Thursday, October 10, 2019

"Of the Bac" by Michel de Montaigne - eight times I have abandoned them

Charles Dantzig, author of the Selfish Dictionary of French Literature, gives the impression that he has read everything, but not quite.  Of Montaigne (Michel de):

It will be for my old age, Montaigne.  Eight times I have decided to read the Essays: all right, this time, the whole thing, all the way to the end!  Eight times I have abandoned them, the longest after two hundred pages.  He does not speak to me much, or I don’t hear him much.  (654)

He dislikes Montaigne’s narcissism, his gossiping, his French.  His French!  But I have only read him in Donald Frame’s English.  No, as with Rabelais and Proust, I have read a few French pages extracted in a school edition of I do not remember what.  Montaigne is too hard.  He is hard enough in English – difficult rhetorically, really, the challenge being to follow the flow of thought and quotation.

They are hard enough that two essays count as a book.  What do I mean by that.  French students take a series of exams to graduate from high school, including a substantial baccalaureate exam, written and oral, on French literature.  I saw them in the library, coming back early from vacation to study for their bac.  The Lyon public library was never more full of high school students than on the last few days of vacation.

This year’s texts were announced in April.  “You can already begin the reading.”  I feel that should have an exclamation point.  It is quite a reading list, although the student is only responsible for one work from each category.  No, you don’t choose; your teacher chooses.  That website will croak, so here is the list:

Poetry of the 19th to the 21st century
Victor Hugo, Les Contemplations, books I to IV
Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil
Guillaume Apollinaire, Alcools

The literature of ideas from the 16th to the 18th century
Montaigne, Essays, “Of Cannibals” and “Of Coaches,” in modern French translation
Jean de la Fontaine, Fables (books VII to XI)
Montesquieu, Persian Letters

The novel and the story from the Middle Ages to the 21st century
Madame de Lafayette, The Princess of Clèves
Stendhal, The Red and Black
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian

The theater from the 17th to the 21st century
Jean Racine, Phèdre
Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro
Samuel Beckett, Happy Days

Pretty good list, right?  If you are reading for fun, not for a test.  I have read two from each category.  Three works from the 17th century, two from the 18th, three from the 19th, three from the 20th – no idea why the headers say “21st” – and just one from the 16th, and that’s just two essays, 23 pages in Frame’s edition, big pages, admittedly.  There are suddenly a half-dozen school editions with just these two essays and another hundred pages or more of supplementary material.  Context, ideas, additional texts, relevant artwork.  “The important words,” writing exercises, analysis of grammar.  I am looking at the table of contents of this French edition.  Even for me, this is kinda painful.

Honestly, I like Montaigne plenty, but I hope my teacher picks Jean de la Fontaine.


  1. Since my son's teacher picked Les Contemplations, we are now the happy owners of a school edition of Hugo's poems.

    I studied excerpts of Lettres persanes in high school. That's a book I should read.

    This is really a great series of posts.

  2. Thanks!

    I have not read the Montesquieu. I feel I must have read a bit of it, long ago, but nothing close to the whole thing. Someday. For my old age.

    Best of luck to your son with the Hugo.

  3. Watching two goddaughters go through the bac preparation this year has been something to see. They are working like intellectual day laborers under a scorching sun. One is totally nonchalant about the whole thing, just can't wait to be done and gone from home, and the other has plunged in up to her eyeballs without a complaint, although both have been slightly exasperated with Madame de Lafayette. What stuns me is that despite the rigors (and confusion) of the new education reform, and the challenges of preparing for the bac, these 16-year-olds are also reading tons of stuff on their own. I took one to a bookstore in Paris where she picked up, on her own initiative, Poe's stories, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Wuthering Heights, plus an English copy of Animal Farm because she had to read it for school in French but wanted to practice her reading in English. Post-millennials!

  4. Imagine the French kid who wants to go to something really elite in France, like the ENA or whatever it will be called. I joke about Americans obsessed with getting their kids into Harvard, but those kids don't work as hard as many French kids work on their Bac.

    There is something about the French school system that encourages readers more than it discourages them. I mean, I know some are discouraged! Still, overall it seems to work well. Your story about your goddaughters, it warms the heart.

    A new French translation of Poe's stories, volume two maybe, just came out this summer. Everyone, I assume, has been reading Poe.