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.


  1. I've only read part of it in French, but might not Les Liaisons dangereuses be a worthwhile/fun 18th century reread-but-in-French for you? I don't remember it as being too advanced language-wise. When I get over being lazy, I'll probably read the century's prose giants in translation rather than in French. Share your doubts about the worth of reading those in the original at least for now.

  2. At this point, I have read exactly one French book longer than 300 pages, and that was poetry, so the Laclos novel still seems too difficult in that sense. But you're right, I'll bet the French prose is pretty tasty in places.

    I guess I should try Candide or Zadig and see how wrong I am in my notion of 18th century French translatability.

  3. Beaumarchais is much harder than he looks! I struggled with vocab on the first page and put it away for later.

  4. I could have as easily picked Beaumarchais - "Hey, I know the story, how hard can it be, etc." - and run into the same trouble.

  5. I remember liking Candide, but that was a long time ago.

  6. Few works hit their time - summarize, critique - so efficiently as Candide.

    Voltaire is perfectly suited for the Portable Voltaire approach. He - most of these writers - is as interesting to read about as to read, I have found.

  7. So, in my experience we study:

    - Voltaire: a must read, almost always Candide. Freedom of speech and all, it's an opportunity to talk about that.

    - Marivaux. A lot and usually Le jeu de l'amour et du hasard. Now, I want to read L'île des esclaves.

    - Beaumarchais : Often. Le mariage de Figaro.

    - Rousseau : Passages of Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire. Sorry, but even at 16, I thought his calling his mistress "maman" was sick.

    - Choderlos de Laclos: Les Liaisons dangereuses. Sometimes. It's a bit long to be studied in school.

    - Monstesquieu : passages from Lettres persanes.

    - Abbé Prévost: Manon Lescaut.

    - Bernardin de St Pierre: Paul et Virginie. Sometimes

  8. Ah, that's great. So interesting.

    Paul et Virginie was once a famous book in English. Authors referred to it as if their readers knew all about it. The last one I saw was D. H. Lawrence in Women in Love, and that's 1920, almost recent. Now it is basically totally forgotten (in English). I saw a French school edition somewhere and was surprised.

    Maybe I should read it. It is short. It sounds terrible, but it is short, and was once important.

    You are right about Rousseau. He was one odd dude.

    I need to write a post about Romantic poets. That will happen tomorrow.

  9. I recognize many of the names in this post, but there aren't many I have read except for some essays about society and politics. Candide, sure, who hasn't read that one? But Beaumarchais? I've heard the operas, okay fine. Some of these novels have been turned into films ("Manon Lescaut is based on a book, who knew?" I thought.) Marivaux is a name I skip past when reading about other French writers. I had no idea Rousseau wrote fiction. Etcetera, a typical American reader. I asked myself how much 18th century writing I have read, and it turns out that I know a good amount of English literature from the period, but the rest of my world is pretty blank during that century. Doing a bit of research, it looks like most of the stuff from then with any staying power is from England, France, the German-speaking lands, and China, which came as a surprise. Everyone else seems to have been at war with England, France, and the German-speaking lands, too busy to create literature, even in Russia. This is very likely mere European provincialism as reflected in Google. But the Chinese novels from the 18th century look pretty good.

    Nabokov might be right in terms of literature. I can see him arguing alongside Zola about artifice and rise of the Natural Novel. Not that Nabokov didn't build shining palaces of artifice, but they were a different kind of artifice. 18th century writers put artificial humans into a realistic world, where Nabokov put realistic humans into artificial worlds. Or something like that.

  10. I've read a pretty decent heap of all these writers, in English I mean. They all would have been covered in the 18th century blog that I did not know I should have been writing.

    There would have been so much Rousseau. His novels are a sight to behold. Crazy.

    So much Rousseau, Goethe, Richardson. Who on earth would have wanted to read about any of that? I have not read The Story of the Stone. There is quite a lot of great Italian theater in the 18th century - I would add that to your list.

    It's a fascinating period. Reason and rococo, fighting it out. The most brilliant minds, and the worst taste.

    Nabokov was a master of the period, coming in part from his Pushkin scholarship, having to read everything Pushkin read in order to pick up the slightest reference to Sir Charles Grandison or "Voltaire's worthless tragedy Tancrède" (Commentary, Pt. 1, p. 182). Pale Fire is full of 18th century English poetry. Ada is a Rococo novel.

    A great period, if you can stand the tedium.

  11. Everyone else seems to have been at war with England, France, and the German-speaking lands, too busy to create literature, even in Russia.

    No, Russia was bubbling with literature: there were great poets like Lomonosov (also a great scientist) and Derzhavin, the beginnings of a national theater with Fonvizin (Catherine the Great also wrote plays, not to mention the first Russian children's stories), and a slew of bad but wildly popular adventure novels by now forgotten writers like Fyodor Emin, Mikhail Chulkov, and Matvei Komarov (whose Vanka Kain, about a robber who becomes a police spy before finally paying for his sins, “reached more readers than almost any other Russian novel”). In the 1790s you get the youthful works of the great Nikolai Karamzin, notably his Letters of a Russian Traveler, a partly fictionalized report on his journey to Europe in 1789-90 with a lively report on revolutionary Paris (it's so enjoyable I'm now on my second read) and his famous 1792 sentimental tale Poor Liza, still read with pleasure today. True, it wasn't as advanced as French literature of the day, but by the same token it didn't suffer from the artificiality of so much Gallic writing.

    Nabokov might be right in terms of literature.

    Nabokov, like most creative people, was right about the literature he was in sympathy with and wrong about the rest (his contempt for Dostoevsky and Faulkner would be inexcusable in anyone but a great writer).

  12. By the same token, as far as existence goes, there was as much Spanish literature as ever, Portuguese, too, just not anything anyone wants to read anymore. So I guess not exactly by the same token - I'd rather read those Russians! Poor Liza, that one I have read, along with a smattering of poems. Maybe Fonvizin, too, but if so I don't remember it at all. Maybe I just remember him from Mirsky.

    Two big problems - sources of "artificiality" - are that several literatures had early 18th century baroque-to-rococo phases which produced almost pure language poetry, and then they had late neoclassical phases, hyper-intellectualized and imitative, both of which are brutal to translate and require a lot of context. So it all gets left to the enjoyment of graduate students.

  13. My comment was pretty vapid, but look what great responses, so helpful indeed.

    In my limited world, Baroque is a musical movement, and rococo a design school. No literary connotations.

    I'm excited about the Russian possibilities. And yes, outside of German and English, untranslated works pretty much are just invisible to me. A great big world I can't see.

  14. Sometimes the artists pile on the decoration and sometimes they strip it off, back and forth, back and forth. And thus we have the history of art.

    Michael Orthofer's Complete Review site could be described as an attempt to make that invisible world visible. I have never seen anyone get closer.

  15. I studied pre-19th Century French literature and found it so much more rewarding - for studies - than later eras. Not as wordy. More concise. Philosophical. Btw - one would not call Voltaire’s contes satirical. They are philosophical. He never considered them to be literature. They are anti-literary. Philosophy disguised as literature. Anyway . . . You’d love the era. I’m sure of it.

  16. If you Google "Voltaire contes satirique," for example, you will find that one often does call Voltaire's contes "satirical." I do not understand the opposition of "satirical" and "philosophical," though.

    Perhaps the wordiness of the greatest 19th and 20th century art is central to what I am calling "artfulness." Who in 18th century French fiction paused to spend several pages describing cheeses? It is the words that I want to study.

    The great problem with anti-literature is that if it is remembered at all it inevitably becomes literature, in spite of itself. Maybe this is not a problem.

  17. Well, the have the subtitles conte philosophique. In France they are called that. Their nature may be satirical but foremost they are philosophical. Satire doesn’t need to be philosophical. It can be social. He’s considered a philosopher who also wrote but maybe it’s not a very important distinction. And, as you also mentioned, outside if France he’s foremost known for his contes and so maybe one thinks of him as a satirist and then as a philosopher but it was the other way around. I agree that he might not be artful. But so very precise. Does one have to read him in the original to fully get him? Maybe not.

  18. To be clear, I am disputing your claim that "one would not" call the contes "satirical" - one would, one does, in France and in French as well as elsewhere. You can look it up! I looked it up.

    Some satire is philosophical; some philosophy is satirical. Not all X is Y; not all Y is X.