Monday, November 18, 2019

A survey of literary gangsters of the 1920s - “We got to keep amused, haven’t we?”

I’ve been reading heavily, over the last year or two, in the literature of the 1920s, and that means one thing: gangsters.  Criminals who organize their crimes.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and The Threepenny Opera (1928) are German variations on the theme.  The Odessa Stories (1923-4), Isaac Babel’s other masterpiece, cover a Russian version.

Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza (1989) takes care of Japan.  This one is non-fiction – I believe it is thought to be accurate, but with this subject, who knows.  Junichi describes his life from roughly the 1910s through the 1940s, but the 1920s get disproportionate attention, when he was setting himself up as a Yakuza, primarily, says he, in the gambling racket.  The section about the 1923 Tokyo earthquake alone is worth reading, if you do not mind that it is a horrible nightmare.  Recommended to anyone interested in Japanese culture – this is not a story I had seen anywhere else.

The United States is at this point going through the episode of mass delusion known as Prohibition, giving gangster plenty to do.  They enter literature slowly.  The earliest I encountered are in The Great Gatsby (1925), where they are either a minor or major part of the story depending on how receptive you are to  - now here I am going to refer to an idea that is not exactly a spoiler of the plot, but is perhaps something worse – to the idea of Gatsby as murder mystery.  Meaning, does our narrator Nick get Gatsby’s murder right, and if he gets it wrong is he ignorant or obfuscating, and if the latter is it unconscious (hiding something from himself) or purposeful (hiding something from me).  Regardless, any complete interpretation of the novel had better figure out what to do with the gangsters and Gatsby’s con-artist bond scheme.

Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” is the next place I get a good dose of gangsterism.  The twelve-page story spends eight pages just watching a couple of hired killers perform, like an early version of Pulp Fiction.  “In their tight overcoats and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team.”  They act like a vaudeville team.

“I don’t like it,” said Al.  “It’s sloppy.  You talk too much.”

“Oh, what the hell,” said Max.  “We got to keep amused, haven’t we?”

A curious, possibly central, aspect of enjoying Hemingway’s writing as art is feeling where he slips into kitsch, but this entire story is about someone else’s kitsch, a representation of kitsch, which is perhaps why it is so good.

1929 saw two great monuments to the American gangster.  One is Dashiell Hammett’s violent, lunatic Red Harvest, in which a detective solves a town’s gangster problem by arranging the murder – occasionally personally murdering – every thug who lives there.  Around the three-quarter mark, I was thinking that I should have kept track of the murders, but then in Chapter 16 the detective tallies them up for me: “’That’s sixteen of them in less than a week, and more coming up,’” and the next chapter is actually titled “The Seventeenth Murder.”

The other book, not as good but possibly more important, is W. R. Burnett’s Little Caesar, a nominally realistic picture of Chicago’s small-time gangs, with Capone as the big figure in the background.  Burnett’s great problem, as he spent years on this book, was that he wanted it to be literature, to sound like Edith Wharton or something, but at some point he realized that he should use the simpler, almost stupid, language of the gangster’s themselves, or at least something that sounded like their language.

Rico [our little hero] smiled.  Then he took out his billfold and handed Seal Skin a ten.

“There’s a little cush for you.  You ain’t sore at me cause I socked you, are you?  I got red hot mad, that’s all.”

“You didn’t sock me hard,” said Seal Skin, “but it was ten dollars’ worth.”  (Ch. 6)

This kind of writing is pretty much screenplay-ready, so it is no surprise that the film that made Edward G. Robinson famous appeared in 1931.  More surprising is that it spurred a wave of gangster films, including Public Enemy and Scarface (which Burnett co-wrote); in other words, Burnett’s novel led to the creation of the genre of the gangster film.  Amazingly, Burnett pulled off the same trick a second time, writing the heist novel The Asphalt Jungle (1949), which is made in to a heist film that more or less creates or popularizes the genre of heist film.

This particular kind of high-speed entanglement of literature and film seems like something new.

As far as I can tell, nothing by W. R. Burnett is currently in print in the U.S.  We have so little sense of history.  Heaps of Burnett novels, Westerns, mysteries, everything, are in print in France, of course.

Monday, November 11, 2019

I counted American books in French bookstores - a study, with methodology and results and so on

Now, something about the French reading Americans, rather than me reading the French.

In July, I counted the titles by American fiction writers on the shelves at a French bookstore.  I even made a few notes, although most of what I include here is from memory.

The exercise was just to count the number of titles.  Prestige as measured by the proxy of shelf space.  Likely also sales, but who knows.  These are for-profit bookstores.  I doubt they have much on the shelf just for show.  They want to sell books.  They know their readers.

So, which American authors had the most titles on the shelves of a particular French bookstore in July?  There was a tie, two authors with 21 titles each.  You can guess while reviewing my methodology.

The bookstore I studied carefully was Librairie Passages, an exemplar of the mainstream bookstore.  I checked my results, pretty casually, at Le Bal des Ardents, Lyon’s most picturesque bookstore (see left), and the Decitre at the mall, which is the closest bookstore to the main public library.  The library is almost in the mall.  French life is well organized.

Le Bal des Ardents is weirder than Passages, with more tiny presses and oddities.  It is more highbrow, with, for example, the Complete Works of Antonin Artaud in 26 volumes on the shelf – who is buying this?  Decitre is populist – mall bookstore – but local, a branch of a century-old Lyon institution.

My American control is Prairie Lights in Iowa City, the best bookstore for hundreds of miles in any direction, which I visited in August.  It is not a typical bookstore, since Iowa City is the home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a UNESCO City of Literature.  All of these bookstores are roughly the same size, I think.

The non-American winner – I was not even counting non-Americans, but he stood out – was Stefan Zweig, who had 50 books (not titles, too many books to check for duplicates) on the shelf at Passages.  50 books!  Stefan Zweig!  Prairie Lights had one book, maybe.

The American winners at Passages were Philip Roth and Jack London.   Roth I had guessed myself.  But London!  London has a much higher status in France than in the U.S. Prairie Lights had a dozen or more Roth titles out, but just two by London, among the “adult” books, I mean, The Call of the Wild and I don’t remember.  Maybe there were more downstairs with the kid’s books.

The runners-up, all in the 10-to-12 title range:  Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Jim Harrison.  Living writers in the same range: Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison (alive then), Don DeLillo, Paul Auster.  I may have missed some of these.  I would have thought that Poe would be out of the running by this counting measure, but his works are rearranged into enough editions that he was close.

I did not jot down the numbers, but at Le Bal des Ardents, the winner (with fewer than 20 titles) was easily Faulkner, and second, including Russian works, was Vladimir Nabokov, who only had a few books at Passages.

Prairie Lights was generally similar.  Big differences, besides London: just three books by Joyce Carol Oates, and two or three by Kerouac.  I was surprised that it had as many Jim Harrison titles.  Maybe an artifact of the special qualities of that store.

Harrison mentions, several times, in the essays in A Really Big Lunch (2017), that his popularity at some point moved to France:

Luckily my books do very well in France…  The French saved my little family for which I’ll always be grateful.  I had many bestsellers over there but never in America.  (p. 265)

I remember Roth somewhere describing the same phenomenon (substituting Europe for France – German readers buy a lot of Roth).  It has struck me that French readers, or some of them, a lot of them, are interested in outsized American masculinity, thus the relatively high status of London, Hemingway, Kerouac, Harrison, and also noir detective novels and maybe even Oates.

Or maybe they like Harrison because of his many passages like this:

I have often thought that if I received an early warning that I would pass on sooner than later, I’d get myself to Lyon and eat for a solid month, after which they could tip me from a gurney into the blessed Rhône.  (164)

A kindred spirit.  Classic Lyon cuisine is not the healthiest food in France.

At the mall bookstore, the Americans with the most titles were, maybe – I did not keep exact track – Stephen King and George R. R. Martin and Mary Higgins Clark, like that.  Actually, it was probably a comic book writer, Geoff Johns or Stan Lee.  This was not true at Passages (I checked).  Donna Leon was up there, but nowhere near 21 books.

Anyway, something a little bit more concrete to go with all of the other impressions I have picked up.  How do other people think about literature, that is the endlessly interesting question.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Modern French poets of the 19th century - “Read me, to learn to love me.”

One good reason that these posts do not get written is that I start poking around in the texts themselves, and since I now want to race through post-Romantic French poetry, I find myself a bit crushed.  Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé – it is all so wonderful.  And those are just the giants of the period.

In his “Épigraphe pour un livre condamné” (“Epigraph for a condemned book”), Baudelaire urges his “quiet” and “sober” readers to throw away his book Les Fleurs du mal, leaving it to those who know how to plunge their eyes into the gulfs.  “Lis-moi, pour apprendre à m'aimer” – “Read me, to learn to love me.”

Well, we sure did, even many of us who have never read him. Baudelaire and Les Fleurs du mal (1857) are the beginning, or the beginning of the end if you think it was a wrong turn.  It is because of Baudelaire that Modernism is Modern.

There are many aspects to Baudelaire, even within Les Fleurs du mal; I guess my preferred Baudelaire is the one who brought Romantic ideas about nature to the city.  Romantic in theory, since the young French Romantics have a pretty darn tenuous relationship with actual living nature.  They are awful citified.  Baudelaire is really looking around and writing about what he sees.  If he lived in Jura and wrote about bird’s nests and yeast, he would have been a Romantic, but he lived in Paris and wrote about apartment buildings, which is Modern.

Paris change! mais rien dans ma mélancolie
N'a bougé! palais neufs, échafaudages, blocs,
Vieux faubourgs, tout pour moi devient allégorie
Et mes chers souvenirs sont plus lourds que des rocs.  (from “Le Cygne”)

Paris changes! but nothing in my melancholy
has moved! new palaces, scaffolding, blocks,
Old neighborhoods, for me it all becomes allegory
And my memories are heavier than the rocks.  (from “The Swan”)

I read Les Fleurs du mal in French about a year ago, so I can sympathize with the French students clawing through it for the Bac.  It is pretty hard in places.  Mallarmé is probably still too hard for me, I mean if I am trying to understand him.  Tristan Corbière is too hard, the language too crazy.  Jules Laforgue looks about right.  Arthur Rimbaud is clearly within my level.

The easy one is Paul Verlaine.  Much of his best work, entire (miniature) books, are readable by someone with a semester of French, a real beginner.  The beauty of his sound is audible.  He generally does not use too many words.  They are often such an obstacle to the language-learner, the words.  Verlaine felt like a reward.  When I could not read very much, I could read him.  I have read his first four books in French – “books,” they are such little things – and will keep going someday.

Anyway.  It’s all a marvel.  A rupture.  The beginning of “make it new,” the beginning of  poetic tradition that has stretched with real continuity until – I am not sure.  Possibly not today.  Poetry has a large place in French culture; contemporary poetry, maybe not much at all.  Who knows what will happen.  Meanwhile, French high school students will spend this spring cramming Hugo, Baudelaire, and Apollinaire.  Good luck.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

19th century French fiction crammed into one post

What happens next?  The French novel, French fiction as we know it, finally comes to life in a blast of coffee-fueled energy.  Balzac, Sand, Stendhal, Hugo, then Dumas, Flaubert, Verne, and then Zola and Maupassant, just to stick to the most famous, lots of terrific books that are still widely read and have all kinds of continuity with the French fiction written today.

I’ll blast through them myself, just making a few notes about reading them in French.  Heaven knows if you want to know what I think about Flaubert, that is easy enough to find.  Much of this is familiar to anyone who has taken advanced French.  These are familiar writers, familiar texts.

1.  Almost all of these writers are ideally suited for the punishing or educating of French schoolchildren.  They have written texts of a variety of lengths and difficulties allowing all sorts of clever paths connecting this book to that.

Start Balzac with one of his many short stories or novellas, with Colonel Chabert, move up to Eugénie Grandet, end with Père Goriot.  Maybe put that one on the Bac.  I read one of the possibilities in French, “The Elixir of Long Life” (1831), my fortieth work in the Human Comedy, and the first and only in French.  It is a Don Juan story that otherwise goes pretty much where you would guess from the title.

This year, the big 19th century novel on the Bac is Stendhal, The Red and Black.  The standard shorter Stendhal is Vanina Vanini, which I have not read.  Italian stuff.  For Sand, it’s La Marquise (1832), where the title woman is in charge, pursuing the actor she desires, not a masterpiece but an antidote to the masculinity of a lot of French fiction.  For Flaubert, it’s the Trois Contes (1877), or maybe just the first and easiest story, “A Simple Heart.”  What a triumph, when I finished it – I had read Flaubert in French.  And my French was not that good.

2.  So what do we do with Hugo?  His novels are monsters.

First, there is “Claude Gueux” (1834), a heart-wrenching story about a prisoner, friendship, cruelty, the death penalty – distilled Hugo, champion of the powerless.  As art, if that matters, I thought it was better than the propagandistic novella Diary of a Condemned Man (1829).

Second, French pedagogists have carved up Les Misérables (1862) into many books, not just into abridged editions of a variety of lengths, but more curiously into rearrangements of the novel, often focused on specific characters, so that there is Cosette’s Les Misérables and Gavroche’s Les Misérables.  There is a book titled Jean Valjean (A Journey around some Misérables), like it is a city or a park.  One can imagine an entire Hugo-based curriculum.

There is at least one of these for Balzac, too, The Novel of Vautrin, pulling together scenes featuring Balzac’s great proto-superhero character from many novels.

I don’t know that I approve of this butchery, but I am amazed that it exists.  It is an interesting idea, taking a novel like Les Misérables and returning to it from different directions.  I don’t know that any French teacher is really doing this, but the books exist, and are in print right now.

3.  Zola’s short story “Le grand Michu” (1870) surprised me because of its multiple connections to later French fiction, the whole line of French schoolboy stories, and also to Jean Vigo’s 1933 anarchic masterpiece Zéro de conduite.  The riot at the end of Zola’s story is enacted by Vigo and his little maniacs.  No idea if this is in English.

4.  I discovered that I have more to say, or can babble at greater length, about Guy de Maupassant than I had realized, so let’s cut all that and write more about Maupassant some other time.  He is obviously perfect for infliction upon schoolchildren and French language learners.  His French, at least in his newspaper stories, is pretty darn easy.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The big good poets of French Romanticism - finally I make use of my French - for all of the good it does me

I have in front of me The Oxford Book of French Verse, first published in 1907, “Chosen by St. John Lucas,” a 500 page collection of French poems in French, with only the introduction and notes in English.  Just about half of the book covers the 19th century, and half of that is just four poets: Alphonse de Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, and Alfred de Musset.  Those are the poets I want to linger over here.  You may note that I have skipped the Revolution and the “little bad poets of the Empire,” as the saint calls them (p. xxx).  I was going to say something dismissive, but not that cruel.  For whatever reason, Bonaparte was not good for French literature.

It roared back to life in the 1820s, first with the poets, then the theatre, and then the novel and its variants, but that will be more in the 1830s.  It began with The Poetic Meditations (1820) of Lamartine, and for him that is almost where it ended, since he used his fame to go into politics.  Inventing French Romanticism was only one of his accomplishments.

I am not entirely sure what French Romanticism is.  It is in large part an argument with French Classicism, and I am not so sure what that is.  I am reading an old school edition of Hugo’s Les feuillles d’automnes (Autumn Leaves, 1831) which includes notes about Hugo’s many violation of Classical rules, such as when he uses feminine rhymes inappropriately or puts the caesura in the wrong place.  If you say so, I think.  An advanced topic in French prosody.  Anyway, these poets are doing it wrong, however subtly, which was once pretty exciting.

My memory of the relevant English translations:

There’s a pretty good translation of Lamartine’s Meditations.

There is a functional but dull translation of Musset’s complete poems.

Given his stature, there is not much Hugo in English.

There is close to no Vigny in English.  No idea why.

A short selected Musset and selected Vigny would be valuable additions to English literature, hint hint, poetic translators.  Vigny and Musset have plays available in good English.  See Vigny’s Chatterton (1835) for some intense French Romanticism as reflected in an imaginary version of an actual misunderstood, doomed teenage poet.

I read that one in French while reading Vigny’s complete poems, now that I could.  I have also been filling in some Hugo, a tiny fraction of his thousands of pages of poems.  That would be a feat, reading Hugo’s complete poems.

Vigny wrote narrative poems, mostly in rhyming couplets.  Stories about Roland, Jesus, “The Anger of Samson,” (the death of) “Moses,” “The Death of the Wolf” – how the French love stories about wolves.  I could not believe how many children’s books there are about wolves, both funny and scary.  The hunter in the poem kills the wolf, but learns that wolves are better than people, or no worse.

Early Hugo has been a surprise and just what I expected.  He was immediately Hugolian, from the poems written when he was 18, hugely skilled, confident or a blowhard depending on one’s taste.  His first few little books, collected in Odes and Ballads (1828), are all political, legitimist, about the great fallen heroes who fought the Revolution.  I certainly learned the word for “executioner,” since it appears in every poem.  This is not the Hugo who is the champion of the powerless.  The primary victim of capital punishment he has in mind is Louis XVI.

Hugo changed quickly.  Maybe the poor are the subjects of the last half of Odes et Ballades.  I only read the first half.  Hugo exhausted me.

I have one complaint, which I can at this point make about Vigny and Hugo: they were not great rhymers.  They use lots of conventional rhymes, and there is clearly no penalty for repeating them in poem after poem – ombre / sombre (shadow / dark) , orage / nuage or orage / ombrage (storm / snow, shady), essor / trésor (flight / treasure) – that last one is the worst, since it is so phony.  The poets of a couple of a generation later wouldn’t allow this.  Paul Verlaine put an end to it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

My shallow French 18th century - You believe me to have more qualities than I do

I’ll race through the 18th century.  I think I have read just one 18th century text in French.  The issues are:

1.  The French classics of the 18th century are not, currently, taught at the collège level.  They are all, for one reason or another, advanced texts, lycée texts.  Thus when my reading was more narrowly limited to collège books, nothing crossed my path, so to speak.  Or nothing should have.

2.  I am reading more freely now, but I tell you nothing from the 18th century has really tempted me yet.  There are certainly some things I have never read and in some sense should, but re-reading, I have not felt the urge.  This is because:

3.  I guess I am not convinced that reading much of this stuff in French will be particularly rewarding.  The translations I have read are likely adequate.  This is “the artless 18th century,” as Nabokov says somewhere (remembering that he had no understanding of music and excepted, I don’t know, Chardin and I am sure also whoever else you are thinking of right now).  It is the Age of Reason, the Age of Clear Prose, more so in France than in England, not the Age of Poetry.

Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, those are the core writers.  The French seem to have narrowed the many hundreds of works of Voltaire down to his satirical contesCandide, Micromégas (another French giant), Zadig – just like we have in English.  The school editions of Rousseau’s works put him in another category, philosophy (Philo), not literature.  What else.  The Memoirs of Saint-Simon, Manon Lescaut, Les liaisons dangereuses.  This all looks pretty familiar (#2, above).

Less familiar – two playwrights have a much higher status in French than in English: Pierre de Marivaux near the beginning of the century and Pierre Beaumarchais near the end.  Marivaux has never caught on in English, and Beaumarchais is known only as the source of the opera versions of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, but not for the plays themselves. Not in France (Beaumarchais is on this year's Bac list). I should read Beaumarchais in French.  That is tempting.

The one 18th century work I have read in French was a Marivaux play, Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard (1730, The Game of Love and Chance).  What a mistake!  Marivaux’s art is to reduce comedy to its essence, to create as pure a comedy as he can, as free of social context or individual characters as possible.  A handful of characters, all types (the valet in Game is even named Arlequin, so I know right way exactly who he is.  Plus, I had read it in English, so I knew the story.  A young fellow is meeting his fiancée for the first time.  He has his valet pretend to be him (that's the master in the yellow suit on the left, but I assume Arlequin switches into it); he pretends to be his own valet.  Meanwhile, the fiancée has had the exact same idea, so the valet is courting the maid, thinking she is the mistress, while the mistress banters with the master thinking he is the valet.

Fun!  But much less simple than I had thought, and above my reading level, although I shoved my way through it.  A great challenge was the amount of “negative” language in the dialogue, which even now is relatively difficult for me.  This was something of a discovery.  Much banter, in many plays, is constructed in this way, with the characters in some way saying what they will not do, or describing what they are not:

LISETTE (the maid pretending to be her mistress): Vous me croyez plus de qualités que je n’en ai.

ARLEQUIN (valet pretending to be his master): Et vous, Madame, vous ne savez pas les miennes; et je ne devrais vous parler qu’à genoux.

LISETTE: Souvenez-vous qu’on n’est pas les maitres de son sort.  (Act II, Scene 5)

LISETTE: You believe me to have more qualities than I do.

ARLEQUIN: And you, Madame, do not know mine, and I must not speak except on my knees.

LISETTE: Remember that we are not the masters of our fate.

That line is ironic, since it first means that the parents are arranging the marriage, and second that these people are themselves servants.  Maybe Lisette at this point already knows Arlequin is a servant.  I don’t remember.  It is an intricate plot.  What was I thinking.  But it was the negative constructions that really hurt.  Now they are not so bad.  Progress.

That is my shallow French 18th century.  Maybe yours is deeper.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The 17th century French novel – “May God defend all decent people against such a woman as Madame de Lafayette.”

The French 17th century was an age of novels, a heap of novels that nobody reads anymore and one that everyone reads.  “Nobody” and “everyone” are exaggerated, but only for emphasis, not to distort the truth.

The lone survivor is The Princess of Cleves (1678) by Madame de Lafayette, a historical novel set 120 years earlier in the court of Henri II.  The characters are almost all real figures; the surrounding incidents are real; the central romance is a novelistic invention.  Why is this book, preceding Walter Scott by 140 years, not the first historical novel?  Because there was no such thing as a “historical novel” and this book did not invent the category; Scott’s novels did.

Why is this book, among the dead novels of its time, still read?  Because it looks like a novel as we know it.  Characters have depth and the plot turns on a couple of seemingly minor but psychologically true moments.  It is not just a series of adventures tacked together, although there is a dramatic joust at one point.

Why is this novel so important, on the Baccalaureate exam and the French civil service exam?  Why has it become a symbol of Frenchness?  I do not know.  It is a good novel, but its status comes from something else.

Lafayette is herself a figure of high interest, or at least Nancy Mitford’s little biography that introduces her 1951 translation makes her seem so.  That line in my title is from p. xxvii, and the context is Mme de Lafayette’s strongarm tactics to get an heiress to marry her son.  She was ruthless.

The composition of the novel is of interest.  It was collaborative, in some way.  It was, as we would say now, workshopped.  Lafayette ran one of the great salons of her time.  It is where the Duc de la Rochefoucauld brought his maxims to be polished and perfected; they too were workshopped.  Members of the salon worked on not just the story and prose but on the research, supplying historical details of all kinds.  Too bad we don’t know more.

What I think of, perhaps incorrectly, as a more typical novel of the time is a monster like Artamène, or Cyrus the Great (1648-53) by Madeleine de Scudéry, possibly in collaboration with her brother.  Ten volumes; 13,000 pages; over two million words; among the longest novels ever written; likely the longest French novel.

A prince, the son of Cyrus the Great, spends a lot of time wandering the Mediterranean trying to rescue the princess he loves, who is kidnapped three times – only three times, given that page count, but my understanding is that much of the bulk is filled with digressions and inset stories.  A new character appears and recounts all of his many adventures.  The last chunk of the first volume of Don Quixote (1605), where the phony shepherds tell their boring stories, is likely how I should imagine things going, except at much greater length.

My other understanding is that many or most of the characters are clear stand-ins for people in the court and the salons of the time.  The novel was a big hit, but I wonder what that meant.  How many people could possibly be reading it?  How many could afford it?  A thousand, more, less?  No idea.  But one reason a certain crowd was so eager to read each new volume was because they were in it.  The nobility read the novel to read about themselves.  Talk about identifying with a character.

Scudéry followed the success of this colossus with another ten volume novel, Clélie (1654-61), and then several more novels of a mere eight or four volumes.

The Princess of Cleves is only two hundred pages!  No wonder everybody reads nobody reads etc. etc.  Both Artamène and Clélie are in print today, but in drastically condensed four hundred page editions.  Somebody is in some sense reading them.  Graduate students?  The French equivalent of bookish lunatics like me?

The “longest novel” business is so arbitrary.  How big have our long-running detective and fantasy series gotten?  Why don’t they count as one gigantic novel?  The odd thing is I know Madeleine de Scudéry not as a novelist but as a pioneering lady detective, as recounted in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scudéry (1819), where Hoffmann invents the detective story, with numerous elements that later become widespread, yet somehow does not write the first detective story because, see above, there is as yet no such thing.  Literary history works backwards.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Molière and the short French 17th century

I have one point I want to make here about French literature of the 17th century.

Molière and his company played in Paris for only fifteen years, 1658 to 1673, before he died, not onstage but almost, at the age of 51.  Almost all of his surviving comedies were written in Paris.  Some are masterpieces, some are blatant rip-offs of Italian farces; some are prose, some verse.  They form a kind of backbone of the study of literature by French children who start with one of the Italian farces, Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671, Scapin’s Pranks gets the idea across), and move towards the complex verse masterpieces like Tartuffe (1664) and The Misanthrope (1666).

I will testify that this makes a lot of sense.  I have, myself, more or less followed the French youngsters, reading through most of the prose plays.  The verse plays are next.  You do not need much French, a year of college French, to read Les Fourberies de Scapin.  Then you have read – then I had read – Molière in French!  A triumph.

That exact period, when Molière was in Paris, is a miracle in French literature.  It includes the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld (1665), the first half of the Fables of La Fontaine (1668), Pascal’s Pensées (1670), and most of Jean Racine’s plays.  By 1678, just five more years – poor Molière, dead so young – I can add Racine’s Phèdre (1677), Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678), and a couple more books of the Fables.  I can add a lot more than that, but these are just the big ones, the core of the 17th century, heck, of French literature, as it is read and taught now.

Twenty years.  Corneille’s plays precede Molière, and a number of important works, like Perrault’s Contes, are later.  But, I mean, wow, that one amazing stretch, 1659 (when Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules, his first important play, was produced) to 1678.  It includes so much.

In 1659, Louis XIV was 21.  He and his court were not installed at Versailles.  This is exactly the period when the old hunting lodge was being renovated, and the Versailles as we know it, with its gardens and mirrors, was created.

It was a culturally energetic period.

My impression is that, over a long period, for example the 20th century, there has been a shift in French culture and education and theater performance from Racine to Molière.   Molière seems more alive, not that there are not plenty of performances of Racine and Corneille.  Not that the poor French students do not still have to read Racine.

There were other playwrights of the period, too.  I have seen the names of some of them.  I have no idea what they wrote.  I remember reading that French playwrights commonly stole from the Spanish stage as well as the Italian, but Molière just stole from the Italians, so I don’t know who was pilfering from Lope de Vega.  English playwrights freely looted all of them.

Next I want to write about 17th century French novels, a subject about which I know almost nothing.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Beginning the 17th century at a young age - La Fontaine and Perrault

In practice, for French readers, French literature begins in the 17th century.  Two works, really, that are not exactly children’s books but that are perfectly adaptable for children, the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine (1668-94) and the Contes of Charles Perrault (1697), or Les Contes de ma Mère l'OyeStories from My Mother Goose.

Early on, when my French reading level was that of a little child, I went to a Paris bookstore specializing in children’s books, Chantelivre, where I asked for the poetry section.  It was only a shelf or two, even in this store, and it was mostly illustrated selections of La Fontaine’s Fables, dozens of different editions of La Fontaine, a few poems, many poems, simplified poems, the real thing.  Luckily there was also a lonely copy of Les Plus Beaux Poèmes pour les enfants (The Most Beautiful Poems for Children), featuring a surprising number of poems about dead and dying mothers, which is more what I was looking for.  Still, I learned something about the place of the Fables in French culture just by looking at that shelf.

In a sense, we have them in American culture, too, and in a sense not.  The Fables are poetic versions of (mostly) Aesop’s Fables, beginning with “The Grasshopper and the Ant”:

La cigale, ayant chanté
      Tout l'été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue:
Pas un seul petit morceau
De mouche ou de vermisseau.

The grasshopper, having sung
       All summer long,
Found himself much deprived
When the North Wind arrived:
Not a lone little bite
Of worm or of fly.

Look at the rhymes and sounds I was able to keep.  But why am I translating this myself, when I have Marianne Moore:

Until fall, a grasshopper
                 Chose to chirr;
With starvation as foe
When northeasters would blow,
And not even a gnat’s residue
Or caterpillar’s to chew…

I had wondered, reading Moore’s 1954 translation of the Fables long ago, how much of what I was reading was La Fontaine, and now that I have read (about half of) La Fontaine in French, I can see that the answer is that Moore includes a lot of herself and a lot of the original.  She keeps form, even line lengths, rhymes, plus the stories and characters and morals, some of which go on longer than the fable itself.

What a perfect match of translator to text.  But how many children find Aesop in Moore’s, or any, poetic form?  You likely remember that a big chunk of La Fontaine is on the reading list for next year’s Bac.  For many students, these will be poems and stories familiar from their earliest experience with books.

We have the Charles Perrault Contes, too, although I believe now we call them Disney stories.  Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard.  No Disney version of that, surely.  Retelling fairy tales was a popular activity in intellectual salons of the time, and I do not believe anyone knows whether the Contes were written for children or for an adult salon audience.  Both, I assume.  They are pretty sophisticated, rhetorically and linguistically, more so than the Grimm Brothers equivalent.   They are longer than the Grimm texts.  They are more composed.  But they lend themselves to simplification and illustration.  They lend themselves to rewriting.  There are a number of later periods in French literary history when writers become excited about the idea of the “conte” as opposed to the modern short story.  It is still a live form.

I had never, myself, read Perrault in English. Just versions of the stories.

Is there an equivalent in English literature, where children encounter the 17th century early on, and keep returning to it, even unto a painful exam to graduate from high school?  Maybe in the days of The Pilgrim’s Progress and Tales from Shakespeare, but that was before my time.  How much youthful Bible reading is of the King James Version?

In France, they start young.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

"Of the Bac" by Michel de Montaigne - eight times I have abandoned them

Charles Dantzig, author of the Selfish Dictionary of French Literature, gives the impression that he has read everything, but not quite.  Of Montaigne (Michel de):

It will be for my old age, Montaigne.  Eight times I have decided to read the Essays: all right, this time, the whole thing, all the way to the end!  Eight times I have abandoned them, the longest after two hundred pages.  He does not speak to me much, or I don’t hear him much.  (654)

He dislikes Montaigne’s narcissism, his gossiping, his French.  His French!  But I have only read him in Donald Frame’s English.  No, as with Rabelais and Proust, I have read a few French pages extracted in a school edition of I do not remember what.  Montaigne is too hard.  He is hard enough in English – difficult rhetorically, really, the challenge being to follow the flow of thought and quotation.

They are hard enough that two essays count as a book.  What do I mean by that.  French students take a series of exams to graduate from high school, including a substantial baccalaureate exam, written and oral, on French literature.  I saw them in the library, coming back early from vacation to study for their bac.  The Lyon public library was never more full of high school students than on the last few days of vacation.

This year’s texts were announced in April.  “You can already begin the reading.”  I feel that should have an exclamation point.  It is quite a reading list, although the student is only responsible for one work from each category.  No, you don’t choose; your teacher chooses.  That website will croak, so here is the list:

Poetry of the 19th to the 21st century
Victor Hugo, Les Contemplations, books I to IV
Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil
Guillaume Apollinaire, Alcools

The literature of ideas from the 16th to the 18th century
Montaigne, Essays, “Of Cannibals” and “Of Coaches,” in modern French translation
Jean de la Fontaine, Fables (books VII to XI)
Montesquieu, Persian Letters

The novel and the story from the Middle Ages to the 21st century
Madame de Lafayette, The Princess of Clèves
Stendhal, The Red and Black
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian

The theater from the 17th to the 21st century
Jean Racine, Phèdre
Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro
Samuel Beckett, Happy Days

Pretty good list, right?  If you are reading for fun, not for a test.  I have read two from each category.  Three works from the 17th century, two from the 18th, three from the 19th, three from the 20th – no idea why the headers say “21st” – and just one from the 16th, and that’s just two essays, 23 pages in Frame’s edition, big pages, admittedly.  There are suddenly a half-dozen school editions with just these two essays and another hundred pages or more of supplementary material.  Context, ideas, additional texts, relevant artwork.  “The important words,” writing exercises, analysis of grammar.  I am looking at the table of contents of this French edition.  Even for me, this is kinda painful.

Honestly, I like Montaigne plenty, but I hope my teacher picks Jean de la Fontaine.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Poetry, theater: French literature Petrarchizes - However well one may be educated / In Greek and Latin subtleties

More from the difficult French 16th century. I won’t get to Montaigne.

3.  French classical theater, this is just what I mean when I say that 16th century French literature is in some sense too hard.  French writers were absorbing and transforming a flood of new classical texts coming to France from Italy, plus what had already been a century or two of Italian responses to those discoveries.  With the plays of Seneca as the crucial example, a new kind of French theater came into being.

The English history is a little bit later, but parallel.  In England, though, the academic theater quickly turned into a chaotic popular theater, while in France it became more of a purely courtly form.  More intellectual, specialized, and boring.

Shakespeare, or Kyd, or whoever, read Seneca and thought “Ghosts and murders!”; French writers apparently thought “Sententiae!”  The two plays I have read (in English) are not dramatic.  They are both by Robert Garnier, the most important French playwright of the century, although by no means the earliest.  I wrote about Les Juifves (The Hebrew Women, 1583) a few years ago, and have also read Marc-Antoine (1578), a tragedy about Anthony and Cleopatra, in Mary Sidney’s 1592 version.  These are plays where characters barely interact.  Anthony declaims a monologue and leaves the stage; Cleopatra ditto and ditto; Anthony returns etc.  The two characters do get to talk to each other at the very end of the play.

Sidney’s poetry is exquisite, and I assume Garnier’s is comparable, but you can’t give this stuff to high school kids, even French ones.  They are punished enough with Corneille and Racine.  The 16th century French theater is for graduate students.  I guess English is not so different – who outside of graduate school reads Gorbuduc (1561)?  Still, Garnier is contemporary with Marlowe and The Spanish Tragedy – dramatic plays.

4.  French poets are working on the same project, pulling the Italian Renaissance into French.  The parallel with English poetry is close.  The equivalent of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the first poet to bring Petrarch into the language, is Clément Marot, who I have not read.  The most important is Pierre de Ronsard, who is lying when he writes that his suffering is so powerful that he does not know how to express it, either “Tant lamenter, ne tant Petrarquiser” (Des Amours, sonnet 129) – “as lamenting, nor as Petrarchizing.”  This man knew how to Petrarchize.  He was the greatest of Petrarchizers.

One result, just like in English, was ingenious but esoteric demonstrations of poetic learning like the Délie of Maurice Scève, which I read some portion of in Richard Sieburth’s translation.  The reader is assumed to know his Petrarch, his Horace, and his Horace-via-Petrarch inside out, while also interpreting riddle-like emblems and so on.  Advanced intellectual pleasure.

By contrast there are The Regrets (1558) of Joachim du Bellay, expat poetry.  Du Bellay worked in Rome and missed France.  He wrote a 191-poem sonnet sequence on that subject, mostly in some way about life in Rome, although he makes it home at the end.  The poems are full of personality, and are almost conversational, a good trick in a sonnet.  Ronsard is a genius, but is always performing, however beautifully.  Du Bellay – well, he is performing, too, but he tricks me into intimacy.

However well one may be educated
In Greek and Latin subtleties, I think
The effect of this place is to teach something
One didn’t know before one came this way.
Not that one finds here better libraries
Than any that the French have put together,
But that the atmosphere, perhaps the weather,
Spirit away our less ethereal faculties.
Some demon or other, with his sacred fire,
Purifies even the worst of us, tempers and refines
Till our judgment is too wary to be misled.
But if one stays here too long, all one’s strength of mind
Goes up in smoke, and leaves nothing behind,
Or so little that one loses the thread.  (Sonnet 72 in C. H. Sisson)

It’s complex, but not because it is learned.  We are lucky to have C. H. Sisson’s 1984 translation of (most of) Les Regrets.  An all-time great translation, partly accomplished by a subtle mastery of slant rhymes.

Someday I should read the entire sequence in French.  I should read an entire book by Ronsard, too, Les Amours (1552) or something.  Long ago, I scoured the versions of Ronsard in English; they range from functional (the Penguin Classics edition, clearly meant for French students) to hilariously bad (there is one from the 1960s in free verse with “erotic” drawings by the author).  So without French, du Bellay yes, Ronsard no.

The great feminist rediscovery of the period is Louise Labé.  French critics spent the 1990s debating whether she existed, or was really a persona of Scève.  That’s some feminism!  Anyway, the consensus, now, is that she existed.  I should read her, too.  When you go to see Rabelais’s hospital in Lyon, look for the plaque identifying Labé’s childhood home, which is just across a little restaurant-packed plaza.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

16th century French literature is too difficult - “In your throat, my Lord,” said I.

In the 16th century, the Renaissance arrives in French literature.  Everyone is absorbing and imitating the great new discoveries in Greek and Latin literature and two centuries of Italian responses to that literature.  Amazing books are written.  Modern French literature is invented.

I count five major literary events in the 16th century.  They have a minimal place in the French school curriculum.  Putting the pieces together, I understand why.  They are too hard.  Mostly too hard.  Advanced topics in French literature.

I will number them, and mention the “mostly” first.

1.  Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron (1558) is Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) not merely imitated in French, but consciously made French in language, obviously, but also subject, characters, and attitudes.  It is not exactly what I would call modern fiction, but it is a big step closer than Boccaccio.  I can’t really tell apart Boccaccio’s frame characters, the ones who tell the stories, but they are distinct as characters in the Heptameron.

So here we have a woman author, a princess and queen of historical significance, and seventy stories on a range of subjects and social levels, written in a range of styles, easy to arrange into a variety of school editions.  If there is even one school edition on French Amazon – very useful for this sort of thing, French Amazon – I can’t find it.  I don't get it.

2.  François Rabelais, author of Pantagruel (1532), Gargantua (1534), and three more sequels (1546-64), books unique enough that the author’s name has turned into a useful adjective for the more earthy side of existence.  Man as an ambulatory and talkative digestive and excretory system.  The language is crazy, innovative, full of new words and jokes and nonsense.  Great stuff, especially the first two novels.

English translations are always of the whole 800-page monster, but the French often seem to think of “Rabelais” as five novels.  They are published separately, and there are a number of school editions – lycée level – of either one of the first two novels or of selections from the whole thing.  Or maybe selections from the first two books, I don’t know.

Rabelais’s language is hard enough that many ordinary editions of the novels are in “modern French” translations.  I assume that is what I have read.  Although Rabelais is an advanced topic, he is introduced early.  The school editions often come with excerpts of related works, and I read two that had bits of Rabelais.  How I loved those school editions.  A terrific collège-level collection of travel writing, Les récits de voyage, which included bits of Herodotus, Joinville, and Columbus, that sort of thing, included a few pages of Chapter 32 of Pantagruel, in which a traveler gets lost inside Pantagruel’s mouth – everyone knows that Gargantua and Pantagruel are giants, yes? – and describes the “twenty-five inhabited kingdoms, not counting the deserts and one great arm of the sea” that he finds there.  It sounds nice, except for the plague caused by the time Pantagruel “ate all that garlic sauce.”  The traveler finally returns to our world:

When [Pantagruel] noticed me, he asked me: “Where are you coming from, Alcofribas?”

“I answered him: “From your throat, sir.”

“And how long have you been there?” said he.

“Since you set out,” said I, “against the Almyrodes.”

“That,” said he, “is over six months ago.  And what did you live on?  What did you drink?”

I answered: “Lord, the same as you, and of the choicest morsels that passed down your throat I took my toll.”

“All right,” said he, “but where did you shit?”

“In your throat, my Lord,” said I.

“Ha ha! you’re a jolly good fellow,” said he.  (Donald Frame’s translation, p. 241)

I have not and I think cannot read much Rabelais in French, but that I read.

The hospital in Lyon where Rabelais was a physician has been beautifully restored and turned into a City of Gastronomy, whatever that is.  You can have lunch or relax in the courtyard on a long chair while admiring this medallion of Rabelais:

Then you can retrace his footsteps to the printers which printed his books.  Those buildings are also now occupied by restaurants, probably.

The remaining three topics in 16th century French literature are: the invention of French classical theater, the invention of modern French poetry, and the invention of modern man – Montaigne’s Essays, is what I mean by that last one.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

French literature from the beginning - let's get back to our sheep!

The foundation of French literature, as with English literature, lies in the 16th and 17th centuries.  French literature is perhaps even more narrow.  There is a twenty year period in the 17th century – well, I will return to that.

The origins of vernacular French literature go back to the 11th century, with some saint’s lives about which I know little and heroic epics like The Song of Roland and many other chansons de geste.  I say that as if I have the slightest idea what is in any of the chansons de geste besides Roland.  I do not.

The great, still entertaining, Arthurian poems of Chrétien de Troyes are from the late 12th century.

All of this is in Old French and, as I understand it,  is more or less unreadable for most French readers.  Looking at the text of La Chanson de Roland, I would say that Old French is nowhere as far from modern French as Old English is from modern English, but it is not nearly as close as Chaucer’s Middle English is to my English.  Somewhere in between.  Maybe like the Middle English of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  I can read Chaucer, but I can’t read that.

French readers, and certainly French students, read these works in modern prose translations.  The prose versions of the medievalist Joseph Bédier, for example Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut (1900), have become classics in their own right.  I should read that someday.

I have no idea what French schools do with medieval not-quite-French literature, like the poems of courtly love cooked up by the Occitan troubadours, the poems that would migrate into Italy and eventually return to France in the 16th century.

I also have little idea when French literature becomes modern, becomes reasonably readable.  Differences of spelling aside, are writers of the early 15th century like Christine de Pisan and Froissart accessible?  They must be.  I am examining Villon’s Testament (1461), the or anyways a French text, in Galway Kinnell’s The Poems of François Villon (1965), a masterpiece of translation, and it looks readable, goosed by Kinnell’s version, certainly:

Icy se clost le testament
Et finist du pauvre Villon
Venez a son enterrement
Quant vous orrez le carillon
Vestus rouge com vermillon
Car en amours mourut martir
Ce jura il sur son couillon
Quant de ce monde voult partir.  (ll. 1996-2003, p. 152)

Heck, it’s spelled all screwy but it’s practically English.  This is Kinnell:

Here ends and finishes
The testament of poor Villon
Come to his burial
When you hear the bell ringing
Dressed in red vermillion
For he dies a martyr to love
This he swore on his testicle
As he made his way out of this world.

Yes, that’s Villon.  Half of what I am doing here is thinking about what I should read in French, what I can read.  I should read Villon’s Testament; with Kinnell’s help, I can.

Myself, I have read exactly one pre-17th century French book, The Farce of Monsieur Pathelin (1457), an anonymous popular play.  The title character is a con man and a lawyer.  I am currently reading Johannes Fried’s The Middle Ages (2009, tr. Peter Lewis), an intellectual history of the thousand-year period named in the title.  One long chapter is on “The Triumph of Jurisprudence,” about the 13th century innovation of law and lawyers that began in the papal and imperial courts and spread everywhere.  A couple of hundred years later, the lawyers have diffused among the peasantry and there are hit comedies making fun of them.

The play climaxes with a scene where the lawyer represents a shepherd in court.  Their strategy is to pretend that the shepherd has gone nuts and thinks he is a sheep, so that he responds to every question with bleating.  In good hands, this scene must be a scream.  The play is performed to this day, and this scene is the reason.  It contains one line that has become a commonplace: “Revenons à nos moutons [Let’s get back to our sheep],” which I am pretty sure I myself heard in an ordinary conversation, although with my comprehension, who knows.

All right, on to the 16th century.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Introductory methodology for a series about my French reading, which I sure hope will be more fun than what I wrote here

What I want to do is to stroll, wander, and hike through my French reading of the last couple of years, as it relates to my study of French and for its own sake.  French literature is a subject of high interest.

This is a bad idea for several reasons.  I remember the books poorly, I likely do not have them at hand for reference, and I read them in French, a language I do not understand well.

This is a good idea because it offers ample outstanding opportunities for people to correct my errors, which, I have observed, makes people happy.  It is a kind of public service.

I will likely refer, often, to the educational use of various texts, especially when they are taught, at what level in school, more than how, because I have little idea about the how.  Much of my evidence, which I guess does include quite a bit of how, comes from the superb school editions French publishers produce of a wide range of texts.  They are probably sources of dismay for French school kids, but I loved ‘em.

For quick reference, the collège is close to, in American terms, junior high and early high school, while the lycée is late high school, taught, at least in literature and the arts, at what in American terms is “university level.”  The lycée has a “literary” track that only a small number of students pursue; it is definitely at university level.

I am repeating some things I wrote a year ago (beginning here), when I looked back on my time in France and discussed how I learned and read French.  I am sure I will repeat a lot more as I write.  I will repeat that I have two reasons for tying what I am reading to the French school system: first, that the reading level of books is so clearly indicated – how helpful!, and second, that the literary and arts education is fundamentally historical, taught to at least some degree for its own sake, rather than instrumental, taught as a means to teach more important things like writing and spelling and comportment, as we do in the U.S.

The humanities are inherently historical.  Every subject becomes a humanity once it is historicized.  And anyways I always think of literature historically, so I am going to move through my French reading while moving through French literary history.  It is a way to look at what I have read, but also what I might read someday.  It is a fun way to play with books.

I guess I have gone on so long about my methodology, a more German than French way to start, that I will save the French Middle Ages until tomorrow.  Setting aside all of this throat-clearing, things should move quickly.

Monday, September 16, 2019

French literature in "selfish dictionary" form

I present another beautiful literary artifact I brought back from France, a non-mint condition second-hand paperback of Charles Dantzig’s Dictionnaire égoïste de la littérature française (2005), his Selfish Dictionary of French Literature:

Or perhaps not Selfish but Egotistical.  Definitely not Personal, which is to warm and inviting for these 1,132 pages of jokes, aphorism, jabs, and criticism, although it all is truly personal in the sense that they are just his opinions.  The book is a paper brick of opinions.

Dantzig is a pure French literary professional, a poet, translator, critic, essayist, radio producer, and editor at the publisher that publishes his books.  He is right in the middle of things.  I have seen him described as iconoclastic, but I have doubts, and do not care.  I am interested in this book exactly because it comes out of the heart of the French literary world.  I know how American critics and American magazines jabber about books – the rise and fall of writers and issues and fashions – and I want to learn something about how things looked in France, from someone with a point of view.

Dantzig is wrapping up a seven-page entry on Jean-Paul Sartre:

During the 1970s, he was a god to adore, and I suffered a lot from him in high school.  Sartre here, Sartre there, interpreting “existence precedes essence.”  Sartre bis, Sartre ter, Sartre again, you make me do three rounds of Sartre, Sartre, Sartre!  Hell, it was Sartre.  He remained sacred for a long time: in 1991, I published an essay that contained a joke about him, not two, not three, one, very accessory to the rest and accompanied by another on the ignorant people who hated him, two lines out of two hundred pages, and the critic in Le Monde reproached me for them.

That one is more on the personal side.  Dantzig does not have such personal feelings about Maupassant or Molière.  He has insights, though.  In the entry on “Adjectives, Adverbs,” which he defends against so-called good-writing rules, he argues that “French, is one can take a shortcut, is a language of verbs” (11), an idea he explores throughout the book, for example in the entry on “Verbs”: “In effect, rather than a qualifier it is better to choose a verb that includes it” (1079).  I may return to this idea as I write about French literature.  Within my linguistic limits, I have become convinced Dantzig is right.  I have no idea whether this is an original idea or a commonplace.

Much of the Dictionary, of which I have read fifteen, maybe even twenty, percent, remains incomprehensible to me – awfully “inside,” awfully French – but that is much of what makes it so interesting.

The bulk of the entries in the Dictionary are for writers, and the essays are substantial, often six or seven pages.  But there are entries for books and techniques and concepts: Ideas; Idiosyncrasies; Ignorance; Images; Imagination; Impostors, just to pick some cognates from the letter I.  It is a little bit – it is more than a little bit – like Dantzig has taken his book blog and put it in a no-less-arbitrary alphabetical order.  Not to give anyone ideas.  You yourself have written 1,100 pages, haven’t you?  Or far more.  Oh yes, I would eagerly buy the book of your alphabetized blog, as soon as I found a used or perhaps remaindered copy.

Many non-French writers are pulled into the book in various ways, but it is still French literature bis, ter, and again.  But look, just now, for the rentrée littéraire, Dantzig has published a 1,248-page Selfish Dictionary of World Literature.  Follow him on Twitter to see which prizes the book has already won.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

More brand new French novels, first chapters only - metaphors, slaughtered hogs, and a new New Novel

More from the fascinating Best Extracts before the Fact, Jack!, the little collection of the beginning of forthcoming French novels.  No, in July, when I bought the book, they were forthcoming; since then they have forthcome.

There is plenty of plain-style prose in today’s French novel, just like in American and English fiction.  I mentioned the most extreme example yesterday, but most of the extracts are flat, unadorned, and not too difficult.  It was a relief to read a chapter by a writer who wrote complex sentences.  It was a relief to read figurative language.  I was a little shocked to read excerpt after excerpt with no figurative language at all, aside from that inherent in French, I mean.  Nothing is ever like anything else.  Everything is merely what it is.

Figurative language is fundamental to my idea of literary writing.  It is the way to hack through the gluey tangle of language.  If language is inadequate to say what something is, a writer can say what it is like, which is often more precise, not less.

Many of the novels are about somber, difficult subjects.  Yann Moix’s Orléans is about child abuse; Jean-Paul Dubois’s Not Everyone Lives in the World in the Same Way and Nathacha Appanah’s The Sky above the Roof (Le Ciel par-dessus le toit, there must be a zippier translation) have characters in prison; Sorj Chalandon’s A Ferocious Joy has a bookstore owner with cancer – an understated style likely suits these subjects more than baroque play with language, fine.  But metaphors should be part of how a novelist thinks.

A Badminton Game by Olivier Adam is about a novelist whose last novel did not get reviewed or sell well.  For this, there is no excuse.  Why are people still writing these?  The introduction says that “the defense of a refugee agency” is also part of the novel, and that Adam “sculpts a work mixing realism, politics, and sociology” (35).  So dump the novelist character.

I have no doubt that this novel, at some point after the self-pitying first chapter, is terrific.  That all of these novels, after the first chapter, are outstanding.

Cécile Coulon writes good French prose and uses metaphorical language in A Beast in Paradise.  “When she moved among the farmhands, her complexion pink and fresh, smiling at one and all like a Madonna distributing her blessings, the overseer had a bad feeling” (81).  The woman here, is the farm’s teenage heiress; she and her boyfriend have just had sex for the first time, scheduling the event during the farm’s hog slaughtering, when they knew everyone else would be occupied.  Some kind of irony there.  The name of the farm is Paradise, which is also irony, the kind known as “laying it on thick.”  There have always been Starkadders in Paradise.  The author is twenty-nine years-old and this is her seventh novel.  Her first was published when she was seventeen.  This book has already won a big prize from Le Monde, despite, or because of, the ridiculousness of its first chapter.

The first chapter that most tempted me to read the rest of the novel was Guillaume Lavenant’s The Nanny Protocol, where the text is a set of branching instructions for a job applicant.  As the absurd detail grows, so does the comedy.  Whether the instructions are written by a neurotic employer or an anxious applicant, I have no idea.

She will invite you to sit down.  Do it.  She will explain to you that her husband etc…  And then she will pass a hand through her hair, look at the wall clock, rub her nails against her palm, sniff, raise her eyebrows, etc…  You will drink something?  Yes, a Schweppes, for example. (86)

Italics and etceteras all mine, the point being that it goes on and on at this level of detail.  If you have thought, that New Novel thing the French did, Alain Robbe-Grillet and so on, that all died off in the 1970s, right?  Oh no, here is a brand new example, a new New Novel.

The great thing for the French language-learner is that The Nanny Protocol, or at least this bit, is a literary text where almost every verb is in the imperative, conditional, or future tense.  So useful to see these textbook creatures in the wild, so to speak.  So educational.  My fear is that the plot of the novel, if it has one, turns into some kind of dumb thriller.  Robbe-Grillet’s novels turned into thrillers, too.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

It's flat - Returning to literature with some brand new French books!

I’m beginning my promenade through my last two years of reading in French.  There are many bad ideas built into this project.  I am going to ramble through books I read as long as two years ago, with who knows what memory or comprehension – surely with many outright errors in comprehension.  That is what I want to find out, I guess.  All translations, unless otherwise noted, will be mine.  This will be another fascinating source of error.

Let’s start with this beauty, the July 2019 issue of Lire:, which I would translate as Read!, stretching out that semi-colon, and more importantly the little book that was packaged with it, The Return to Literature 2019: The Best Extracts Before the Fact!  In September, everyone in France is returning from vacation to – everything – to school and literature and arts seasons and neighborhood clubs.  For some reason it seems like a good idea to publish a large fraction of the year’s novels at the same time.  This year there are 524 novels, “the fewest in twenty years” Michael Orthofer notes, in the rentrée littéraire.  That still seems like a lot to me, all at once.

For a couples of months, the attention paid to the rentrée littéraire is enormous, even more than the high French baseline.

So, fifteen first chapters of books that back in July had not even been published.  Now they are all out and have presumably all been longlisted for some prize or another.  What an opportunity to quickly “catch up” on the French novel of today!

The first book is from Baroness Amélie Nothomb, who has contributed a book a year to the rentrée littéraire since The Hygiene of the Assassin in 1992, among the very silliest books I have ever read.  Her new book is Soif (Thirst) and it is, of all things, a comic novel from the point of view of Jesus Christ.  People are still writing these things?  “Who else, in the rentrée littéraire, would have the ambition to write a fifth gospel?” asks the anonymous introducer (each extract has a helpful introduction).

Here is some of the humor.  The recipients of Christ’s miracles are testifying against him, “airing their dirty laundry.”  The couple who got married at Cana are now upset that Christ turned water into wine.

Because of him, we served the better wine after the worse.  We have become the laughing-stock of the town. (6)

Not a funny joke, surely not even original, but quite French.  The most interesting thing to me is the voice of the novel is so audibly that of the only other Nothomb I have read, that debut from twenty-seven years ago.

Here’s the worst extract: Marie Darrieussecq’s La Mer a l’envers (The Upside-Down Sea or maybe The Backwards Sea).  A French woman with a case of ennui is on an Italian cruise; the ship rescues some African migrants in distress; the woman’s life becomes entangled with one of the migrants which presumably gives her new meaning etc. etc. there is no way this can be good, is there?  I mean, if you want to write about current issues in immigration, you could write about the migrants themselves, yes?

How is the prose?  This is the beginning:

It was her mother who convinced her to take the cruise.  A way of getting some distance.  To reflect on her marriage, her job, on her upcoming move.  To be alone without the kids.  A change of air.  A change of water.  The Mediterranean.  For a girl from the Atlantic.  It’s flat.  A little sea. (28)

An entire novel written like this would drive me bonkers.  I checked an earlier Darrieussecq novel; this is her signature style.  Not every line.  Not every page. But many lines, many pages.  “It’s flat.”  Is it ever.  Odds are that an English-language translator would toss in some commas and hide some of the fragmentation, maybe a lot of it.

More extracts tomorrow.  I will not write about all fifteen books, but just those that, like these, have some unusual, or possibly all-too-common, feature.