Very French Delights
Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek International
Byline: Christopher Dickey
What could be more luxurious than a glass of rose, Stan Smith sneakers or a pocketknife?
In 1997, Philippe Delerm, a professor of French at a small high school in Normandy, published a slender volume of very brief essays about what he called "minuscule pleasures." Since then, "La Premiere Gorgee de Biere" ("The First Big Swallow of Beer") has sold more than 1.3 million copies in France, where pleasure is a kind of religion, and has been translated into some 30 languages around the world.
In its way, Delerm's book defines the experience of luxury, but if the sensation is just about money, of which Delerm now has a fair amount, he's not much interested. The nuances of delight are what fascinate him. "A lot of people have access to 'luxury' without feeling much pleasure from it," says Delerm. And what would be the point of that?
So on a beautiful late afternoon in mid-May, in an outdoor cafe on a quiet pedestrian passage near the Madeleine in central Paris, we started our conversation by talking about some of the simpler delights to be had this time of year. We drank, not beer, but rose wine, which comes in more shades of pink than a tea rose and is a harbinger of summer in France. When the sun is hot and the jackets come off, just about everyone in Paris sees the world through rose-filled glasses.
We talked about shoes, and what old sneakers have to do with luxury. What greater pleasure than worn-in Stan Smiths from Adidas, their white leather a little cracked, the laces slightly gray, but perfectly molded to your feet from years of long walks on summer days, and named for an erstwhile icon of on-court grace. "Does anyone remember Stan Smith?" asks Delerm, who is 57. "I suppose he won some Grand Slams, but now I think he is remembered mainly for the shoes. My son wears them." He smiles. "He bought a tiny pair for my grandson." Delerm makes as if holding one between his thumb and forefinger. "Being a grandfather is a real pleasure."
For Delerm, the magic of things lies not in their cost or status but in their association with people, with memories and with the sensation of well-being. And those are characteristics immune to economic realities. His perceptions are very deeply rooted in family and in the particularities of Gallic life. His essays are also, essentially, about the pleasures experienced by men. …