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.


  1. Yourcenar is collège level?! I struggled so much with her vocabulary and eventually gave up (tho perhaps the one I tried, with its theme of incest, is not assigned at that level).

    In my opinion, when one begins to complain that books are not available in English, and one can read them in the original, one might be being bit by the literary translation bug. It's certainly been a productive bug for me (my Tsvetaeva translation is being published). I'd really love to see what you could do with Aragon's poetry in particular! It's a great exercise if nothing else.

  2. The specific collège-level book is Nouvelles orientales (Oriental Tales, 1938), or selections from this book. The story "Comment Wang-Fô fut sauvé" ("How Wang-Fo Was Saved"), a kind of fable about the spiritual side of art, is especially beautiful, and horrible. The pieces are short and have a story-telling element. So not so difficult.

    It paired well with the collège-level Le Clézio book, Mondo et autres histoires, about children having transcendent experiences caused by the sea or mountains.

    A real translation of Aragon would require a poet-translator. Congratulations on the Tsvetaeva!

  3. Hi Tom,

    Yes, these editions are read. They keep publishing them because teachers ask to buy one or the other for school.
    And yes, the context around the book is part of the lessons.

    The objective is to read literary stuff that is in line with what the student is able to grasp, according to their age.

    Kids read at least 5 books from cover to cover each year.

  4. Much of the extra material in those collège-level books would be, in the U.S., university level. High school level, at least. Sophisticated.

    Of course, our schools very so much that it is hard to generalize. There are some U.S. schools where students would read five books a year. But that can't be typical.

  5. I'm going to track down the Jonquet, thanks. There are SO many excellent French children's books. One I liked so much that I even attempted a translation (as an exercise) is Henri Bauchau's Diotime et les lions (okay, well, he's Belgian, but still).

  6. Maybe I will remember to look for the Bachau book the next time I am in France.

    Jonquet is an interesting figure. Died kind of young, sadly.