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The Times January 15, 2005

Pierre Daninos

French humorist who wrung amiable social satire from his creation of an archetypal English gentleman, Major Thompson

THE French writer and journalist Pierre Daninos was the creator of one of France’s most influential literary characters of the last half-century, Major Thompson, the archetype of the somewhat stiff, always correct and well-mannered Times-reading Englishman in bowler hat and pinstriped trousers with impeccable moustache and equally neat umbrella.

Here was a Frenchman’s take on the mindset of that most eccentric of beings: the retired army officer from over the Channel, steeped in the values of Empire and public schools, a close cousin of the Colonel Blimps and other denizens of Cheltenham villas or gentlemen’s clubs. Except that this major was living in France because of his marriage to a French woman. And so, in Daninos’s Les Carnets du Major Thompson (1954), we have a Frenchman observing an Englishman observing the French.

Between entente cordiale and misunderstanding, Daninos worked this rich seam with humour that was finely observed, sometimes acerbic but never aggressive, and bequeathed a host of aphorisms and observations: “A Frenchman without a mistress is like an Englishman without a club”; “The English taught the world table manners, but the French eat.” In the 1950s and 1960s, Major W. Marmaduke Thompson was to Englishness and Franco-English relations what Bridget Jones is to the modern singleton.

Like Bridget Jones, the Major began as a newspaper serial, in this case for Le Figaro, where Daninos was employed as a chronicler. Not that it was his first book. In 1947, his Carnet du bon Dieu — the “notebook” form was an ideal vehicle for Daninos’s collection of observations — won the Prix Interallié. Then, in 1952, he won the Prix Courteline, for Sonia, les autres et moi, following it in 1953 with another Sonia tome, Comment vivre avec (ou sans) Sonia.

Born in 1913 into a bourgeois Parisian family, Daninos studied at the respected lycée Janson-de-Sailly. As a journalist, he tended to the lighter side, writing a great deal about golf — an eminently British sport in those days — and tennis, his great passion.

Pressed into service in 1939, Daninos served as a liaison officer between the French and British forces in Flanders that were eventually pushed back to Dunkirk. There he met the English officer who, 15 years later, would provide him with the model and mindset for Major Thompson.

“He helped me see France and the French in a new way, and enabled me to write things I would never have imagined without him,” Daninos said.

When the French Government capitulated in 1940, Daninos went to Rio de Janeiro, and published his first novel, Le Sang des hommes, simultaneouly there and in Lausanne. His second, Méridiens, was published by Julliard in 1945. Before fetching up at Le Figaro, he wrote columns for Vendredi, Paris-Soir and, finally, Match.

Major Thompson was an instant hit. Translated into 28 languages — one wonders how it was read on the other side of the Iron Curtain — it went on to sell two million copies in France alone and was immediately taken up by Hollywood.

Unfortunately, a tired Preston Sturges was not the man to save The French They Are a Funny Race (1956) — a title which fully reflects the film’s crudeness — from turkeydom.

Daninos produced a string of further Major Thompson titles, from Le Secret du Major Thompson (Major Thompson and I) to Le Major Tricolore (Major Thompson Goes French, 1968) and, finally, in 2000, Les Derniers carnets de Major Thompson (2000).

Always an amusing observer of social tics and types, he also nailed the hyper-average Frenchman with Un Certain Monsieur Blot (1960), and explored the absurdities of modern jargoneering in Le Jacassin (1962) and snobbery in Snobissimo (1964). Tourists and parvenus would be among his later targets.

Of course, one expects the humorist to have a darker side, and Daninos revealed his frankly in 1966 with Le 36ème Dessous, an account of depression and self-doubt in which the author stands before us in confessional mode.

But just how integral the wit was to Daninos’s make-up was demonstrated in 1967 when, after a near-fatal car accident, he went into a seven-day coma yet continued talking, as if dictating his newspaper columns to some imaginary secretary.

Daninos married Jane Marrain in 1942 and Marie-Pierre Dourneau in 1968. He is also survived by one son and two daughters from his first marriage.

Pierre Daninos, writer and journalist, was born on May 26, 1913. He died on January 7, 2005, aged 91.

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