THE NOTEBOOKS OF MAJOR THOMPSON (213 pp.)Pierre DaninosKnopf ($2.95).
Books about sexuality are not always as popular as books about nationality. Forever Amber, for example, sold 300,000 copies in France, but The Notebooks of Major Thompson, which is a Frenchman's idea of a Briton's idea of France, has sold 400,000 in the past year alone. One reason for the Major's triumph over Amber is that the Frenchman's need for national unity seems to go even deeper than his absorption in female cleavage. As for American readers, they may stand aside, laughing, and for once watch the fish of other nations being fried.
Major Thompson is a retired, red-faced British officer who wears a bowler hat and barks "By Jove!" His name is, of course, Marmaduke, but Humorist Daninos, not wishing to make his countrymen die laughing, has not named the major's son Fauntleroy. The major's first wife, Ursula, was a British horsewoman with a face like a mare, feet like briefcases and that aversion to sex which most Britons have had since they became neighbors of the French. "Do as I did," Ursula's mother advises, "just close your eyes and think of England!" After Ursula has taken her last toss ("She fell at Bombay in the Viceroy's Cup, when the hurdle had been put up to six feet"), Widower Marmaduke marries a typical Frenchwoman named Martine, the tenderest strand of honeysuckle that ever twined round a rock of Gibraltar. Martine has none of Ursula's stamina at lacrosse, but on the field of l'amour can play tirelessly for hours, "devoting to love," says happy Marmaduke, "the care we [British] bring to making tea."
Some of Humorist Daninos' humorous clichés may turn the clock back half a century. But American readers will find fun as well as truth in such extravaganzas as the major's sweeping portrait of the French nation:
"Really! How can you define people who spend their Sundays proclaiming themselves republicans and the rest of the week worshiping the Queen of England, who call themselves modest yet always talk about being the torchbearers of civilization ... who keep their hearts in France and their fortunes abroad . . . who say they love purity of line but cherish an affection for the Eiffel Tower . . . who loathe crossing a frontier without smuggling something just to be doing it but dislike not being legally en règle . . . and finally, who are delighted when one of their great men talks to them of their greatness, their great civilizing mission ... but who dream of nothing except to retire, after a pleasant little life, to a quiet little corner . . . with a little wife who will be satisfied with inexpensive little dresses ..."