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.


  1. Ohhh, those beautiful editions of poetry for children make me want to attempt to reboot my grammar school French! Just lovely!


  2. They're maybe 80 or 90 pages. Illustrated, nice fonts. Lovely books with lovely poems.

  3. Ah, I have found memories of Tintin. In English, however. And the Perrault Contes must be good beginner reads. But it all sounds lovely--almost makes me want to learn French...

  4. The Folioplus classiques of Perrault had a section of supplementary readings and commentary on the ogre in literature, with bits of Rabelais and so on. So I guess I have read Rabelais in French, all of two pages. Plus a literary history of contes, their 17th century political context, and more like that. I am still so puzzled - all of this is for junior high students? Really?

  5. Ah Tournier. One of the first books I read in French that wasn't a Maigret (my French came at an advanced age) was his Le Roi des aulnes, which to my delight, was made into a movie by Volker Schlondorff with an amazing cast.

  6. Wow, The Ogre. That sounds really difficult. You just jumped right in there.

    The first book I read in French last fall was a retelling of myths about Zeus written for 9 year-olds. Zeus le roi des dieux (2013) by Hélène Montardre, 64 pages. And that was plenty hard. A Maigret would have driven me back to the U.S. early in despair.

    The second "book" - I have this all recorded - was a single story by Marcel Aymé about two little girls with a magic paint box and the talking farm animals whose lives they ruined by means of their incompetent art. It was written using the literary past tense, and it took a week to decipher its 30 pages.

  7. There are some individual poems of Aragon's translated (I take something of an interest because I love "La Rose et le Réséda," and because of his wife, Elsa Triolet). But I can't think of a selected poems, no.

    Elsa, the sister of Lili Brik and the one who introduced her to Mayakovsky, also wrote a bunch of novels in both her first language and even more in French (she won the Prix Goncourt immediately after the Liberation for her Resistance-based short fiction, beating out the favorite who was an unrepentent pedophile!?). I've picked up one of her Russian novels, Camouflage, in French translation, which is much more easily available than the original. It looks pretty interesting, the intersection between two unhappy women, one French and one a Russian immigrant.

  8. It's crazy. Several entire individual Aragon poetry books should be translated, and there's not even a selected poems?

    Those are on my Must Read list, anyways, now that I am reading in French.

    I did not know that Elsa wrote Russian novels.

  9. She hadn't intended to write novels, but Viktor Shklovsky, who was desperately in (totally unrequited) love with her, reproduced some of her letters to him in his 1923 Zoo, or Letters Not about Love, which consisted of his letters to “Alya” [=Elsa] and her replies, and Maxim Gorky (who had no idea they were real letters from a real woman) told Shklovsky they were the best thing in the book. Both he and Shklovsky urged Elsa to turn them into a book, so she wrote her first novel, Na Taiti [In Tahiti] (she and her husband had been living in Tahiti). She went on to write Zemlyanichka [Wild strawberry (nickname of heroine)] (1926) and Zashchitny tsvet [Camouflage color (=khaki)] (1928) before turning to French. There's a whole chapter about her and her choices of languages to write in in Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour's Alien Tongues: Bilingual Russian Writers of the "First" Emigration, which I wrote about here. The book is well worth reading if you have any interest in bilingual writers.

  10. Oh, and Google Books turns up Louis Aragon: Selected Poems 1939-1942 (translated by Kenneth Muir, 1988) and The Heartbreak: Selected Poetry from Le Crève-cœur by Louis Aragon (translated by Patrick James Errington, 2015); I have no idea how hard they might be to lay hands on.

  11. The first book exists on Worldcat in one copy in Liverpool, where the book was published. It is 42 pages.

    The second is an MFA thesis at Columbia, available only at the Columbia library, and it is a "selected poems" from a single Aragon book!

    There should be a career-spanning Selected just like there is for Eluard, Char, and so on. Not that it matters for me now! This is pure public-spiritedness on my part.

    A small, good selection of Aragon's war-time poems are available in English by means of scrounging around at the Poetry Foundation website. They were originally published in special sections of French Resistance poetry.

  12. Thanks for the book rec, LH! That looks like a very interesting analysis indeed.

  13. My son had to read Vendredi ou la vie sauvage. I read it in school too. It's a classic.

    Molière starts at 11 (I don't know what grade it is in the US) and as you said, we upgrade to the more complicated plays as we grow up. And sometimes the teacher takes you to the theatre to watch the play.

    I remember learning poems by Desnos in Primary School, he was a great teacher favorite.

    PS: Astérix is a difficult read. It's full of puns and cultural references.

  14. Astérix is a lot harder than it looks. But it contains some kind of essential "Frenchness" that I do not know how to describe. Useful.

    Desnos is someone I should read more. The few poems - selected for children! - I have read were good. He has been translated into English quite often, for all the good it has done anyone.