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Review: Some French books

Our school was very big on French.  And because I was in the top set, it was very intense indeed.  We had to speak French all the time during lessons, no English at all (which I admit is the only way to learn) and by the time we were 14 we were reading full length novels, reviewing them for homework, presenting on them in class.  We were supposed to choose our own from the library, and the popular ones were Camus, Sagan, etc.  Because I hated being like other people, I deliberately chose not to read these books, and as an adult, chose to rebel retrospectively by never again doing anything in French.

It was only recently, while I was reading the very informative Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide, that I came across Camus again and got me curious.  That, and the fact that I was going to Paris for a couple of days just before Christmas.  So I ordered myself a copy of The Outsider to read on the Eurostar and completed a piece of my education that I’d refused to allow myself until then.

The Outsider is the story of a man called Mersault who has an odd viewpoint in the world, who sees things very logically and in a very detached manner.  He has a faultless internal logic, but cannot see others’ motivations, and is hypersensitive to certain physical situations – slightly as if he is on the ASD spectrum, but that is not the point of the book.  The book looks at many fascinating questions on guilt, responsibility, judgement, but the thing that I was most struck by was the creation of a person and a world that bore close relation to all the phenomena that make up our own everyday lives, yet was twisted to be ever so slightly different.  A sort of dream likeness and detachedness, which I would pinpoint down to the precise logic with which the narrator explains the reasons for all his actions, but a pointed omission of many events in his past life which we tend to think of as making up “a life” or “a character”.  For example, Mersault’s mother dies early on in the book, and he explains his responses to this death, but reveals very little about his past life with his mother.

This made me think of one of my favourite books ever, A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan.  So this book entered my consciousness about ten years ago when it was broadcast on Radio 4.  It’s about a student who falls for an older man who is already married.  It mirrored so closely the relationship I was in (not the being married part, but other problems that stopped the relationship from being equal/accessible for both of us) that I almost memorised the whole book, I read it over and over so often as being an almost perfect representation of the longing I had for what I could not have.  Re-reading it ten years later, and being free from those emotions, I still wonder that Sagan was so precociously able at the age of twenty-one to describe the sometimes bold, sometimes self-conscious, naivete of a twenty-year old girl with the detached insight of someone much older.  The logic of the narrator’s feelings is, as in The Outsider, faultless.  Likewise, details of the narrator Dominique’s childhood are few (“grey” and populated by distracted, grieving, emotionally absent parents), but there’s enough there to make a mental leap into discerning how the hunger of the unnoticed child turns into the subconcious hunt for a relationship that will fulfil as an adult.

Lastly, it was Victoria who alerted me earlier in the year to the existence of this year’s Nobel Prize winning Patrick Modiano.  When I came back from Paris, I decided that, while in the French mood and stuck in a period of “empty time” while away at my parents’ house, it was time to finally get to grips with what sounded like a fabulous, and important, author.  Which was when I discovered that there were no Kindle editions of the books I wanted; the one Modiano that had been translated into English was three novellas, and I didn’t want three short books, I wanted one whole one.  I didn’t want to wait until I got home for the paperback, or come to that, to pay over ten pounds for it.  So I chose Voyage de Noces (Honeymoon) and downloaded it in French, and ended up reading French after all, twenty years after having decided never to do this again.

It was quite a different experience having to hang on to every word in the story in case I got lost, as I am so used to speed reading these days.  The book is about a man called Jean who hears of the suicide of Ingrid, an old acquaintance of his, and decides to go on the trail of Ingrid’s husband, M.; Rigaud, (in the present) as well as reminiscing about their meeting as a threesome twenty years ago (past) and then some more about episodes from Ingrid and Rigaud’s own past (which takes us all the way back to the Nazi Occupation.)  There was, again, lots of detailed and earnest explanation about why people felt certain things, or did certain things, and total omission of very important facts.  For example, as a young man, on discovering that he has been robbed of all his money, Jean decides there and then that he will henceforth give no thought to the future.  Or, during the war, Ingrid decides to leave her father and wander off into curfew-ridden Paris.

There were parts when I suspected that the dreamy sense of logic was just to do with me and my dodgy French, but overall, I think that was supposed to be the effect.  I found it very impressive that Modiano managed to convey mystery and suspense within this “backwards story”, which I think are harder to keep infused with a sense of dynamism than it appears on the surface.  My favourite play, Pinter’s Betrayal, also works on a backwards structure, and on reaching the end of Honeymoon, I experienced a similar, gut-wrenching sense of loss relating to the sadness of the passing of time, and the way that things which are so intense and important at the time inevitably erode into nothing.

On a more cheerful note, here is a dusk time picture of my trip to Paris 🙂 Taken from a window of the Louvre, from the Decorative Arts section, I think.




  1. L’Etranger was part of my (failed) attempt to teach myself French by reading the original and the translation simultaneously.

    I do find it a little aggravating how a lot of the books I disliked reading because I had to as a teenager, I now really enjoy. Indicates to me that perhaps teachers didn’t have enough empathy for their charges, and made us read what we ‘should’ read rather than what would be best for us. Then again, some books just aren’t right for you at certain times in your life. (eg my reading of The Great Gatsby has been completely different every decade I’ve gone back to it)

    • Annoyingly, the high intensity immersion route seems to be the best way to go, as opposed to the theoretical route (although obviously you have to have some theoretical knowledge)! Although I have As in GCSE French and German, I can’t remember any German that is useful. There’s something about forming enough repeated brain pathways which means that there is a certain core of French I will never forget. I haven’t even tried looking back at some of the books we read at school, Thomas Hardy??? Urgghhh. We all hated that one. Luckily when I got to GCSE level, I got a teacher who was good at making book choices, and good at making the discussion involving, and I still regard EM Forster, Tennessee Williams, Muriel Spark with much affection. Even though looking back I would regard these as “difficult” books for fifteen year olds, we managed to get an appropriate level of enjoyment/insight from them considering our age.

  2. I read German at university and recently read some full length books after almost 3 decades of neglect. Some I found quite inaccessible – Thomas Mann for example – but others I read without a problem. I kept many if not all of my university texts for about 30 years before giving most away. I always intended to reread them for pleasure but never had the time. Now I have the time but there is just so much out there to enjoy. I read L’etranger at school and maybe I should give it another go now. The ability to read the original texts is an under-rated bonus for me, provided I can still decipher the subtle nuances.

    • I definitely can’t do subtle nuances! German is dying a death in schools, sadly. It’s a very interesting language, I enjoyed learning the structure of it, although it wasn’t so intuitive to speak. It is nice to have the “feel” of a different language and this seems to be something that fewer English children have access to these days. Those short little modern French texts are actually ideal for school level reading as the words are very simple 🙂 I’m not planning on any reading Victor Hugo for example… I think Thomas Mann is probably difficult to access in English too?

      • Mann is not too bad in translation. Sad that German is on the decline. I had heard that it is being squeezed out by Mandarin 😦

        But I managed to get my school to run a Latin o’level class just for me. I think it depends on how flexible the school can be (this was 40+ years ago)

  3. Yay! I’m so glad you have been reading French novels! And some fine authors there. Francoise Sagan has surprising depth, and The Outsider remains one of my favourites to teach. It is so subversive in its use of storytelling: Meursault murders a man, the most outrageous act, and he does it for nothing, no reason. The whole of the rest of the book is about other people (outsiders from his point of view, if you like) attempting to construct narratives for this act, all of which Meursault refuses. Somehow that’s the most existential part of the book – he won’t let storytelling take over the event, which must stand in its unredeemable otherness. I’m so glad you liked Modiano. I have a novel by him sitting right here on my desk… and a pile of books for SNB that have to be read, too. Sigh.

    • Modiano seems an unusual Nobel choice, much as I like him – so much of his world (that I read anyway) seems inward looking and wispy, even though that is a fascinating topic, quite a bit less muscular than I would have expected.
      I’m finding it strange how the French mode has worn off so quickly now I’m in England and back at work, it was just a moment, but I’m glad I was able to capture it!

  4. Denise that is sound to me like loads of French…. yes of-course, books… I am lazy to read them all through and I have many English books opened and marked in all sort of places. That is probably why I find it much easier to paint instead of reading… But not due to lack of trying. Thank you so much for your friendship and support during the year and hope you all have a great happy New Year. I used to love reading I must find some time to follow your great list again x

  5. These books sound fab Denise, if only I could read French!

    Very happy new year lovely. I have a feeling 2015 is going to be a great year for the Kong’s 😀

    • For you and your family too, I hope! Here’s hoping you get a breakthrough with your troubled little one. Funnily enough, I did this test on all my family: LD#2 came out as a peacemaker, and I was an achiever and LD#1 was the Investigator… it had spot on all the things in life she finds so difficult and I realised that all those difficulties are an innate thing for her and they might seem strange and alien to me, but it’s just because I’m a different type of person.

  6. How lovely to be able to read French at that level! I took French in university as an elective but it was very basic and I doubt my ability to even read a French picture book!

    • It is nice, so long as the book isn’t too long. As for pictures books, I remember doing this as a teenager to try to improve my Chinese, however I would definitely not be able to do that now. I enjoyed the feeling of being more inside the language by reading books.

  7. I love this post–it makes me want to sit with you and have many long conversations. One of them would be about why we rebel against the things which might obviously be good for us, and then later come to find that we actually enjoy them. What’s up with that?

    Also, I’ve long been fascinated by the role of language in perception. I’m quite fluent in German, and love the idea of French but haven’t yet progressed passed rank beginner status. When I’m thinking (or trying to think) in either of those languages, different sides of my personality emerge. For example, I can tend toward being the melancholy artistic type when I’m thinking English, but that’s impossible for me when I’m thinking German. I’m very much more funny, and fun, when I’m German (who would have guessed? !)

    And as little as I know of French, I immediately become deeply philosophically sensual when I enter that world.

    Do you agree? Could we have great conversations on this topic?

    Thanks for posting this, Denise. It’s gotten me thinking…

    • These comments have reminded me of how I used to think and read, even if only just a little, in Chinese, and what a funny see-saw choppy world that is.
      I do think you are onto something with your observations of how “being” in French and German are different from being in English.

      • I do think language has much to do with shaping our perceptions; and our perceptions have much to do with our thoughts and feelings.

        That’s the poet in me, all agog about the power of the word… 🙂

  8. Love this post. What an amazing story you’re living. Looking forward to a post on your Paris trip too. 😉

  9. I’m happy to have stumbled across this post. I only recently heard of Sagan in my lit class and she seems very interesting. I was on the fence about Camus, when I read The Fall – the writing was too clunky for my taste, but perhaps I have the translation to blame for that.

    I love your description of reading French, hanging on to every word for fear of losing the thread. It’s how I feel when I read German. I’m okay with the straightforward narratives, but wasn’t very comfortable when I tried reading surreal Max Frisch. But I always wonder when I read a German book if I’d have the same experience, glean the same meanings, reading a translation. It’s disappointing to think about all the nuances you’d lose in the process, but how many languages can you learn?!

    • ‘Tis true, not so many how many languages can you learn, but how many experiences can you have in a lifetime? I’d like to have so many, but sadly not possible. It’s good that we readers have imagination.

      I love your blog by the way and have become a follower. Thanks for dropping by.

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