The French Art of Not Trying too Hard by Ollivier Pourriol, translated by Helen Stevenson

There’s a popular publishing genre that has French authors tell les rosbifs where we’re going wrong. French Children Don’t Throw Food, French Women Don’t Get Fat, French Women Don’t Get Facelifts, French Women Are Eyeing Up Your Husband Even Now … Whenever a slender Parisian intones: “Il faut souffrir pour être belle” (“one must suffer to be beautiful”), I want to say: “Faut off.”

What cultural cringe, what sense of national inadequacy makes us buy these books? The Relay bookshop next to the Eurostar terminal in the Gare du Nord was always full of them. In distant mini-break days, you could buy a copy of How to Be Parisian to take home on the train. One day I’ll write a book called Mustn’t Grumble: The British Art of Not Making a Fuss. Proposed chapters: “Never mind, it could be worse”, “No, please, after you” and “Cheer up, love, it might never happen”. I don’t suppose the French would buy it.

The latest in smuggery-shruggery is the philosopher Ollivier Pourriol’s The French Art of Not Trying Too Hard. While the books marketed at women preach discipline, elegance and the sensual pleasure of a very small square of very dark chocolate, Pourriol draws on sports science, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and the collective wisdom of Zinedine Zidane, Jean-Paul Sartre and the man who walked a high-wire between the Twin Towers for a laissez-faire guide to self-help. This is a book for those who aspire to the déshabillé, Serge-Gainsbourg-and-Jane-Birkin-morning-after look and the studied negligence of the Parisian Bobo (bourgeois-bohemian).

Whenever a slender Parisian intones: “Il faut souffrir pour être belle” (“one must suffer to be beautiful”), I want to say: “Faut off.”

What then is this mysterious “Frenchness?” Pourriol asks. This effortlessness the world so admires? The author traces its origins to the Grand Siècle (17th century) and the spirit of the royal court of Louis XIV, when prominent thinkers allied good taste with the aristocratic phrases “je ne sais quoi” or “presque rien” — an “elusive something” or “almost nothing”.

Social and material success depended on apparent naturalness, ease of bearing and grace in manners. After the Revolution, the opposite was true. What mattered was equality and the value of work. Merit, not birth. The cry of La Marseillaise: “Aux armes, citoyens!” is a call to be up and industriously doing. “But curiously,” Pourriol explains, “the idea of ease, an eminently royal notion, survived, as though the Revolution, far from wiping out royalty, extended it to everyone, transforming every citizen into a monarch. Dead is He! Long live Me!” He posits that the reason the French are “so ill-disciplined, capricious and prone to complaining is because in each of them exists a monarchic streak, concerned only with their own pleasure”.

While the books marketed at women preach the sensual pleasure of a very small square of very dark chocolate, Pourriol draws on the collective wisdom of Zidane and Sartre.

Bien, et alors. How to channel our inner Louis le Grand? Here, Pourriol’s thesis divides confusingly in two. On the one hand, he argues that effortlessness is an art. It’s about daydreaming, breathing, sleeping and imagination. On the other, it’s an act of intense dedication. He writes at length about Gladwell’s scheme that with 10,000 hours of practice anyone can excel in a chosen field. Yet hard work takes you only so far. Pourriol argues for deliberately wasting time, for nonchalance, for reading, reflection and leisure. God loves a trier — but don’t be seen to be trying.

Pourriol quotes Françoise Sagan, whose novel Bonjour Tristesse was published when she was just 18, on the importance of being lazy. “Books are made to a large extent out of wasted time, daydreaming, thinking about nothing.” When her writing “takes off”, when she sees “the miracle of sentences mounting up”, it’s as if her mind “functions almost outside itself”. At such unstoppable moments she feels “like the queen of words”.

The surrealist André Breton commended the approach of the French poet Saint-Pol-Roux, who before taking a nap would hang a sign on his door saying: “POET AT WORK.” André Gide envied the spontaneity and élan of Stendhal: “Stendhal’s great secret, his special trick, was to write straight off … This gave his writing a certain wide-awake, ‘got-it-first-time’ quality, something unexpected and sudden … If we hesitate, we are lost.”

“Spontaneous Zen”

The French title of this book was Facile: L’Art Français de Réussir sans Forcer. Facile is one word for it. What a lot of a superficial Gallic waffle; a mix of philosophical dribblings and statements of l’evidence sanglante. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop with quotes from Descartes.

There’s much blather about breath and balance and being present and trance and harmony and recentering and “spontaneous Zen” and being “in the zone” and “nature is a generous goddess” and the odd good line from Montaigne. Pourriol can’t half waffle on. Try this: “The way you think of energy is decisive, because your way of imagining energy will either galvanise you or not. In a word, your imagination is at the heart of your life. It’s what forms your body image, and structures the nature of the exchanges between yourself and the world; it’s what weaves you. The imagination nourishes the will, by supplying it with images.” Quoi? This goes on for several pages.

It’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop with quotes from Descartes.

Some sentences read like Instagram #inspiration: “The sea doesn’t think, it’s happy just to be.” The chapter on the world-record-holding free-diver Jacques Mayol ends: “He doesn’t float in the ether of unconsciousness, he swims in the bliss of his dreams. Like a dolphin in the water.” Pourriol likes a mixed metaphor. One minute we’re surfing the wave of words, the next skipping the warm-up and learning how to ride a bike or horse without a safety net.

Pourriol is the author of a previous book, Thus Spoke Yoda, and he quotes the Jedi Master here. Yoda’s words more or less sum up the advice of this gnomic, nonsensical book. “No. Try not,” Yoda tells Luke Skywalker. “Do or do not. There is no try.”