Leave it to the Brits to stick it to the French. In finding the mordant humor in almost anything, especially humor-impaired French intellectuals, the British are peerless. They leave Americans, to say nothing of the French, in the Parisian muck.
In her enchanting and lively novel "Left Bank" (Viking, $25), Kate Muir, a columnist for the Saturday Times of London and a former French correspondent, has taken on not any Parisian couple but the impossibly photogenic, eminently quotable philosophe/stud Bernard-Henri Levy and his pulchritudinous actress/singer wife, Arielle Dombasle, to which the reader can only ask in amazement: "What took anyone this long?" The couple have long seemed more fictional than real.
In "Left Bank," the characters are named Olivier and Madison Malin; Madison is from Texas instead of Dombasle's native Connecticut. There are plenty of toss-away comments about Olivier's competition with the real Levy, but anyone can tell it's them, down to the exquisite clothes, magnificent tresses (Levy is the best-coiffed philosopher since Soren Kierkegaard, enough cause for jealousy right there), and a love of the camera over everything quotidian. "Both were regularly pictured either demonstrating against or dining with government ministers, depending on the Zeitgeist," Muir quips.
They are, of course, bored with each other and ghastly parents to their young daughter, Sabine, who has the temerity to appear suspiciously average. Olivier has quite forgotten that in falling for a thin beauty, he will be married to a woman who smokes for lunch and confuses aesthetic maintenance for faith.
Into this soulless arrangement, where the couple appear to have everything (wealth, pedigree and talent) but love, comes a comely English nanny, Anna Ayers, to disturb the balance. Anna is perhaps too centered for either of them. Olivier craves affairs to spark his life and work - though not his marriage. Madison acts both as if she is having an affair and is indifferent to her husband's behavior. Neither is true. But Anna's presence is a time bomb.
Perhaps because she's middle-class and British, Muir has perhaps too much affection for Anna, who cares about Sabine - though not so much as to resist her father's advances. Muir gets the French, though, adores Paris, and clearly had enormous fun writing "Left Bank." She's best at her most dangerous, wielding words like a butcher knife.
The book is filled with Wildean lobs:
"The English," snorted Olivier. "They always come on time, which is far too early."
Or a food writer's mash note to a potato:
If he'd tasted it, Baudelaire wouldn't have succumbed to opium and Verlaine would have given up absinthe.
Olivier is a self-described gastrophilosophe who believes that "food is for the soul," and the book contains a marvelous moment of true cheese porn. Muir has created a nosy, pious monster of a concierge, part-Hitchcock, part-Balzac and seemingly true. Olivier's parents are flinty landed nobility with an estate filled with dust mites and bloody game, not much different from the British variety except for superior potables.
The salon of miscreants who populate the Malins' lives are exquisitely rendered, given to saying such things as "the greatest honor is having an Hermes handbag named after you." And who can fault a novel that makes persistent fun of incendiary French writer Michel Houellebecq?
Alas, just as BHL and Dombasle seem to have been given too much and more, Muir is here to punish the Malins. Olivier, a bourgeois in denial, is saddled with a too-young paramour and, unfathomably, a crise de conscience. "Olivier feels he's carrying so much guilt that he can't hold anything else." A rich, handsome, adulterous French philosophe pained with feelings of culpability? Mon Dieu! Equally astonishing, Madison, never taken seriously except unclothed, embraces food, gains (some) weight and plays ugly to win accolades on stage performing Beckett.
In a world filled with unfunny trifles, Left Bank is that rare comic novel of manners, sparkling satire of a most deserving tribe.