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Paul West, 27, left his native Britain a year ago to help launch a chain of English tea rooms in Paris. He kept a diary of his adventures and published 200 copies privately, mostly for friends. But Paris bookstores discovered West's gently satirical look at Gallic foibles, radio stations invited him to discuss it, and now the book, A Year in the Merde, is poised to become an international publishing phenomenon. After a high-profile auction in July, Bantam won British rights to Merde for nearly $140,000, and the book is being rushed into U.K. stores in September. Publishers in the U.S., France and Germany have anted up for their own editions. Movie rights have been sold.

This success story is all absolutely true, except that Paul West is not in his 20s, did not arrive in Paris two years ago, launch any tea rooms or keep a diary. Oh, and he isn't Paul West. His real name is Stephen Clarke, and he's a 45-year-old Oxford-educated Briton who works as an editor in Paris and has lived there for 11 years. "I saw the movie Chocolat," he says, "and the idea of a British woman opening a chocolate shop and working in a French village seemed so wrong, so un-French. Then I read [Peter Mayle's bestselling] A Year in Provence and noticed that the first word is 'January.' I thought, No! The French year begins in September, when people come back from holiday. So I knew there was a book to be written."

Determined to set foreigners straight about his adopted home, Clarke began compiling anecdotes. But he wanted a sexier protagonist than himself, so he opted for fiction and invented Paul West, "a cross between Hugh Grant and David Beckham." He also wanted to hide behind a pseudonym, not to avoid trouble with his employers, "but because if the book failed, I'd look like an idiot." That danger having receded, Clarke is using his own name for the U.K. edition. "I was a little worried when I started giving readings in Paris, since I'm clearly not 27,"
    -A Literary Hoax-en-Paris: A Year in the Merde is a smarmy, amusing diary of a young Brit's first impressions of Paris. Or is it? (DONALD MORRISON, Sep. 12, 2004, TIME Europe)

The Communists were promising retirement for all state employees at age 35. The Socialists were proposing absolutely nothing because they couldn't elect a leader who would propose things. The centre-right parties (of which there were about ten) were all promising employers that they would no longer have to pay workers and would be exempt from prosecution for any industrial pollution that killed fewer than 100,000 people. The far right was proposing, less realistically, to have immigrants barbecued in every place du marché on Friday nights. And in a similar vein, the rural party promised to change the law on endangered species so that hunters could now shoot dodos, unicorns, mermaids and American tourists.
    -Stephen Clarke, A Year in the Merde

Stephen Clarke's book may have been a publishing phenomenon in Europe, but I'd never heard of it until I stumbled upon a copy in a thrift store, the receipt from a Heathrow book stall still tucked between its pages. You may not have to hate the French to enjoy the book, but I do and did. Mr. Clarke's doppelganger, Paul West, depicts France as a place where the frequent strikes only serve to interrupt foot-dragging and obstructionism by employees with no interest in getting anything done and where government and business are profoundly corrupt. The story is set right around the time of the 2003 Iraq War, as French resentment of the exercise of Anglo-American power and of their own powerlessness boiled over. West/Clarke sardonically observes all these French foibles and has great fun at their expense. The only redeeming features he finds are a lovely countryside, good food, and frequent sex, which, of course, makes it a nice enough place to visit, but nowhere you'd want to live. The book, however, is hilarious.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Stephen Clarke Links:
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    -Stephen Clarke (writer) (Wikipedia)
    -A Year in the Merde (Wikipedia)
    -ESSAY: How to play the French service game ... and win: When it comes to France, it's not so much where you go that matters, but how you do it. (Stephen Clarke, January 23, 2005, The Observer)
    -ARCHIVES: "stephen clarke" (Find Articles)
    -PROFILE: Merde turns to gold (Lanie Goodman, June 29, 2004, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW: Stephen Clarke Interview (WriteWords)
    -ESSAY: Holding the mirror up to vanity (Jon Henley, April 14, 2005, Guardian Unlimited)
    -INTERVIEW: Writers on Music: Stephen Clarke (Jerry Sticker, August 22, 2006, Identity Theory)
    -REVIEW: of A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke (DONALD MORRISON, TIME Europe)
    -REVIEW: of A Year in the Merde (Patrick Middleton, Riviera Reporter)
    -REVIEW: of A Year in the Merde (John M. Formy-Duval,
    -REVIEW: of A Year in the Merde (Kelly Monaghan, Intrepid Traveler)
    -REVIEW: of A Year in the Merde (Belle V., Paris through Expat Eyes)
    -REVIEW: of A Year in the Merde (Janet McAllister, NZ Herald)
    -REVIEW: of A Year in the Merde (Victor Kramer, Bonjour Paris)
    -REVIEW: of A Year in the Merde (Farah Nayeri, Bloomberg)
    -REVIEW: of A Year in the Merde (Ciao)

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