Very French Delights

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 Première Gorgée de Bière" ("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 café 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 rosé 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 rosé-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. So Delerm writes about carrying pocketknives, but he is also writing about his own grandfather. He was a farmer with a knife "that he would take from his pocket at lunchtime, skewering slices of sausage with the point, slowly peeling an apple." At the end of the meal he would close it "with an ample and ceremonious gesture … and that would mean for everyone that it was time to go back to work.

Today pocketknives have become chic, and many men in France carry them. A block from the café where we sat, the Forge de Laguiole has models that cost hundreds, even thousands, of euros. "But a knife for what?" Delerm asks in his essay. It's about the "absolute pleasure of egotism," Delerm writes, "a beautiful useless thing … an object that is all for you, that you take out from time to time, never to make use of, but to touch, to look at, and for the blessed satisfaction of opening and closing it."

Maybe all this is just too French for readers in Britain or the United States, where the translations of Delerm's book ("Small Pleasures of Life" in the U.K. and "We Could Almost Eat Outside" in the U.S.) did not have much success. And maybe that's because the people the French call "Anglo-Saxons" do not value what Delerm calls "laziness" as much as the French do. Delerm laughs at the ethic preached by the hyperkinetic, Ray-Ban-wearing, corporate-jet-traveling, ostentatiously Anglophile French President Nicolas Sarkozy: "You have to work," says Delerm, parodying. "And what is the recompense for work? Ah, well, having worked!"

As we finish the wine, I try to coax from Delerm his idea of minuscule pleasures for the 21st century. The wonders of technology, for the most part, hold little fascination for him. He composes in large notebooks, then hammers out his manuscripts on an electric typewriter. No computers at all. He drives an old Peugeot. But one thing that does come to mind: the projection TV his son encouraged him to buy. "Watching movies projected on a wall—ah, that is like the magic lantern in Proust," he says. "What is important is to try to re-enchant even the most banal things. In fact, if you know how to stop and look, there are so many things that are sources of rich experience, whether you possess them or not."

And in Paris, dare we say it, you just have to stop and smell the rosé.