The other day, my husband was wondering out loud if our four-months-old daughter would become an avid reader like her mother. I am responsible for the three-quarters of our bookshelves’ content at home and I always have a book on the go so I suppose he might be right about me. I have always loved reading. I love stories and I love words; I love being able to escape into another world. However being an avid reader has not led me to become a more discerning one by French standards.
Let’s start at the beginning. I knew how to read before I started primary school at age 6, and I was showed off by my teacher to other classes with the introduction ‘This is how to read properly’. I have no recollection of this, which is probably a good thing. I was a shy little thing in those days and it’s a wonder I wasn’t bullied at the time for being the teacher’s pet. In any case I have not stopped reading ever since those early days, and a lifelong love of books and reading is definitely a legacy I want to pass on to my daughter. I am planning to read to her and teach her, just like my mother did with me. Another reason I am keen to do this is to help her with grammar, punctuation and spelling; if there is something that winds me up, it is poor spelling in adults, and I believe this is partly due to a lack of exposure to books during the childhood years.
I found high school very dispiriting however when it came to introducing me to new reading material. I am not a fan of French literature and find it pompous, obscure, uninspiring and hopeless. At college, we were introduced to what felt like the most boring books I have ever come across and having to dissect and write essays on them did not endear them to me. One year we had to read a book by Emile Zola called l’Assommoir; I was ill and not sleeping well at the time and I remember the ending being so bleak that it made me cry. Maybe it’s a good book; it depicts the life of working class people and it is meant to be very realistic, which is fine but I do question the wisdom of giving it to hormonal and occasionally depressed teenagers. I found it so horrific that I nearly lost the will to live reading it.
France is proud of its literature and the masters of words it has produced, and is keen to force them down our throats through the school curriculum. I don’t know who decides what goes in and what stays out but they appear to go out of their way to find the most depressing books. It’s the relentlessness of the bleak subject matters, complicated sentences and obscure subtext passing for intellectualism of French novels that kills my spirit. When it doesn’t put French teens off reading altogether, it stops them ever wanting to read anything else by the authors that they have studied.
I don’t understand the kind of snobbery at work here but it is highly noticeable in book shops where there is a clear separation between ‘serious works’ and popular books such as, say, Harry Potter. For one thing, serious works have serious covers i.e. no picture, just a plain cover with embossed writing or whatever. Someone out there wants you to know you are about to read a serious book, one you can proudly show off to your intellectual friends. I personally think a book can be fun without selling out to the most common denominator. I am not going to argue that books like Harry Potter are a masterpiece writing-wise because they are not but they do not lack in heart and depth and there is a wealth of imagination to be enjoyed.
When I was a teenager, my favourite book was Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. It was funny and full of life, and basically a very cheerful read. It was a helpful reminder that not everything in the world is grim and tainted, because life at 14 was awkward, dark and oppressive for me, and I was in dire need of cheering up. It looks to me, and do correct me if I’m wrong, that the English-speaking world has a type of writing that does not exist in France, where misery is acknowledged but there is also hope and a happy ending is not a cop-out.
French authors and books I like
Les Fables de La Fontaine, very clever stuff indeed
Pierre Gripari’s La Sorcière de la Rue Mouffetard et autres contes de la Rue Broca – a fantastic children’s book
Les Contes de Charles Perrault (classic fairy tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, etc)
Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française
Amélie Nothomb’s autobiographical retelling of her experience working in Japan in Stupeur et Tremblements is funny and chilling in equal measures.
Jean Racine, whose plays I prefer to Molière’s. Still it’s not Shakespeare.
Le Petit Prince d’Antoine St Exupéry is one of the few children’s book I can recommend
Victor Hugo gave us Notre Dame de Paris and Les Misérables – great stories
Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte-Cristo and The Three Musketeers
Most hated French authors, mostly because their stories are rubbish and everything is depressing and hopeless – a non-exhaustive list
Emile Zola – argh
André Malraux – hate hate hate
Gustave Flaubert – mon dieu but who cares
A few non French-speaking authors and books I like (in which there is a lot of science fiction and fantasy)
Juliet Marillier, great re-workings of Celtic fairy tales
Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, possibly my favourite science-fiction/fantasy series
Madeleine L’Engle has a great way with words
Anything by Bill Bryson (his History of Nearly Everything is fantastic and almost makes me wish I could go back to school to study biology again) and Stephen Clarke (of the Year in the Merde fame)
The 13 and a half lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers, completely crazy and possibly for kids apart from the fact that it is enormous.
You are welcome to try to change my mind, and to introduce me to new authors.
7 thoughts on “French Literature Hurts My Head”
I so agree. I had to read L’Assomoir for my A Level French coursework. 14 years later I haven’t read another French book since, other than Le Petit Prince which I agree is wonderful, and Suite Française which I read in English as I am now far too lazy to read original versions.
Books to recommend? I recently read Jamaica Inn by Daphné du Maurier, which was wonderful. As good as my all time favourite, Rebecca. Bill Bryson is pretty cool I have to admit. And for re-reads for fun I like Jilly Cooper – the Rutshire Chronicles series starting with Riders. LOVE her books.
I’ve never read Daphne du Maurier (or Jilly Cooper for that matter), despite everyone telling me Rebecca is a must-read, will check it out!
I remember you telling me when you lived in Romford, that bijoux of a town, that most French authors are either bad or mad. Also, my daughter studied French at Uni and told me that the book she was reading, Diderot’s La Soeur, was totally depressing. Maupssant has some excellent contes, but his attitude is basically cynical and hopeless.
I am not a fluent French reader but I can recommend these; The contes of Daudet, especially La derniere Classe; Le sac de Billes, the story of a Jewish boy escaping the Nazis. Also I love the travel writer Andre Migot, whose superb book about Tibet was translated into English as Tibetan Marches.
Pauline: a teacher’s note. You punctuate your sentences in the French style. You use commas when a semi-colon is needed in English. If you want I’ll give you some examples.
PS Claire gave me the name of your blog.
Ah Brian you made me laugh about my punctuation; I am very much aware how different from the French it is and I spend an inordinate amount of time peering at my sentences. Your advice would be very welcome! You can email me at email@example.com
Thank you for the reading suggestions, I will definitely check them out.
In the 18th century there was a concerted and determined effort by the French encyclopedists to undermine and ultimately to destroy the Christian faith as they saw it in the Catholicism of the day. At the end of nearly all his letters Voltaire would put the phrase Ecrasez l’Infame. The infamous thing he wanted to crush was the power and the beliefs of the church. The task of Diderot and Voltaire was simplified; there was not alternative form of Christianity to appeal to. There was no Methodist revival as in the UK. The rest is history: the Revolution. the beheading of the royal couple, the Terror, and the enthronement of a prostitute on the high altar of Notre Dame.
But a universe devoid of God is a bleak place.
This whole philosophic attitude in all its hopelessness is summed up by Bertrand Russell in 1903. Most French intellectuals and writers would probably subscribe to Russell’s pessimistic conclusions.
A Plain Man’s Worship Russell
“Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world
which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals
henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no
prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and
fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of
atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an
individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all
the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction
in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement
must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if
not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects
them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm
foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
How, in such an alien and inhuman world, can so powerless a creature as Man
preserve his aspirations untarnished? “