne is in full form, the master of his language and the art of story-telling, and fully ready, a few years later, with just a change of topic, to invent science fiction. This is not “major Verne”, and you certainly wouldn't want to start with this work, but if you've read most of Verne and are interested in how it all began, this is genuine treat.

This book is out of print. If you can't locate a used copy at a reasonable price at the Amazon link above, try abebooks.com. For comparison with copies offered for sale, the cover price in 1989 was FRF 95, which is about €14.50 at the final fixed rate.

April 2006 Permalink

Verne, Jules. Le Château des Carpathes. Paris: Poche, [1892] 1976. ISBN 978-2-253-01329-7.
This is one of Jules Verne's later novels, originally published in 1892, and is considered “minor Verne”, which is to say it's superior to about 95% of science and adventure fiction by other authors. Five years before Bram Stoker penned Dracula, Verne takes us to a looming, gloomy, and abandoned (or is it?) castle on a Carpathian peak in Transylvania, to which the superstitious residents of nearby villages attribute all kinds of supernatural goings on. Verne is clearly having fun with the reader in this book, which reads like a mystery, but what is mysterious is not whodunit, but rather what genre of book you're reading: is it a ghost story, tale of the supernatural, love triangle, mad scientist yarn, or something else? Verne manages to keep all of these balls in the air until the last thirty pages or so, when all is revealed and resolved. It's plenty of fun getting there, as the narrative is rich with the lush descriptive prose and expansive vocabulary for which Verne is renowned. It wouldn't be a Jules Verne novel without at least one stunning throwaway prediction of future technology; here it's the video telephone, to which he gives the delightful name “téléphote”.

A public domain electronic text edition is available from Project Gutenberg in a variety of formats. A (pricey) English translation is available. I have not read it and cannot vouch for its faithfulness to Verne's text.

June 2009 Permalink

Verne, Jules. Hector Servadac. Seattle: CreateSpace, [1877] 2014. ISBN 978-1-5058-3124-5.
Over the years, I have been reading my way through the classic science fiction novels of Jules Verne, and I have prepared public domain texts of three of them which are available on my site and Project Gutenberg. Verne not only essentially invented the modern literary genre of science fiction, he was an extraordinary prolific author, publishing sixty-two novels in his Voyages extraordinaires between 1863 and 1905. What prompted me to pick up the present work was an interview I read in December 2016, in which Freeman Dyson recalled that it was reading this book at around the age of eight which, more than anything, set him on a course to become a mathematician and physicist. He notes that he originally didn't know it was fiction, and was disappointed to discover the events recounted hadn't actually happened. Well, that's about as good a recommendation as you can get, so I decided to put Hector Servadac on the list.

On the night of December 31–January 1, Hector Servadac, a captain in the French garrison at Mostaganem in Algeria, found it difficult to sleep, since in the morning he was to fight a duel with Wassili Timascheff, his rival for the affections of a young woman. During the night, the captain and his faithful orderly Laurent Ben-Zouf, perceived an enormous shock, and regained consciousness amid the ruins of their hut, and found themselves in a profoundly changed world.

Thus begins a scientific detective story much different than many of Verne's other novels. We have the resourceful and intrepid Captain Servadac and his humorous side-kick Ben-Zouf, to be sure, but instead of them undertaking a perilous voyage of exploration, instead they are taken on a voyage, by forces unknown, and must discover what has happened and explain the odd phenomena they are experiencing. And those phenomena are curious, indeed: the Sun rises in the west and sets in the east, and the day is now only twelve hours long; their weight, and that of all objects, has been dramatically reduced, and they can now easily bound high into the air; the air itself seems to have become as thin as on high mountain peaks; the Moon has vanished from the sky; the pole has shifted and there is a new north star; and their latitude now seems to be near the equator.

Exploring their environs only adds mysteries to the ever-growing list. They now seem to inhabit an island of which they are the only residents: the rest of Algeria has vanished. Eventually they make contact with Count Timascheff, whose yacht was standing offshore and, setting aside their dispute (the duel deferred in light of greater things is a theme you'll find elsewhere in the works of Verne), they seek to explore the curiously altered world they now inhabit.

Eventually, they discover its inhabitants seem to number only thirty-six: themselves, the Russian crew of Timascheff's yacht; some Spanish workers; a young Italian girl and Spanish boy; Isac Hakhabut, a German Jewish itinerant trader whose ship full of merchandise survived the cataclysm; the remainder of the British garrison at Gibraltar, which has been cut off and reduced to a small island; and Palmyrin Rosette, formerly Servadac's teacher (and each other's nemeses), an eccentric and irritable astronomer. They set out on a voyage of exploration and begin to grasp what has happened and what they must do to survive.

In 1865, Verne took us De la terre à la lune. Twelve years later, he treats us to a tour of the solar system, from the orbit of Venus to that of Jupiter, with abundant details of what was known about our planetary neighbourhood in his era. As usual, his research is nearly impeccable, although the orbital mechanics are fantasy and must be attributed to literary license: a body with an orbit which crosses those of Venus and Jupiter cannot have an orbital period of two years: it will be around five years, but that wouldn't work with the story. Verne has his usual fun with the national characteristics of those we encounter. Modern readers may find the descriptions of the miserly Jew Hakhabut and the happy but indolent Spaniards offensive—so be it—such is nineteenth century literature.

This is a grand adventure: funny, enlightening, and engaging the reader in puzzling out mysteries of physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, and, if you're like this reader, checking the author's math (which, orbital mechanics aside, is more or less right, although he doesn't make the job easy by using a multitude of different units). It's completely improbable, of course—you don't go to Jules Verne for that: he's the fellow who shot people to the Moon with a nine hundred foot cannon—but just as readers of modern science fiction are willing to accept faster than light drives to make the story work, a little suspension of disbelief here will yield a lot of entertainment.

Jules Verne is the second most translated of modern authors (Agatha Christie is the first) and the most translated of those writing in French. Regrettably, Verne, and his reputation, have suffered from poor translation. He is a virtuoso of the French language, using his large vocabulary to layer meanings and subtexts beneath the surface, and many translators fail to preserve these subtleties. There have been several English translations of this novel under different titles (which I shall decline to state, as they are spoilers for the first half of the book), none of which are deemed worthy of the original.

I read the Kindle edition from Arvensa, which is absolutely superb. You don't usually expect much when you buy a Kindle version of a public domain work for US$ 0.99, but in this case you'll receive a thoroughly professional edition free of typographical errors which includes all of the original illustrations from the original 1877 Hetzel edition. In addition there is a comprehensive biography of Jules Verne and an account of his life and work published at the height of his career. Further, the Kindle French dictionary, a free download, is absolutely superb when coping with Verne's enormous vocabulary. Verne is very fond of obscure terms, and whether discussing nautical terminology, geology, astronomy, or any other specialties, peppers his prose with jargon which used to send me off to flip through the Little Bob. Now it's just a matter of highlighting the word (in the iPad Kindle app), and up pops the definition from the amazingly comprehensive dictionary. (This is a French-French dictionary; if you need a dictionary which provides English translations, you'll need to install such an application.) These Arvensa Kindle editions are absolutely the best way to enjoy Jules Verne and other classic French authors, and I will definitely seek out others to read in the future. You can obtain the complete works of Jules Verne, 160 titles, with 5400 illustrations, for US$ 2.51 at this writing.

February 2017 Permalink