Livres Lus – Jan 21

I was intending, as my contribution to the many new vistas of opportunity afforded us by Brexit, to make sure that half the books (fiction only) that I read this year are in French. However, I couldn’t even keep to my resolution for a single month – because this month everything I read was in French.

La Symphonie Pastorale by Andre Gidé

One of those odd French books which are actually known in English by their French title (I presume because it’s a reference to a piece of music, though I don’t see why that means it can’t be translated into English).

I read this in English many years ago, and obviously don’t remember a thing about it. Now I discover that it’s a version of the Casper Hauser story – in this case, a blind girl has grown up as if in isolation; she’s rescued by a priest of some sort, who finds a divine perfection in her innocence, which he ultimately destroys by his own corruption when he falls in love with her. This idea of the innocence of the character who has not been exposed to the corruption of the human world is also very much the concern of Casper Hauser, but in that book the rescuer becomes disabuse of the notion not through his own corruption, but through the natural corruption inherent to man. 

Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune, by Gaston Leroux

What impressed me most about this, was that I read half the book in a day (which, based on my estimation technique of Kindle pages, is up to somewhere around 150 pages). This seems something a break-through for me, particularly insofar as I never felt fed up with reading French and wanting to read some English instead, but it’s also, I suppose, attributable to the page-turning nature of the work.

This is your typical locked-room detective mystery, with the variation that it has two competing detectives. I’d kind of guessed most of the twists as I was going along (one of which did seem a bit silly), but it was very absorbing, and kept me on edge throughout, because I was so afraid the explanation was going to be a let-down.

Leroux is very easy-going French for the most part. I imagine I shall read some more. I suspect popular c19th French fiction which is not so common in English is going to be a theme in the coming months.

A few short stories by Prosper Merimée

I read, from Romans et Nouvelles Tome 1, the following stories, all of which I’ve read before in English – Matéo Falcone, L’Enlèvement de la Redoute, Le Vase Étrusque, and Tamango. The remaining 400 pages of this 500 page book, which I’ll come to, are stories I haven’t read before.

Merimée is very straight-forward French. (I’m actually not reading this on the Kindle). All the stories I read are more or less classics. (Somewhere lost in the private part of this blog is a list of my favourite short-stories, and Matéo Falcone is my choice for Merimée).  Merimée, like Stendhal (his friend), favours stories of noble savages (i.e. non-French), over the French with their degenerate civilisation. His stories are rarely happy affairs.

Vittoria Accoramboni by Stendhal

My English edition of Chroniques Italiennes has only 3 of the 8 stories in my French edition, and none of them is Vittoria Accoramboni. And yet, as I was reading it, I had a strong sense that this was something I’d read before; and I was wondering whether I’d managed after all to come across it in some other English edition, or if I’d read it in French already (for I’m already beginning to forget what I’ve read in French); – but somewhere in the middle, it actually struck me where I knew the story from: – it’s the source for John Webster’s The White Devil. (I saw a production of The White Devil a few years ago – probably the worst theatrical production I’ve seen, at least recently: the acting was poor, the staging uninteresting, but most of all, I suspect – which is in fact what intrigued me to see it – it just isn’t a very good play). Stendhal tells the story in a very straight-forward manner (as opposed, he says notably in his introduction, to what George Sand might have made of it), with very straight-forward language. His purpose is, like Merimée, to demonstrate how much preferable are the attitudes and mores of the Italians of the c15th compared to the French of today (I.e. c19th) with their degenerate “civilisation”.

Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I’d never read Le Petit Prince before: – by which I mean, I’ve often read the first few pages, about his drawing of a hat, and always found it very funny; but I’ve never read the rest of it. This seems a pity now, because it’s a delightful book throughout – as much of humanity aside from me has no doubt previously discovered. The child’s view of the nonsensical adult world is a joke which can be extended ad infinitum. – Unsurprisingly, this book for children is relatively straight-forward to read.

Some of Les Diaboliques, by J Barbey d’Aurevilly

I read the first 4 stories (which is about half) of this. To be honest, this is much harder French than any of the above, because Barbey d’Aurevilly has a penchant for long rambling sentences with many parentheses, and likes to insert into them many phrases I don’t understand. I was assuming this was the source for the film of the same name by Henri-Georges Clouzot: – the matter of all the stories, tales of heightened passion, recounted (often by one of the protagonists) in disturbed retrospect, often leading to murder or some other form of tragedy, seems to fit the bill. – But on the other hand, imdb says the film is from a novel by Boileau / Narcejac (so maybe not). – All very enjoyable though, even if you do get the impression after a while that Barbey d’Aurevilly considers all women to be psychotic. A work which, as far as I’m aware, is almost totally unknown in English.

Having spent a month reading only French, surprisingly perhaps I feel no particular envy to return to English.

4 thoughts on “Livres Lus – Jan 21

  1. Curious parallels. The Leroux, Saint-Exupéry, and more recently the GIde I have also read in French. The Leroux was the first French book where I read – not 150 – but maybe as many as 60 pages in a day, a landmark.

    In the last couple of months, I have read a different Stendhal novella (“Vannina Vanini”) and various fantastic Gautier and Balzac stories, none as good as “Matéo Falcone.” Still, your post is encouraging. We are on the right track. It sometimes seems as if I am not.

    Just switching completely to French is a good idea. Then perhaps I would learn something.

  2. It often seems to me I’m not on the right track. Especially when I blitz through one book and think I’m really getting the hang of things, and then I turn to another book and don’t understand a word of it and have to laboriously puzzle out each sentence. Maybe it’s just that some days I know more French than others.

    It interests me that I find c19th French easier than c20th. I imagine it’s simply because it’s more formal, and maybe in the c19th the French saw a virtue in simplicity, of the kind English didn’t really find till the c20th. I don’t imagine, for instance, Dickens would be a good place to try to start learning English.

    Still, after a month and a bit, I feel little inclination to return to reading literature in English.

  3. I just finished Flaubert’s Tentation, which would seem like a quite hard book, but the fact was that the words I looked up were mostly obscurities and archaicisms, and that many sentences and paragraphs are like this one:

    “Un air salin le frappe aux narines. Une plage maintenant est devant lui.”

    Dickens, Thackeray, etc. would never have written such a simple paragraph.

  4. And Flaubert is the master of French prose style. – He’s one I’m inclined to put aside till I’m much better at French. As I’ve said before on here, I find him interminably dull in English, so I’m intrigued about reading him in French.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s