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Finding humor in some messy situations

Brit Stephen Clarke's insights into life in Paris translate into bestsellers. It happens.

July 31, 2007|Marjorie Miller | Times Staff Writer

PARIS -- So many writers come to France to write, and so many of them make la merde out of their careers, but British author Stephen Clarke is the only one I know of who has made a career out of la merde. Three books worth, to be precise: "A Year in the Merde," "Merde Actually" and, published in Britain this month, "Merde Happens." (It's scheduled to be published in the United States next May, according to his agent, although the impatient can order it through Amazon UK). These humorous novels are a hit in French airports and have made it onto various bestseller lists, giving Clarke a reputation as an outsider who actually, more or less, gets the French.

His first two titles are knockoffs of "A Year in Provence" and "Love Actually," but the excrement part is his alone, taken from the ubiquitous dog droppings on the sidewalks of Paris and the fact that his main character, Paul West, is constantly stepping into it, literally and figuratively.

West is a 27-year-old Brit who comes to Paris in the first book to help his French boss open a chain of tearooms. He runs up against the French "work culture," with a lot of cheek kissing and long meetings that result in very little. He experiences the fine art of stalling, encounters world-class French bureaucrats and has a few liaisons dangereuses, including one with his boss' daughter, before striking out on his own.

The saga continues in "Merde Actually," and in his new book, "Merde Happens," West heads for America with his French girlfriend to drive cross-country in a Mini with a Union Jack paint job in a competition to promote Britain as a tourism destination. It is a contest he needs to win because he needs the prize money to pay the hefty taxes on his tea business back in France.

Throughout the books, Clarke offers lessons on the French for all who venture into the heart of good living, and observations on the United States from Boston to Los Angeles, most of the time with self-deprecating British humor. Just to reinforce his expert status, he also wrote a kind of PowerPoint presentation in "Talk to the Snail, Ten Commandments for Understanding the French."

"I like France and I really like America. The politics are as stupid as they are in any other country, of course," Clarke said at a recent reading. "But you can only write my sort of book if you actually like a country." Clarke's sort of book might be described as British lad lit, that male version of breathless Bridget Jones-style chick lit, except that if the crowd at his recent W.H. Smith reading is any indication, women are his biggest fans. Turns out they like food and sex as much as Paul West does.

The bookstore on Rue de Rivoli is known as the Librairie Anglais, but the reading of "Merde Happens" started with a very French glass of Champagne. The English, Spanish and French guests nodded as Clarke expressed amazement at an American society that tolerates unrelenting violence on television, but won't allow Janet Jackson's nipple to be exposed -- or, for that matter, the name of his book to be mentioned in many print and broadcast media.

"They invite me to speak but don't want me to say the name of my book, so what am I supposed to talk about?" Clarke said. "They don't see a contradiction. You can have free speech and say really nasty things on the Internet, but you can't show a nipple on TV or even on the beach. Why doesn't the Puritanism apply to violence on TV?" It's a popular viewpoint in Europe. In France, newsstands display sexually explicit posters. But then the title of Clarke's first book was changed to "God Save La France" in its French edition, because "A Year in the Merde" apparently was deemed too impolite. So we all have our contradictions. Shrug. Clarke has come to understand the French shrug in his 14 years here, as well. It is a pursed-lipped, lifted-shoulder expression that he says may mean "it's not my problem" or "don't bother me." Or a few other things. "If a Parisian shrugged hard enough, he could convince a nuclear missile that it wasn't worth landing on the city," Paul West tells us in "Merde Happens."

The French have given more of a nod than a shrug to Clarke's portrait of their country and themselves, although only the first book has been translated here so far.

"Let's be honest, his novel alternates spicy anecdotes and lousy accusations, subtle observations and inane tricks," wrote Marianne Payot in L'Express magazine. "Yet even the latter will turn out to have a salutary effect on the perception born and raised British have of the Gallic people."

After working for HarperCollins in London, where he researched new words for the dictionary, Clarke came to Paris to work for a press agency. He quickly fell in with the French philosophy that hard work is too much hard work. "We live to work, they work to live and maintain a lifestyle," Clarke said over double espresso the morning after the reading.

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