Summer Reading: D’Argile et de feu

Adventures on the Bookshelf is heading off on its summer holidays. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be picking out some recommended reading from our archives to keep you busy on the beach. We’ll be back with new posts from the first Wednesday in September.

 

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posted by Catriona Seth

This recommendation comes via the pupils of Culham School. They visited Oxford for a session at the wonderful Maison Française which is a sort of French cultural centre, open to academics, students and the general public. They had spent time working on a recent novel of which I knew nothing, D’Argile et de feu (Of Clay and Fire). They invited the writer, Océane Madelaine, over to talk about her craft. The session at the Maison Française was the culmination of their preparatory work. They were obviously fascinated by the text which involves two characters both called Marie, one of whom lives nowadays and sets out on a long walk towards the South to try and recover from a traumatic experience, that of a huge fire she witnessed. The other is a long-dead potter, Marie Prat, based on the nineteenth-century folk potter Marie Talbot. The modern Marie hurts her foot and takes refuge in an abandoned hut. She discovers the historic Marie’s art and this gives her renewed strength and energy.
Océane Madelaine was born in the Drôme in 1980, read French literature at university and went on to study pottery in a town near Bourges which is where she came across Marie Talbot’s productions. Here is the beginning of the novel:

J’écris les yeux dans le feu, à me cramer les sourcils, le front, les joues. Je regarde et j’écris, chaque mot vient de la braise. Et chaque mot cuit comme ont cuit les pots de Marie Prat dans le four immense du village. Je regarde encore. Autour de moi il fait jour, il fait nuit, la brume de septembre vient, s’en va, revient, je suis au milieu du monde entre nord et sud, au milieu d’une forêt qui m’a donné de l’argile noire et plus encore, je traque les mouvements des flammes douces ou retorses et une chose est sûre : je sais autrement la sauvagerie du feu. Quinze ans durant je l’ai fui, maintenant à mon grand étonnement il brûle à nouveau et c’est moi qui l’alimente, entasse les bûches et enlève les cendres, c’est moi qui fais.

You probably understand most of it.

“Cramer” is a colloquial way of saying to burn. It has the same root as the much formal term “crémation”.
“La braise” is what the French call the embers (it can also be used in the plural—les braises).
“Retors, retorse” is an adjective which means twisted and is often used metaphorically.
“Sauvagerie” is a noun based on the adjective “Sauvage” and is the equivalent of the English term savagery.
“Alimenter” is to feed, and can be used whether you are feeding a fire or a person.

The students’ enthusiasm made me want to read the novel so it is on the top of my pile! And for those who are fluent in French, here is a digest of some of the questions and answers from Océane Madelaine’s Oxford meeting.

Quels sont les trois mots que vous choisiriez pour décrire votre roman ?
C’est une question très dure. Le premier mot ce serait « pieds », le deuxième, « ferveur » et le troisième, « espace ». Ce sont trois mots assez différents.
Pourquoi les pieds et pas la marche ?
Quand on parle des pieds, on parle vraiment du corps. C’est quelque chose qui me tient vraiment à cœur. La marche, c’est l’activité.

Pourquoi la marche est-elle si importante dans votre livre ?
D’Argile et de feu est mon premier roman. Le départ de ce livre, c’est l’envie urgente d’écrire un personnage qui marche. J’ai avancé avec un plan très flou qui s’est affiné et affirmé au cours du travail d’écriture. La chose à laquelle je me raccrochais, c’est cette envie d’écrire un personnage qui marche.
C’est l’histoire de deux cahiers, un blanc, un rouge. L’histoire de la Marie d’aujourd’hui est dans le cahier blanc. La marche est le début du livre. L’autre cahier contient l’histoire de la potière du XIXe siècle, l’autre Marie. Je me suis demandé ce que moi, humblement, je pouvais ajouter à la littérature. J’ai voulu faire la place au cœur même de l’écriture à la sensation. Ce qui m’intéresse, c’est de faire revenir dans l’espace abstrait du langage le corps, la marche.

Quel est le lien entre les deux Marie ?
Les deux Marie sont les deux personnages. J’ai un peu compliqué les choses en leur donnant le même prénom. Le livre est né de l’envie d’écrire sur un personnage qui marche, mais je voulais aussi parler d’une potière du XIXe siècle, Marie Talbot, qui a travaillé en céramique à une époque où c’était un métier d’hommes. Marie Prat est inspirée par le personnage de Marie Talbot dont j’ai vu certaines pièces.
Le lien entre les deux Marie est multiple. Il y a une espèce de filiation. Elles ne se rencontrent qu’à travers les traces. Marie Prat est un personnage fort, une potière, liée à l’argile. Il y a une filiation symbolique, comme si l’une aidait l’autre, sans que ce soit si net. C’est tout ça qui se joue entre les deux Marie. La Marie d’aujourd’hui choisit son héritage. Elle avait au début des souvenirs pesants, très forts, l’incendie. Elle aura l’envie de choisir son héritage, ses souvenirs. On est au niveau symbolique.

Comment les sensations et les éléments interviennent-ils dans le livre ?
Les sensations interviennent de tous les côtés. Il faut que ça circule à partir du corps, vers l’extérieur. Je vois une porosité entre les corps des deux Marie et la forêt. On est dans le personnage et on est dehors. La sensation se situe à l’articulation entre le dehors et le dedans.

Pourquoi vous avez choisi ce titre ? Quel est le lien entre poterie et écriture ?
Parmi les quatre éléments, je suis spontanément attirée par la terre et le feu. L’air et l’eau sont comme des invités. Le titre est venu petit à petit. On a cherché longuement avec mes éditrices. D’Argile et de feu s’est imposé. C’est une histoire de matière. Je voulais laisser la place au corps. J’avais besoin d’accueillir l’argile et le feu qui sont des éléments puissants. Je les connais bien. Je suis céramiste. C’est aussi mon métier. Cela me ressemble bien. Cela ressemble à mon texte. J’appréhende les mots comme je pétris l’argile. Ils deviennent des matières. Dans le texte, la Marie d’aujourd’hui écrit des cahiers. Vers la fin du texte, elle s’adresse à la Marie d’avant : « Je cuis des mots. Il faut qu’ils soient ardents et justes. » Elle met cela en parallèle avec la cuisson des pots par la potière du XIXe siècle.

Pourquoi y a-t-il si peu de ponctuation dans le roman ?
Enlever de la ponctuation me donne une grande liberté dans la phrase. Parfois on ne sait pas qui parle, c’est pour cela qu’il n’y a pas de guillemets. C’est aussi une volonté de laisser de la place au lecteur.

Pourquoi avez-vous choisi d’alterner le présent et les souvenirs ?
C’est une question abyssale. Ce sont aussi des choix. C’est ainsi que les personnages acquièrent une épaisseur. Ils sont dans un présent très fort, mais sont aussi constitués de mémoire, de souvenirs.

Est-ce que vous avez des projets futurs ? Et est-ce que les rencontres avec les lecteurs vous motivent à écrire un deuxième tome ?
Bien sûr, il y a des projets futurs. D’Argile et de feu continue sa route et a pris une certaine autonomie. Cela me laisse la place de me plonger dans un second texte. Pour moi, le travail d’écriture a un rapport assez fort à la solitude. C’est toujours une fête de rencontrer des lecteurs. C’est l’inverse. Ça me nourrit. Un auteur doit amener son texte au plus loin. L’écriture, c’est un artisanat.

Combien est-ce que vous écrivez par jour ? Est-ce que vous écrivez tous les jours ? Est-ce que vous écrivez d’une traite avant de retravailler le texte ?
Chaque écrivain invente sa discipline. Moi le travail d’écriture c’est le matin, souvent tôt, avant la journée d’atelier.

Pichet Marie Talbot [55474]
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With thanks to Océane Madelaine, but also to Alexandra, Maud, Clémence, Cassandre, Anaïs, Camille, Pauline, Lucas, Agathe, Jean, Lallie-Rose, Euan, Fanny, Elie-André, Brieuc, Giulia, Nicolas, Tomas, Lydia and their teacher, Céline Martin.

Summer Reading: Le Horla

Adventures on the Bookshelf is heading off on its summer holidays. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be picking out some recommended reading from our archives to keep you busy on the beach. We’ll be back with new posts from the first Wednesday in September.

 

‘Il nous faut autour de nous des hommes qui pensent et qui parlent. Quand nous sommes seuls longtemps, nous peuplons le vide de fantômes.’ 

‘We need thinking, talking men around us. When we are alone for a long time, we fill the emptiness with ghosts.’

French literature may not be as well-known for its ghost stories as English and German, but it has produced some real spine-chillers, particularly among nineteenth-century short stories  by writers like Théophile Gautier, Prosper Mérimée, and Guy de Maupassant. ‘Le Horla’ (1887) is a story by Maupassant, whom you might have heard of for his Prussian War satire, ‘Boule de suif’, or the novel Bel ami, filmed a couple of years ago with Robert Pattinson in the title role.

‘Le Horla’ takes the form of a diary written by a man who lives alone, but who comes to believe that he is not alone. Gradually, he begins to sense an invisible, malign presence shadowing him. He names it the horla, a made-up word that suggests hors-là, a creature from the beyond. Evidence for the entity’s existence is slight: a full glass of milk at the narrator’s bedside at night is empty when he wakes, without his remembering having drunk it, and other small, uncanny incidents. But in his mind, the narrator has all the evidence he needs: he is overwhelmed by the insistent feeling of a demonic being in the room with him. Unless, that is, in his mind is the only place the creature exists…

‘Le Horla’ is a superior chiller from one of the great masters of French literature, and an excellent choice of reading material for a dark autumn night when you’re alone in the house. In French, you can get it in a stand-alone volume or as part of a collection, as well as in English translation or in a helpful French/English parallel text version. There’s also a lesser-known earlier version from 1886 which doesn’t use the diary form; the 1887 story is the one you want. I take no responsibility for any subsequent sleepless nights, and just remember, you can’t see the horla, so leaving the lights on won’t help at all…

Summer Reading: Meursault, contre-enquête

Adventures on the Bookshelf is heading off on its summer holidays. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be picking out some recommended reading from our archives to keep you busy on the beach. We’ll be back with new posts from the first Wednesday in September.

 

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posted by Simon Kemp

Last summer, Waterstones bookshops in the UK found themselves with an unlikely bestseller among their holiday beach reading. It was the English translation of the French-language debut novel of an Algerian journalist. What’s more, it was a novel that would make almost no sense to you unless you’d previously read a mid-twentieth-century French philosophical novel by a writer who’s been dead for over fifty years. The novel is Meursault, contre-enquête by Kamel Daoud (translated as The Meursault Investigation), and it’s our choice for the Bookshelf book club.

The novel has caused a great kerfuffle on the French literary scene. It’s been showered with accolades and prizes, including the Prix Goncourt for the best first novel of the year. It has also earned its author an islamist death threat for its outspoken criticism of the role of religion in Algerian life since independence. If you’d like to read a novel in French from outside France, you won’t find one with more impact, culturally and politically, than this one.

Meursault, contre-enquête has a simple, brilliant idea at its heart: what if Albert Camus’s L’Etranger, perhaps the most famous French novel of the last century, was non-fiction? What if it was the autobiography of a real person called Meursault, who really did shoot an Arab man dead on the beach in the 1940s? And what if that Arab man had had a brother…?

Camus’s novel tells us almost nothing about the man Meursault kills, not even his name. Daoud’s novel starts out by setting us straight on that score, sketching a hazy portrait of the dead man through the eyes of the child his brother was, and the memory of the old man he has now become. Haroun, the narrator, starts out by condemning Meursault for leaving his murdered brother’s name out of the story. It looks a little like Daoud the author might be condemning Camus for the same omission. But if you know Camus’s work, you can see there’s already something odd going on. The set-up of Daoud’s novel, as if the reader were being button-holed by an old man in a bar to listen to his story, is the exact same premise of another of Camus’s novels, La Chute. It seems a strange kind of homage in an novel meant as an attack on its subject.

And things are indeed more complicated than they first appear. As the years go by, the ‘investigation’ stagnates, and Algeria changes around Haroun beyond all recognition, Haroun finds himself starting to resemble Meursault in unexpected ways…

This recommendation comes with a few provisos. Meursault contre-enquête, although it’s short, is quite a challenging read, in French or English, so don’t let the ‘investigation’ of the title fool you into thinking you’re in for a page-turning detective story.  It’s also not scared of controversy where religion is concerned, although its thoughtful critiques are a world away from the inflammatory provocations of 2015’s most notorious novel about Islam, Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission. And thirdly, as I said at the beginning, there’s no point at all in reading it unless you read L’Etranger first. If you think you can deal with all that, though, you have a remarkable reading experience in store for you.

 

 

Summer Reading: L’Etranger

Adventures on the Bookshelf is heading off on its summer holidays. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be picking out some recommended reading from our archives to keep you busy on the beach. We’ll be back with new posts from the first Wednesday in September.

posted by Simon Kemp

L’Étranger (usually translated as The Outsider) is probably the most widely read of all twentieth-century French novels. Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past) may be more famous, but not as many people get to the end of its 3000 pages. L’Étranger is short, intriguing, and written in such simple French (not a passé simple verb in sight) that it’s often the first choice for non-native-speakers wanting to try a real work of French literature in the original language. It’s the most-mentioned text on UCAS forms from prospective candidates by some margin — a fact that put me rather in two minds about including it in the book club. It’s already read by almost as many candidates as all other French literature put together, so it hardly needs my recommendation to find any more readers.  But there is something special about its combination of accessible language and thought-provoking content that fully justifies its popularity.

The novel is set in colonial-era Algeria (it was written in the 1940s) , and the story is told by Meursault, a French-Algerian colonist. He likes warm sunshine and swimming in the sea. He doesn’t like damp towels in the bathroom. Most things he has no opinion on at all. ‘Ça m’est égal’ (‘I don’t mind either way’) is his constant refrain.  He gets on with his life, enjoying small pleasures, and staying largely detached from other people.  We meet him as he is told of his mother’s death and summoned to the old people’s home for her funeral. After that event, during which he smokes a cigarette by the coffin and sheds no tears at the graveside, we follow him on a trip to the beach with a girl,  and through the events of an ordinary day.

Everything changes when Meursault is drawn into a feud between his disreputable neighbour, Raymond, and the family of Raymond’s Arab girlfriend, who is in an abusive relationship with him. Following a brawl at the beach with the girlfriend’s brother and other men, Meursault shoots one of them, in an act for which he offers no motivation other than that he was dazzled and disoriented by the sun.

The second half of the novel deals with Meursault’s trial. To Meursault’s bemusement (and here the novel takes on a slightly surreal air), the circumstances of the shooting are largely disregarded by the investigators and lawyers dealing with the case. Rather, it is Meursault’s behaviour during and after his mother’s funeral that attracts the interest, and condemnation, of the establishment. In their eyes, Meursault’s greatest crime is failing to weep at his mother’s funeral, further compounded by enjoying life in the days that followed. Meursault, we realize, is being condemned for not playing by society’s rules, and for refusing to play-act emotions he does not feel in order to make other people feel comfortable.

Meursault’s story is simply told. He gives us the facts of what is said and done, but offers few interpretations of his own or anyone else’s behaviour. The novel offers more questions than answers, and challenges the reader to take sides in a moral debate that’s not easy to settle (its hero is, after all, a killer without remorse,  who’s also complicit in Raymond’s abuse of his girlfriend). It’s an uncomfortable read, deliberately provocative, and if you like being provoked then it’s well worth your time. It will also introduce you to the idea of the Absurd, the tragi-comic mismatch between our need to find meaning and purpose in life and the world we live in that often seems to have neither. It’s an idea that has a lot of influence on twentieth-century French literature, and is also explored, for example, in Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot and Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée. So do go ahead and give Camus’s little masterpiece a try. But do also remember that Other French Novels Are Available.

Summer Reading: Trois Femmes puissantes

Adventures on the Bookshelf is heading off on its summer holidays. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be picking out some recommended reading from our archives to keep you busy on the beach. We’ll be back with new posts from the first Wednesday in September.

posted by Simon Kemp

One of my very favourite French authors writing today is Marie NDiaye. Her stories of ordinary people and everyday situations heading disturbingly off-kilter are like a gradual slide from reality into anxiety dreams. (If you’re familiar with the work of the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, like the novel or film Never Let Me Go, you have some idea of what I mean).

I was planning on putting NDiaye’s La Sorcière in the book club at some point, since it’s short and accessible, funny and terrifying by turns, and has the most chilling pair of teenage girls in it that you’re ever likely to come across. I will do at some point, but since NDiaye is currently making rather a splash in the English-speaking world with a more recent novel, let’s start instead with her 2009 best-seller, Trois Femmes puissantes (Three Strong Women).

 

Marie NDiaye

 

Trois Femmes puissantes won France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in the year of publication, and its translation was a runner-up for the Man Booker International Prize. It’s not so much a novel as three interlinked stories. The three women of the title, Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba are connected tangentially but lead very different lives. Norah is a successful French lawyer who visits her estranged father in Senegal to find her brother accused of murdering her stepmother. Fanta’s story is seen through the eyes of her husband, haunted by another Senegalese murder and the disintegration of his marriage. And Khady Demba, glimpsed in the first story as Norah’s father’s maid, sets out in her own story to start a new life in Europe, putting her life in the hands of ruthless men who promise to smuggle her across the Mediterranean.

The plots of the three stories are less important than their atmosphere, which builds a sense of foreboding that terrible things may occur, and disorients the reader with unexplained events, such as the sudden appearance of Norah’s French family in Senegal, or hints of magic in the uncanny behaviour of birds that may or may not betray the presence of a human soul.

With migration into Europe more on people’s minds than ever, it’s worth seeking out these haunting stories of what it might be like to struggle to reach Europe, to live here as an immigrant, and to leave Europe as a European in search of a former home elsewhere.

 

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages: Reason 91

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posted by Simon Kemp

You get to read.

You get to read stories, poems, novels and plays.

You get to lose yourselves in the worlds created by some of the greatest authors in history, and venture into other lives and other minds awaiting you between the pages.

You get to shed a tear for Emma Bovary as her dreams of romance are slowly crushed.

You get to cheer on Julien Sorel as he climbs slippery social ladders up into high society and regular ladders up into other people’s bedrooms.

You get to hiss the judge who condemns a man to death because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral.

And you get to do all three at the same time, and feel oddly confused about why you’re doing that, as the Marquise de Merteuil weaves her clever schemes around the love-lives of unsuspecting innocents.

 

Yes, your language confidence and your knowledge of French culture and history will come on in leaps and bounds as you read these stories.

Yes, you’ll develop your skills in critical thinking,  researching for evidence, building and defending arguments, and articulating your ideas as you analyse these texts, and you’ll take all of these vital skills away with you to the workplace, where they are much in demand.

But a Modern Languages degree at Oxford offers more than that. It offers the opportunity to to be charmed…

to be provoked…

to be moved to tears…

to be shaken in your beliefs…

… as you link minds with some of the great men and women of European culture and encounter their greatest masterpieces. Some of these masterpieces — let’s not get carried away here — won’t really grab you, and you’ll slog through them dutifully before writing a tidy essay about them. But then you’ll open some other book on the course, and who knows which one it will be, and it will speak to you deeply and drag you down into itself. And when you finally look up from it, you’ll feel like you’re looking at the world with fresh eyes.

Discovering literature with us is an experience that will stay with you the rest of your life, and an experience that will leave you changed.

Are you tempted at all?

Evening Sun
Evening Sun

Bookshelf Book Club: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit by Delphine de Vigan

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posted by Simon Kemp

I was pleased to see that No et moi, the marvellous novel by Delphine de Vigan about a lonely teenager whose life takes a strange turn after she starts a school project on homelessness, is on the new A-level curriculum. It’s a great book (and movie) and well worth your time to read, whether or not you’ll be studying it at school. We’ll take a proper look at it soon.

For now, though, I thought it might be nice to introduce another book by Vigan, Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit (Nothing holds back the night), which is actually her own story, or, more precisely, hers and her mother’s. When you discover how extraordinary Vigan’s own family background is, it’s hard to believe she held it back while writing six novels before telling her own story.

The story starts with Vigan’s mother’s suicide. In the aftermath, Vigan embarks on an investigation among the surviving family members to reconstruct her mother’s early life, and try to understand what led her to her final act. We soon pick up hints of dark secrets in the family’s past and serious mental illness to come.

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The first half of the book reconstructs the mother’s childhood and teenage years. Part of a large and lively family, in demand as a fashion model for children’s clothes, it seems from the outside to be a charmed life. But, we become increasingly aware, not everything is as it seems in the family. Early on, Vigan gives us a list of family birth and death dates, copied from her grandmother’s house, and it’s with apprehension that we see each of these dates approach as the story unfolds, sometimes bearing down on lives that seem to have barely begun.

The worst of all, though, remains hidden. It is only much later, as an adult teetering on the far edge of sanity, that Vigan’s mother makes the shocking accusation that will make you reconsider all you’ve read up to that point. Tragically, the response from the family only sends her further into her mental illness. The book, which is by now a memoir of Vigan’s own childhood, becomes gripping and sometimes terrifying, as the mother’s increasingly erratic behaviour puts Vigan and her little sister in ever greater danger. One particular moment, when Vigan  glances from across the street through the apartment window  to where her mother is home alone with her sister, is enough to give you nightmares.

As you’ll have gathered already, Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit is sometimes upsetting book, with traumatic themes, although there’s dark humour too (as when the mother decides to solve her problems by lying in wait for world-renowned psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, and leaping out to attack him). It’s also hard to put down once you’re into it, even though you know from the first page where it’s all leading. And if you’re reading or studying Vigan’s fiction, it’s fascinating to learn about the person who wrote the novels, and how her own life sometimes reflected those of her best-known fictional characters, sometimes departed from them radically.

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Detective Work in the Library: An Eighteenth-Century Counterfeit Book in the Bodleian

posted by Rachel Skokowski

Let’s start off with a quick game of spot the difference: how many differences can you find between these two images?

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Figure 1: La Partie de Wisch (The Whist Players) Detail of Image from Artstor

 

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Figure 2: La Partie de Wisch (The Whist Players)

 

 

How about between these two?

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Figure 3: Les Délices de la Maternité (Maternal Pleasures) Detail of Image from Gallica
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Figure 4: Les Délices de la Maternité (Maternal Pleasures)

 

In the first set, you might have noticed that in Figure 2, the seated woman with her back to us is wearing a different hat and dress. In the second set, you can clearly see that the whole scene in Figure 4 is reversed, and the standing woman with the parasol and the kneeling woman have been removed –not to mention the odd-looking baby!

 

So what exactly is going on here?

 

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Figure 5: Frontispiece of the Bodleian Copy of the Monument du Costume

This was the question I set out to answer through some detective work for my History of the Book class. The second image in both sets is taken from an unusual book in the Bodleian Library at Oxford: a copy of Rétif de la Bretonne’s Monument du costume physique et moral de la fin du dix-huitième siècle, Ou Tableaux de la vie (translated as A record of manners, physical and moral, on the close of the eighteenth century, or pictures of life) published in London in 1793.

This copy is fascinating for several reasons: it belongs to a counterfeit edition of the Monument, an illegal version published across the Channel without permission from the patron who commissioned the original book. The first edition of the Monument was published in 1789 in Germany and featured illustrations by a famous French illustrator, Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune (Figures 1 and 3). The Bodleian version was published four years later in London with illustrations by an unknown artist. These illustrations are copies of Moreau’s engravings, but with a series of interesting changes, as you can see in Figures 2 and 4.

 

My task as a book detective was to discover why these changes were made, and what they can tell us about the people who would have bought and read this book. Some of the changes were technical: the artist of the Bodleian copy clearly wasn’t as talented as the original artist, Moreau, so some differences like odd-looking babies or clumsy changes in perspective were likely a result of his lack of skill. The reversal of the scene in Figure 4 also indicates that the image was copied from the original: the artist would have traced or copied the scene in the original illustration and then made his own print from this copy, which would reverse the scene in the printing process.

 

However, the most obvious changes are changes in fashion. We can see this in the seated woman with her back to us in Figure 2, where the artist has changed her outfit to a style of dress called the redingote.

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Figure 6: Redingote. Image from Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Why would the artist have chosen this type of dress in particular? I believe there could be two reasons. First, the redingote was an English fashion, so this change could indicate that because the book was published in London, the publisher wanted it to appeal to an English audience. Secondly, the redingote was a more recent fashion. In the eighteenth century, just like today, what was in style at one moment could be out of style the next, so this could have been an effort to update fashions that had changed in the four years since the original edition of the Monument was published.

 

Finally, there was another element I had to take into consideration: these fashion changes could have had a political motive. In the years between the original publication of the Monument in 1789 and the publication of the Bodleian copy in 1793, there was a major political event –you guessed it, the French Revolution. By 1793, there were many French refugees living in London who had escaped the Revolution, and anti-French sentiments had begun to spread. Changing the fashions to make them more English and/or more contemporary could have been a way for the publisher to distance the book from the French way of life under the ancien régime that was recorded in the Monument, especially in images of glamorous clothing and life at court like Figure 7.

 

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Figure 7: Dame du Palais de la Reine (The Maid of Honor)

At the same time, however, the French refugees living abroad in London might have wanted a reminder of their previous way of life, so the re-publication of the book could have been intended for this French audience living abroad. Would this version of the Monument, published in England after the French Revolution, have used the changes in its illustrations to criticize or celebrate the French culture it represented? We may never know the exact answer, but it was a fascinating process of detective work to try to uncover why these changes might have been made, and what they can tell us about the audience who might have read this book.

 

Ultimately, this project was an exciting opportunity to study a book that no one had examined closely before, all thanks to a lucky trip to the library. When I began my research, I found this copy of the Monument on the online catalogue for the Bodleian, but it wasn’t until I went to see the book in the library that I realized how unusual its illustrations were and set off on my own investigation. It just goes to show what might happen when you go for an adventure on the bookshelf!

 

P.S. Who was Rétif de la Bretonne? 

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Figure 8: Portrait of Nicolas-Edme Restif de la Bretonne, 1784, engraving by Berthet from a drawing by Louis Binet

While my project focused on the illustrations of the Monument, not its text, it is worth briefly mentioning the author of the book, Nicolas-Edme Rétif de la Bretonne. Rétif (or Restif) was infamous for writing scandalous novels in eighteenth-century France and for his interest in a very particular type of female beauty: the women portrayed in the illustrations to his books always have strangely elongated figures and tiny feet. Aside from the strange appearance of the women in them, the illustrations in Rétif’s books are also particularly interesting because he was one of the first French authors to work directly with an artist (usually Louis Binet) to illustrate his books, an unusual choice for an author at this time.

 

If you would like to learn more about Rétif de la Bretonne, you can visit the site of the Société Rétif de la Bretonne (in French), or view digitized copies of several of his works online through Gallica.

Brexit and Modern Languages

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Post-Brexit front page of a French newspaper. The caption reads: ‘Massive shock in the United Kingdom and many questions in the EU member states after a Brexit victory of 51.9%, due notably to Boris Johnson.’

posted by Simon Kemp

There is shock and dismay in Modern Languages at Oxford, you won’t be surprised to hear, as there is more widely across the university. I have seen professors in tears in the days following the news that Britain has voted to leave the European Union. What does it mean for Modern Languages as a subject, and for you as someone who may be considering studying a language at university?

In practical terms, there is nothing to worry about any time soon. University courses and UK student funding arrangements remain unchanged. Courses in European languages and cultures at Oxford and elsewhere will continue to enrol students, and students of modern languages will continue to take a year abroad in their degree as before. It’s true that some year-abroad options, including many university exchanges and internships, currently take advantage of European Union support through the ERASMUS programme. This support will be in place for at least the next two years, and very possibly longer.  While it’s uncertain what arrangements will be in place in the longer term, we can be confident that student exchanges to European universities, work placements in European firms and teaching assistant posts in European schools will continue, regardless. No matter what happens between the UK and the EU, European schools and businesses still consider English-speaking students a valuable resource and are keen to host them, while European universities will still invite British students over for a year in exchange for a year at a British university for one of their own students. All of this was happening long before we were part of the EU and ERASMUS, and will carry on happening if we leave. So if you’re concerned about whether you should take a modern languages degree in post-Brexit Britain, then I don’t think you need to worry. Nothing fundamental will change where our courses are concerned in the next few years, nor is there likely to be a major change in the careers and life-opportunities they offer.

But something has changed.

Britain is pulling out of the European Union. Some people are afraid that, in the years to come, Britain will be turning away from the continent, turning inwards on itself. It may be that, decades from now, British people will have fewer opportunities to live and work in other European countries, fewer occasions to experience life among the French, Germans, Spanish or Italians. Less chance to make friends with our neighbours. The United Kingdom has reached a fork in the road, and the path we’ve chosen seems to be leading us away from the peaceful, prosperous and vibrant community of cultural and economic exchange that we’ve been part of for as long as most of us can remember. Nobody can really predict with any confidence what lies ahead of us as the century unfolds.

We know that Britain’s young people — the 18-24-year-olds who were eligible to vote in the referendum and the sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who were not — are the people most likely to see the worth of the European Union, and the people most keen to see us remain a part of it. Perhaps you’re one of these people, and you’ve been looking forward to studying European languages and cultures at university, spending time in Europe on a year abroad, and then going on to a career that makes use of your skills.  Perhaps what happened last week has left you feeling bewildered and discouraged.

If that sounds like you, I urge you to take heart. Britain’s future relationship with Europe is uncertain, and it will be up to your generation to shape it. Where we go from here will be largely up to you. It’s never been more important for open-minded, outward-looking people to get involved. Learn to communicate in another European language. Get to know another European culture. Find out for yourself who our fellow Europeans really are. There are many big challenges ahead and many more difficult decisions to be taken as we continue to work out our new place in the world. If you’re going to rise to the occasion, you’ll need to be prepared.

A detailed view of the earth from space with night lights --- Image by © Matthias Kulka/Corbis

But what’s it really like? European and Middle Eastern Languages

posted by Simon Kemp

Here, in the latest of our occasional series, is another short film about what you can do with modern languages at Oxford. European and Middle Eastern Languages is a popular and fast-growing two-subject “joint school” with modern languages. If you choose to study it, you can combine any one modern language out of French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, Czech, Portuguese or Greek with any one Middle Eastern language out of Arabic, Hebrew, Persian or Turkish. French and Arabic is a popular combination. Students taking it can use their options in each course to investigate the long and sometimes fraught history between France and Arabic-speaking North Africa and explore the wealth of connections between French and Arab cultures.

Here are tutors and students talking about the course:

There’s more information here if you’re interested, and you can find out about all our courses here.

A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in French language and culture, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!