Reading in French for Scottish Book Week

This week we’re celebrating Scottish Book Week so, inspired by a suggestion from a former student (thanks, Heather P.!), we thought we’d shift our attention momentarily from marking and offer some suggestions for things to read in French, based on our own favourites. Not necessarily teaching-related, nor specifically connected to our areas of research, but books we’ve read and enjoyed and would like to recommend to others…

Exercices de Style
Exercices de Style
David Murphy’s recommendation would be Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style because “it was the book that allowed me to get to grips with issues of style and register in French in ways that I really hadn’t been able to grasp before that. The book tells a silly little story about a dandy on a bus and then tells that same story in 99 different styles from classic poetry and drama to a snappy, journalistic style. I think I read it in my second year at University and I’m sure I didn’t understand half the things Queneau was trying to do. But, after reading it, I did have a sense of what style might mean in French and felt a real sense of achievement that I was able to spot it. Oh, and it’s a lot of fun, as Queneau was a great comic writer.”

(Coincidentally, there’s more Queneau below…)

For Aedín ní Loingsigh, the work that stands out as a definite favourite and one to try is Emmanuel Dongala’s Jazz et vin de palme.Jazz et vin de palme “Most of the eight short stories in this collection describe life in the Marxist Republic of the Congo (the former French colony also known as Congo-Brazzaville). The euphoria and political optimism of post-independence 1960s Africa has gone to be replaced by a corrupt autocratic one-party state. Dongala never shirks from describing the harsh realities of oppressive 1960s and 70s Congo. However, what recommends the stories is the author’s refusal to give way to a tragic vision. Instead, in several stories Dongala uses glorious caustic humour to lampoon the ruling elite, their vanity and their empty political rhetoric. In others, humour is dispensed with in order to highlight the unfailing dignity of those who must negotiate absurd official bureaucracy in order to survive and risk their lives to resist it and offer hope to others. This variety of tone and approach is continued in the science fiction of the title story that imagines an alien invasion and subsequent colonisation of planet earth coordinated from Brazzaville. However, the unwelcome guests are ultimately defeated when humans unite and defeat the invaders with a combination of palm wine and the music of John Coltrane. The last two stories move action across the Atlantic in order to describe Dongala’s complicated attachment as an African to aspects of African American culture, including jazz.

I first read these stories when studying, what were for me, much better-known French-language fictional representations of totalitarian regimes such as George Perec’s W et le souvenir de l’enfance and Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinocéros. In this context, Dongala’s stories were more than able to compare with the brio, invention and insight of these literary masters.”

For Jason Hartford, the question wasn’t so much what to recommend but “where and how can I begin?? And end?? Well let me think. There’s a lot of excellent stuff available in Stirling University Library.

Les Liaisons dangereuses
Les Liaisons dangereuses
If you want to try a big fat novel for the first time and would like something fun and fast-paced, with OK vocabulary, try Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), by Choderlos de Laclos — a proto-feminist who fought on the Revolutionary side (artillery engineer). It’s in epistolary form, i.e. composed entirely of letters between and among the characters, so it’s perfect to nibble at. And deliciously evil besides.

The double collection Alcools (1913) and Le Bestiaire, by Guillaume Apollinaire, is amazing modernist poetry. The difficulty varies wildly from poem to poem but they’re all beautiful.

Could you call Marie Darrieussecq the French Angela Carter? Her Truismes (1996) is an inspired, and very raunchy science fiction novel. For something more restrained, but moving and intense, try Marguerite Duras — either La Douleur (1985), a series of wartime short stories, or Les Yeux bleus cheveux noirs (1986). Very few writers can work with emotions the way Duras can.

Lastly, Albert Camus’s novella “La Pierre qui pousse”, which is the last and longest story in his collection L’Exil et le royaume (1957), is a wonderful reflection on religion and foreignness. It focuses on a Christian-Animist folk festival in rural Brazil.”

A great range of suggestions there, covering over 200 years of literature in French.

A Void
A Void
La Disparition
La Disparition

Elizabeth Ezra’s recommendation covers a French and an English-language version of the same book, namely “La Disparition, by Georges Perec. Not only is it an extraordinary technical feat (the whole novel is written without a single use of the letter ‘e’), but it also manages to be both uproariously funny and extremely serious. The English translation, A Void, by Gilbert Adair, which doesn’t contain any ‘e’s either, is also an amazing feat in its own right.”

Un Aller simple
Un Aller simple

For Fiona Barclay, the book to read would be “Didier van Cauwelaert’s novel Un Aller simple, the story of a Marseillais orphan whose fake ID papers lead him to be ‘repatriated’ to the imaginary town of Irghiz, somewhere in Morocco. What follows is a comic tale of mistaken identity and the reinvention of origins. It’s short, funny, and combines a critique of the absurdities of contemporary French society with a celebration of the power of storytelling. It won the Prix Goncourt in 1994.”

And Jean-Michel DesJacques take us (kind of…) into the domain of crime fiction, or certainly authors known for their crime fiction, with Nos gloires secrètes written by Tonino Benacquista: “May I point out straight away that it is not a translation from the Italian as the name of the author might suggest! Published by the prestigious NRF Gallimard (2013), this is a collection of short stories by a writer who is a bit of a touche-à-tout: from comic books to screenplays (The Beat that my Heart Skipped in collaboration with Jacques Audiard is probably the best known). Tonino Benacquista is a talented crime writer but this time it is a bit more subtle as we encounter characters (an anonymous murderer, a silent child, a millionaire misanthropist, well, I won’t reveal them all… ) who all have something in common which makes the book even more captivating since each story can be read independently. But what is it? The protagonists of these 6 stories have all, hidden deep down, a secret that perhaps might or should be revealed: A glorious past, some untold truths? I’ll let you find out and then let you think about your own gloire secrète.”Book Week gloires

Finally, Cristina Johnston’s suggestions would start with some more Queneau, following on from Exercices de Style above, but it’s hard to choose just one. “Les Fleurs bleues is a great, fun read that plays about with intertwined tales of characters who may or may not be dreaming each other into existence and Les Oeuvres complètes de Sally Mara invents the character of Sally Mara, a young Irish author who writes in French, and he then proceeds to write (or to allow her to write…) her first novel. But it’s hard to compete with the sheer invention and playfulness and mastery of Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes which contains 10 sonnets, with each line cut into a separate strip so that the reader can mix and match lines from any of the 10 poems together to make an entirely new poem. The title of the book refers to the number of possible combinations and the idea is that every single possibility makes sense, often surreal, bizarre, outlandish sense, but sense nevertheless!

Cent Mille Milliards...
Cent Mille Milliards…

But alongside Queneau, there surely has to be some bandes dessinées among this long list of suggestions so how about a classic Tintin (Le Lotus bleu is a good place to start) or one of the Philémon adventures by a BD artist called Fred, all about a young boy who travels across the letters that spell out Atlantic Ocean on world maps or, more recently, the brilliant Persépolis by Marjane Satrapi (made into a film, of course, ‘starring’ the voices of Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni and Danielle Darrieux).

Or, in terms of my favourite novels in French, there would definitely have to be something by the Quebec author Michel Tremblay (maybe La Grosse Femme d’à côté est enceinte) and La Peste by Camus and some poetry by Prévert and Aragon (favourites from undergraduate days!) and some of the beautifully melancholic writings of Swiss authors like C.F. Ramuz and S. Corinna Bille…”

Jason’s right, the question isn’t what to suggest but where to start and how to end!! Hopefully, there’ll be some new discoveries among the titles suggested here or a reminder of books read and loved.

Bonne lecture!

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