One of the first dramatic conflicts to propel The Map And The Territory, Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, is a quintessentially French scene of heroism and vexation: the protagonist’s water-heater wheezes, hisses, sputters, peters out and dies. It’s Christmas Eve (when else for a water-heater to die but on extended week-end holidays, or, at best, on Sundays?). Jed Martin, a painter with an idiosyncratic interest in industrial objects, calls all the plumbers in the yellow pages. Few answer. No one comes. Jed, philosophical, or simply used to French customer service, assumes he will spend the winter without heat.
By pure chance (this is a novel), he finds a Croatian immigrant who agrees to look at the deceased heater and tightens one or two bolts. A year later, the same water-heater has been holding on, to Jed’s surprise.
Anyone who has attempted to live in France for a little while in an indigenous apartment knows that French objects, specifically household appliances, have a will and a life cycle of their own. “Low-maintenance” is not an attribute for girlfriends: it is the national motto when it comes to machine upkeep. And so freezers are comfortably coated by a heavy snowpack. Glasses and plates emerge from the dishwasher dusted with a light, whitish powder that looks, but does not taste, like confectioner’s sugar.
Being brought up in France means growing up amidst a particular soundscape. Doors creak, parquets squeak. On rainy days, a low-pitched draft hoots and hisses through the inch-wide gap between window and window frame. And the slow, steady drip of a kitchen’s sink perforates the nights.
These are not things to be fixed: these are the texture of life.
In the last three years, there’s been a lot of talk about “fixing the economy.” This is not the kind of metaphor likely to be heard in France, even in an election year and an unemployment rate flirting with 10%. For starters, when you find yourself surrounded by countries on the verge of collapse, you would happily content yourself with keeping things afloat. But there is something deeper in the French reluctance to approach economic policy with the good-hearted optimism of an auto mechanic. What is being constantly left out from the recent coverage of the European crisis is the different cultures of work among otherwise similar economies. The imperative to work pervades the American psyche and its idiom: you work-out before work, you work on yourself not to get too worked up, and from baby steps to graduation and retirement, every accomplishment is applauded with a “Good job!” or a “Nice work.” Incidentally, the primary auxiliary of the English language is “to do.”
By contrast, work is an unavoidable drag in France, an inconvenient time-sucker that exposes class relations, routinely gives way to abuse of authority, and keeps you away from the things you really like doing. In the national imagination, the landmarks of social progress in the last 150 years have almost always involved laws to reduce the legal workload (the first law of this type, in 1841, set the legal work day for children age 8 to 12 to eight hours, to twelve hours for teenagers 12 to 16; since 2000, and in spite of many exceptions, the legal work week is now 35 hours in companies of more than 20 employees). The only time in French history that “travail” became a national slogan was when the Vichy Regime replaced the Republican motto “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” with its own “Famille, Travail, Patrie.” Hardly a great memory. “Travail” has too much historical baggage, first in its etymology, the Latin tripalium, which designates a torture device made of three sharpened stakes.
“Work” in English has this optimistic, “you-can-do-it” overtone: “Work hard, and things will work out,” it clamors. In French, “travail” plain hurts.
I moved from France to Boston, and then California almost ten years ago. It is fair to say that I’ve more than complied to the overachiever’s ethics of my new homeland. But—dare I say so? —the French curmudgeon in me secretly complains about the 70 hours workweek; mine, and that of everyone else around me. I am troubled by the affability of the Safeway clerk, often well over 65, who tries to spell out my name as he thanks me for my business at 11pm on a Sunday. I am troubled that after working over forty years, my best friend’s mother, a frail 5’’ feet tall woman in her 70s, still commutes two hours each way to run a social services center that caters to even older, more destitute elderly. And I am troubled that no one around seems to think that much about it.
And yet I sometimes catch myself being dangerously won over by the expectations that for things to work, people should surrender their right not to. I recently became surprisingly annoyed that the spinning cycle of our washing machine did not drain anymore. My old self would have been tactfully overlooking the topic, tiptoeing to the Laundromat around the corner instead of facing the beast. (When our vacuum broke five years ago I had proposed what I deemed a perfectly elegant solution: I suggested we invest in something called “a broom.”) Call it entering middle-class, or adulthood, or acculturation, but this time unloading drenched cloths did not feel right. (By that time, though, my American husband was Frenchified enough to let things stand as they were, wash after wash, in a state of blissful short-term memory loss).
After a few weeks, make that months, in any event by the time we had entered the rainy season and drying clothes in our apartment evoked less and less the sexy setting of a Swedish steam-room and more and more the pitiful spectacle of a campground caught in the autumn rain, I went online and bought a new washing machine in a few clicks. Like. That. I got it delivered on Martin Luther King, Jr. day—a holiday (I could not bring myself to click “Sunday delivery”: if making people work on MLK already felt like class betrayal, one is most certainly stripped down from French citizenship for a Sunday delivery).
We did a wash. It worked. I felt guilty. And giddy. And grown-up. And a defector. And then I just got used to it.
But reading Houellebecq’s The Map and The Territory, with all its autochthonous ironies of water-heater huffing and puffing and low-price air carriers barely making it across the channel, I started to long for the broken appliances of my youth. The dishwasher that my grandmother never got around to plug into a grounded outlet and that sent prickly jolts whenever we touched its metallic handle. The 40 pound gas cylinder that fuelled the water-heater and stove and would systematically run out of steam when the slow-cooker was just starting to hiss—half an hour before the roast and potatoes were done. The ever-running toilets. The complaints of the repairman, obfuscated (when he came) that we dared to “disturb” him before the fridge or the dishwasher were dead dead, immediately announcing that he would have to come back, if he had time, with The (invariably missing) Tool.The excruciating Sundays, when every shop is closed, that stretch like an Andy Wharol movie.
What do we lose when we get what we want? What do we loose when we expect Sunday deliveries and 24hr white-teethed customer service? We surrender our and others’ rights to close shop on Sundays. We neglect to retire before it’s too late to pull a plastic chair by the porch to watch the fireflies in the bluer summer light. We forfeit the shapeless haze of daydreams, forget to smile rather than panic when we do nothing, forgo making love among wet cloths hanging from chairs and bookshelves in the living-room. We fix the imperfections of our grandparents’ lives. We eat overcooked potatoes.
At 2 a.m., we lie in bed, waiting for the slow, rhythmic drip of the kitchen sink. Instead, we float, alone, in the impeccable silence of our bright, new, smooth appliances.