Monday, December 17, 2018

The best French books of my year - Flaubert, Baudelaire, Sophocles, the usual stuff

My study of French has shifted my reading.  The point of reading in French is to learn French, so it hardly matters what I am reading as long as it is hard enough, yet the point – a point – of learning French is to read in French, so I sometimes indulge.  Meaning, gimme the good stuff.

I had wanted to get to the point where I could read Ubu Roi (1896).  And I did.  Similarly, Flaubert.  And thus Alfred Jarry’s muck-smeared puppet travesty and Flaubert’s Trois Contes (1877) – especially, of course, “A Simple Heart” – are among the best things I read all year.

My reading in French is poor, full of errors in understanding that would bother me if I only knew what they were.  Ubu Roi is built out of all kinds of abuses of language, while “A Simple Heart” is an example of something close to perfection.  Was reading them in the original language better than reading a translation?  I don’t know.  Different.  But how well did I read them, really?

Sometimes my eyes were bigger than my stomach, so to speak.  Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Country, 1939), the poet’s angry poetic investigation of his experiences when he returned to Martinique from Paris, founding text of Négritude, would likely be one of the best books I read this year, but it was too hard for me.  I suspect it is not so easy in translation, either.  All right, next time.

Another special case was Oedipe roi by Sophocle, or as I would normally say, Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, except that I read it in French, in the translation of Didier Lamaison.  I also read Oedipe roi by Didier Lamaison (1994), a transformation of the play into a detective novel, a polar.  It does not take much transforming.  King Oedipus is not what you would call a great detective, but he sure gets his man.

Any year I read a Sophocles play it will go on my Best of the Year list.  The detective novel was pretty good, too.

I should include Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), Paul Verlaine’s Romances sans Paroles (Songs without Words, very funny, 1874), some but not all of the Molière plays I read – maybe Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman, 1670) – keeping in mind that I have not quite dared the really good ones.

Jacques Prévert’s Paroles (1946) was at times like the Césaire book, and otherwise the opposite.  Prévert wrote a spray of playful little lyric poems many of which are readable and enjoyable by people with elementary French.  I knew about those.  I was looking for those.  His famous first book has scores of them.  But they surround giant blocks of prosy, slangy satirical poems that made me work.  Well, this is how we learn.

I read several short Louis Aragon books, Feu de joie (Fire of Joy, 1920) from the early days of Surrealism and a couple of later volumes with some wartime poems, Le Crève-Cœur (The Heartbreak, 1941) and Le Nouveau Crève-Cœur (The New Heartbreak, 1948), the former so playful, the latter so sad.  Some of the war poems are available in English in the Poetry magazine archive.  Not much else, though.  Maybe I should try to write a bit about Aragon next year.

I have an idea that next year I might write something about a number of the books I have read in French.  I read all kinds of surprising things, most of which were not among the best books of the year.


  1. I loved A Simple Heart, and enjoyed J Barnes' riff on it in Flaubert's Parrot. As a student of medieval hagiography I also warmed to the St Julian story in Trois Contes. I recall as an A level student of French (US high school equivalent) finding I could understand Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes fairly well at sight - and it's such a haunting story. Camus in the original is good, too.

  2. Oh, I am well aware, possibly too obsessively aware of the reading level of French books. Le grand Meaulnes is a collège-level text, for example, and a number of Camus works, including his plays, are taught at the lycée level. Although I have seen a list that puts L'Étranger in the collège.

    Like I said, obsessed. But it has been a helpful obsession. It is easy to get frustrated and give up, and I have avoided that so far.

    I would have jumped on the Alain-Fournier book if I had not read it so recently. I see from my posts on it that "recently" was 7 years ago. Feels recent.

    I have meant to read that Barnes novel. I still mean to read it.