Friday, July 27, 2018

What I really enjoyed about France

I am going to make some comments here that are likely wrong.  They are based on my observations at the moment, that is all.  Please sprinkle liberally with the phrase “to me.”

What is so appealing about France?  Culture – the arts, history, even philosophy – is a normal part of public and private life.  Quotations of poetry, references to painters, discussions of wine or food or you name it that includes the history of the subject.  The humanities historicize everything.

Why are the humanities so prominent in normal life?  Because French humanities education is so good.

Why is the education good?  I suppose this goes in a circle. Because the culture values the humanities.  I don’t know.  But French school children are taught directly how to think about – no, let’s be careful, how to talk about, how to write about, but there begins thinking – art, novels, film, and so on.

I would routinely go to films where large blocks of seats were reserved for school groups.  Wong Kar-wai, King Kong, Charlie Chaplin.  High school kids at the former, grade school in the middle, quite little children at the Chaplin.  I began to expect it.  Similarly, I learned to expect large numbers of children at the opera, or certain music and dance and theatrical performances, and most of all at art museums.

At a different level, the French president can, in public speeches, say things like “Who understood Baudelaire better than Walter Benjamin?” and no one bats an eye.  This is normal.  Sorry, I could only find the speech, from the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair, in German.

The French criticize their own music education.  I suspect they are comparing themselves to their neighbors, to Germany and Austria – hardly fair.  They criticize their language education.  Why can’t they accomplish what the Dutch do?  An American hardly has any place to comment.

French culture is more top-down and elite-driven than in the U.S., yet the split between high and low culture is less important – maybe unimportant.  Everyone reads Asterix.  The resentments I see in the U.S., in both directions, are minor in France.  Liking poetry or jazz or theater is all right; having no interest is all right, too.  The arts do not work so well as class signifiers.

It must be hard to be a genuine cultural protester in France, to try to reject French culture, which has a literature full of weirdos and literal criminals.  Everything is embraced so easily.  Maybe too easily.  Maybe that is a criticism of the French arts, that the appreciation is too enthusiastic.  I am not the one to make that criticism.  I loved it.

In the United States, literature, reading, feels like a hobby, one of many.  In France, it feels like participation in civilization.  This is appealing, for many reasons.  Perhaps it just pumps up the importance of my hobby.  I don’t think so.


I remind myself that although I am writing at the blog again, I have no fixed schedule, no quota of pieces, no godly purpose.  The easy ways to see if I have written something are an RSS reader – how I keep up with all of you – and the email subscription off to the right somewhere.

Thanks for the immediate comments on my adventure with French.  Encouraging!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Even more French books, mostly appropriate for children

Since I could read, I read.  I studied French in the winter and spring mostly by reading French, lots of it, in many forms, constrained only by the sense that I should stay near my collège reading level, which was barely a constraint.  Don’t get stupid and jump to Rabelais or Proust.  Plenty to read right here.

I could assemble, for example, a little Theater of the Absurd unit: Jean Anouilh, Jean Cocteau, Jean Tardieu, and Eugène Ionesco, ending with a trip back to Alfred Jarry.  Ubu Roi is strictly speaking assigned at the lycée, the secondary school, level, but once in a while I would push the boundary.

Or in preparation for the Quais du Polar, I could read crime novels, mysteries – books that were on the collège reading lists since, as part of what ought to be a basic literary education, the French teach literary history, including the histories of specific genres.  Thus my annotated edition of Thierry Jonquet’s La Vie de ma mère! (The life of my mother!, 1994) included essays on the history of the mystery from Poe onwards, with an emphasis on the French contribution, which is heavy on the anti-hero, like  the gentleman burglar who stars in Arsène Lupin gentleman cambrioleur (1907).  There is a student edition of this collection of crime stories, as well as one for Gaston Leroux’s locked room mystery La mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907).  The editions exist, but how often are these books actually assigned?  A mystery of its own, how the potential curriculum relates to the actual one.

I was on a guided tour of the chateau of the Duke de Uzès, the tourists being the middle-aged French people one might expect.  The guide at one point said (I translate) “I now propose to you a visit to” (arches eyebrows) “the Yellow Room,” and everyone laughed.  Everyone got and enjoyed, more than I did, the reference to the century-old Leroux mystery, or perhaps one of it film adaptations.

A curious feature of both the Leroux novel and Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin stories is that they are both explicitly competing with Sherlock Holmes.  The thief or detective cannot just be ingenious, but has to defeat his English competition.  They both have explicit Holmes characters.  Leblanc’s is named Herlock Sholmès, which is a great gag, but Leroux’s use of Holmes is even more outrageous.

Speaking of outrageous, it is outrageous that that Thierry Jonquet novel is not available in English.  It is of high ethical interest.  A Parisian schoolkid, a Serbian immigrant, is torn between his criminal friends and a more normal French life.  But he does not know that he is torn.  How would he know, he is twelve.  It is a battle between innocence and experience.  Experience, at the end of this bleak novel, is destructive, at least for someone that young.

This book was a productive mistake for me, and not the only one I made.  The language was extremely difficult, with a lot of slang including the subset where the protagonist takes the “tromé” to the mall and then listens to some “zicmu.”  It’s like a word game.  Between the language, the violence, and the sexual content (things the character observes), I thought, this is for junior high kids?  But collège extends to 9th or 10th grade, which is a long ways from 6th or 7th.  I made this mistake several times, trying a book that was not too hard for me but was very hard.  The mistake was so valuable that now I do it deliberately.

I could keep going.  I have not written about J. M. G. Le Clézio, or Marguerite Yourcenar, or Joseph Kessel, all collège level, or Annie Ernaux or Raymond Queneau, successful lycée-level experiments.  At some point, I do want to read Proust and Montaigne in French, that seems achievable, but I am patient.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Some books I read in French

What did I read when I was, in French terms, 9 years-old?  Just some examples, aside from Le Petit Prince and Petit Nicolas and Asterix and Tintin.

My first great discovery was a series of poetry collections for children of poems not written for children.  Please see them here.  I read the collections of Victor Hugo, Max Jacob, and Louis Aragon.  Other writers in the series include warhorses like Baudelaire and Rimbaud through difficult avant-gardists like Jean Cocteau and Henri Michaux.  Michaux for children!  In English, Michaux was difficult enough.  These are, again, not collections of poems written for children, but poems appropriate for children, which presumably means, in part, subject matter but as far as I could tell mostly meant reading level, which is just what I needed.

At some point I “graduated” to complete books by French poets, but these were great.  Yes, in France Baudelaire and Rimbaud are poets suitable for tiny little children.  If you poke around at that link, you might find Dadaïstes et surréalistes for children.

Is it true – an aside – that there is not even a selected poems of Louis Aragon in English?  What is wrong with us?

Once I discovered that I was reading at the junior high level, and that French junior high students read good, good, good books, I just read what they read.  Or might read.  The days of the universal French curriculum are long gone, but aside from some conversation with Book Around the Corner, I do not really know what goes on in the French classroom.  This Gallimard website suggests, at least, what might be read.

I loved the Folioplus classiques editions.  They were like Norton Critical Editions for junior high students operating at the university level.  Or is all of that supplementary material for the teacher?  Every edition includes, for example, a ten page essay about the cover art!  The fundamental basis of analysis was historical, literature as literary history, art as art history.  But again, I don’t know what is actually taught.

I could observe, occasionally.  Standing in line at a bookstore to buy an annotated edition of Charles Perrault’s Contes – Bluebeard and Cinderella and so on – I saw that the girl behind me was buying Michel Tournier’s Vendredi ou la vie sauvage (Friday, or the Savage Life, 1971), which I was reading, and carrying with me, at the time.  Evidence!

Tournier’s first novel was a Robinson Crusoe rewrite, Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique (Friday, or the Limbs of the Pacific, 1967), available in English as Friday.  For some reason he wrote a shorter, simpler version – not a children’s version, he insisted – and the result is that the simple one is assigned in junior high and the more complex one in high school.  It is like a literary pedagogical experiment.  The simple one is quite good.

Molière is assigned incessantly, beginning with the short prose farce Les Fourberies de Scapin (1670) and advancing year after year to the complex verse masterpieces like Tartuffe.  I just read the simple stuff, like The Flying Doctor and The Doctor against Himself, culminating, to my surprise, in George Dandin or Le Mari confondu (George Dandin, or the Confused Husband, 1668), which inverted the standard jokes of the farces by the writerly magic trick of making the central characters real.  What was funny when they were cardboard becomes pathetic, perhaps even tragic, when they are real people. Even though I know full well that they are not real real people – what a trick, what a genius.  A local theater put on the play in March – what luck – and Emma wrote about it.

I could just keep going.  I will, tomorrow.

Endless thanks to the Lyon public library, my home away from home away from home, for all of these books.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

How I read some French

What do I do, I read, right, so I was reading French from the beginning.  French books and French bookstores identify reading level clearly, so the only question was how old I was.  At first I was maybe 9, maybe 10, but with effort I aged quickly.

Another barrier adult language-learners face is a reluctance to read children’s literature.  Overcome that neurosis, is my advice, although with French I would add first that a number of important authors have written for children, so read those; second, a number of French children’s books are of such high cultural significance that you ought to read them anyways, Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (1943) being the most famous example although René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé’s Petit Nicolas (1959?), a kind of French Peanuts in prose, was even more instructive.  Goscinny is the creator of Asterix, also essential.

The latest Asterix volume, the 37th, now written by someone else, was released in October, and I saw it almost literally everywhere, read by almost literally everyone; it was easily the best-selling book in France in 2017.  When was the last time we had a book like that in the U.S.?

And third, the important thing here is forward motion, to read anything readable, anything not so difficult and frustrating that I stop reading.  My breakthrough came in November, after less than three months of intensive French, when, trying a Maupassant collection, I discovered that I had turned let’s say 12 and that I had entered the collège as a 6ème, or in U.S. terms that I was in junior high.  I have no idea what is read in American junior highs now, but in France, they read literature.  I love literature.  Balzac and Hugo, Molière and Maupassant, Michel Tournier and Marguerite Yourcenar.  I could – I did –  read Molière in French.  Kinda dumb Molière, one-act prose imitations of Italian farces, but still, real Molière, in real French.

This felt like some kind of accomplishment.

More breakthroughs: the first time I decided I did not need a book in English over lunch – my French book would do.  Reading without a dictionary, an exercise I still regularly use.  Each increment of pages: twenty French pages in a day, thirty, sixty.  My first book longer than two hundred pages.  I have yet to read one over three hundred.  Five hundred – that hardly seems possible.

As a matter of energy expenditure, I could feel my improvement.  At first, ten pages in an hour, of a book written for 10 year-olds, exhausted me.  But soon enough it was twenty pages an hour, and of something harder.  Now, twenty pages of struggle an hour is for Flaubert.  Something simpler, like the Jules Verne novel I am now reading, I merely read, although slowly.

So now I can read in French, more slowly and less accurately than I could read in English translation.  There are more books that I can read, but I was hardly running out of books.  What good does that do me?  Why did I bother?  Let’s not pursue this idea.

I fear that my new skill could easily rust with neglect.  It is necessary that I read French every day.  Almost every day.  If you see, in my Currently Reading box to the upper right, that there is nothing French, please, give me a poke with a sharp stick.  “Get reading!”

Tomorrow: what I read.

Monday, July 23, 2018

How I learned some French

Is language learning interesting?  I mean, other people’s language learning?  I mean, mine.  I am not sure.  Maybe someone will find this useful.

I spent the last year working on my French.  Here’s what that meant.

Where I Started

I had taken French for a couple of years at the Alliance Française in Chicago, a slow once-a-week course, and I vacationed in France frequently.  A year ago in May, I took a week of French at CAVILAM in Vichy.  CAVILAM is an endless rolling French course.  Take a test Monday morning; start class at the appropriate level a couple of hours later.  Whee!  Just plunge in.

To my surprise – those Alliance Française classes, those were several years ago – I tested at level A2, “Basic / Elementary” in the framework commonly used in Europe, and a big step above A1, “Basic / Beginner,” what I had expected.  In American terms, I had made my way through the first semester of college French, however raggedly, and was ready for the second semester.

That test was amusing.  The first piece was five true-or-false questions.  Listen to a sentence, read another sentence about the first.  True or false?  My responses were:

Q1.  Hey, I understood that!
Q2.  Hey, I think I understood that.
Q3.  Well, I can make a guess.
Q4.  No idea.
Q5.  Hey, trick question – that wasn’t even French!

So, A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 in a few minutes.  I guess the rest of the test was to identify lucky guessers.

Class in Lyon

In August, I took another placement exam, this time for the Alliance Française in Lyon.  Again, A2.  I spent September studying French for about six hours a day, half in class and half in the library.  To many people, this would sound miserable, although I will bet that many people who read Wuthering Expectations would like it pretty well.  Throughout the fall, I kept pushing hard on French study, sometimes in class, sometimes on my own, until I had completed what was effectively second-semester French.

I spent the winter and fall studying French by means of reading in French.  I’ll write about that tomorrow.

To skip to the end, my level is still A2.  My reading level is higher.

I had accumulated a number of ideas about the obstacles adult learners face, or create for themselves, in language classrooms.  It is possible that knowledge is a form of inoculation.

I cannot say, for example, that I was bothered by being among the older students in the class, thirty years older than the youngest, who seemed to be accomplishing more with less effort.  Eh, good for them.

Adults in the Language Classroom

I knew that adults often have, compared to children, more anxiety about making mistakes, about looking like fools.  Perhaps I had imagined my way through this fear already, or perhaps my temperament is otherwise – it is clearly otherwise, see Wuthering Expectations for no end of evidence – but I jumped in, volunteered, babbled until silenced, whatever I needed to do.  I had one great teacher in Lyon, who tailored her corrections to each student’s specific weaknesses.  “Anglicism,” she would tell me over and over, “anglicism, anglicism.”  I was ambitious.  “Let’s see if this word works – it might!”  But the important thing is I wasn’t shy.

Is the brain of the adult learner, the actual capacity to learn, different?  I don’t know.  Win some, lose some, I think.  The adult’s capacity for imitation is probably lower.  And my hearing is worse than it used to be, that was clear enough.  But I had learned a lot of ways to compensate – to study, to organize, to theorize.

I would do this again.  I would do it with a language new to me.  Spend the first week of a vacation in Italy in a language class, for example.

Next: I slowly shift back to literature.