Oxvlog on Oxford Admissions Interviews

OxVlog

posted by Simon Kemp

As I’ve mentioned before, the Oxvlog Project on Youtube is a good way to find out what Oxford is really all about from the students themselves. There are students from many different subjects talking about all aspects of their experience at Oxford, and they’re talking particularly to school students who are thinking about applying here and want to find out more. Here’s Connor, who’s studying German at Somerville, talking about what it’s like to come to Oxford for an interview for a place on the modern languages course:

You can find Connor’s other vlog posts, along with many more, here.

Tu Tweetes?

twitterbird_RGB

Last week, we offered you a helpful guide towards when you should use tu and when to use vous in conversation with a French speaker. This week, there’s news that these guidelines are falling apart, social chaos is breaking out, and it’s all the fault of social media. Twitter in particular.

Le Monde, the BBC and the Guardian have all been discussing the issue recently, sparked off by a twitter spat between French journalists. Here’s part of Le Monde’s take on the drama (vocab in bold given below the extract):

Il y a un peu plus d’un an, un utilisateur de Twitter, @peultier, journaliste au Monde.fr, a été mal inspiré : il a tutoyé Laurent Joffrin. Les deux confrères ne se connaissent pas, ne se sont jamais rencontrés. Cette audace formelle s’est déroulée sur Twitter. Il n’est pas rare que deux journalistes se tutoient dès leurs premiers échanges lorsqu’ils se rencontrent en reportage, un tutoiement confraternel en quelque sorte. Sauf que Laurent Joffrin, Laurent Mouchard de son vrai nom, est l’aîné de son interlocuteur, et lui est supérieur dans l’échelle sociale, puisqu’il est patron de la rédaction du Nouvel Observateur. 

Franz Durupt, alias @peultier, aurait-il tutoyé son aîné s’il l’avait croisé dans la « vraie vie » ? Sans doute pas. Et son accès d’audace virtuelle n’avait pas plu à Laurent Joffrin, peu séduit par ce décalage entre les bonnes manières et les usages en vogue sur les réseaux sociaux« Qui vous autorise à me tutoyer ? »avait rétorqué le patron du Nouvel Obs à l’impudent, sur une tonalité« volontairement balladurienne », a-t-il expliqué plus tard.

 

être mal inspiré: have a bad idea

le confrère: colleague, fellow (journalist); the adjective ‘confraternel’ (‘between colleagues’) comes up later

l’aîné de: older than

l’échelle sociale: the social scale

patron de la rédaction: editor-in-chief

croiser qqn: run into someone, come across someone

son accès d’audace virtuelle: his fit of virtual daring

le décalage: gap, mismatch

le réseau social: social media

rétorquer: retort

balladurien: reminiscent of former Prime Minister, Édouard Balladur (here, haughty and dignified)

The BBC explores the social niceties involved in online communication in French in a bit more detail. Here’s an extract:

The informal version of “you” in the French language – “tu” – seems to be taking over on social media, at the expense of the formal “vous”. As in many countries, online modes of address in French are more relaxed than in face-to-face encounters. But will this have a permanent effect on the French language?

Anthony Besson calls most people “vous”. As a young man, it is a sign of respect to those older than him, and he’s often meeting new people through his work in PR in Paris.

Yet this all changes on social media. “I always use ‘tu’ on Twitter,” Besson says. “And not just because it takes up fewer of the 140 characters!”

Lots of other French people do exactly the same.

“Tu” is normally for family and friends, but when you’re communicating through @ symbols, joining networks and tweeting under a pseudonym, a formal “vous” can seem out of place, even to someone you’ve never met.

“In the philosophy of the internet, we are among peers, equal, without social distinction, whatever your age, gender, income or status in real life,” Besson says.

Addressing someone as “vous” – or expecting to be addressed as “vous” – on the other hand, implies hierarchy.

It’s too early to say whether Twitter will change how French people talk in everyday life.

Historically, the biggest shifts towards “tu” occurred at the time of the French Revolution and during the social upheavals of May 1968.

“People who played an active role in May ’68 pleaded in favour of getting rid of the distance created by ‘vous’ and doing away with hierarchy,” says Prof Bert Peeters, of the French and Francophone Studies department at Macquarie University in Australia, co-editor, of Tu ou vous: l’embarras du choix – Tu or vous: an awkward choice.

“However, as they grew up and became mature adults, they realised that having just ‘tu’ in French was not adequate, or not part of being French, and ‘vous’ started coming back.”

Although “tu” is more common than it was pre-68, strict rules still govern its use.

“You would offend a lot of people if you used ‘tu’ and they didn’t know you. It is difficult to say whether social media will change this,” Peeters says.

“However, if people’s first contact is on social media and they start using ‘tu’, it would be awkward to use ‘vous’ in a different context. Once you start with ‘tu’, it is very hard and very rare to abandon it.”

So, frankly, it’s a social mine-field, especially if you’re tweeting someone from an older generation with more old-fashioned ideas about politeness than you. One thing you can definitely get right, though, is the lovely new French verb, tweeter. Here,, to finish, it is conjugated in all its forms:

Présent: je tweete, tu tweetes, il tweete, nous tweetons, vous tweetez, ils tweetent

Passé composé: j’ai tweeté,tu as tweeté, il a tweeté, nous avons tweeté, vous avez tweeté,ils ont tweeté

Imparfait: je tweetais, tu tweetais, il tweetait, nous tweetions, vous tweetiez, ils tweetaient

Plus-que-parfait: j’avais tweeté, tu avais tweeté, il avait tweeté, nous avions tweeté, vous aviez tweeté, ils avaient tweeté

Passé simple: je tweetai, tu tweetas, il tweeta, nous tweetâmes, vous tweetâtes,ils tweetèrent

Futur: je tweeterai, tu tweeteras, il tweetera, nous tweeterons, vous tweeterez, ils tweeteront

Subjonctif: que je tweete, que tu tweetes, qu’il tweete, que nous tweetions, que vous tweetiez, qu’ils tweetent

Fun with Grammar: ‘Tu’ or ‘Vous’?

malpoli

posted by Simon Kemp

Ah, the eternal problem. To tutoyer your French conversation partner or to vouvoyer? Go too formal and you might come across as cold and distant. Go too familiar, and you might seem disrespectful. Which should you go for?*

*(Answer: if in doubt, go for ‘vous’, but don’t worry too much. The French person you’re speaking to will be so pleased to hear you make an effort to speak their language, they probably won’t care about any slips you make with the social niceties.)

And if you’ve been vouvoying your acquaintance for a while, at what point do you take the big step of a move to tu?**

**(Answer: generally speaking, leave it to the French person. They have a better idea than you do of how it all works!)

A flow-chart has been doing the rounds on the internet for confused would-be French speakers. (I picked it up here, on the LA Times site.) Simply follow through who you are and who you’re speaking to, and it will give you the answer for most situations.

It’s meant to be funny (there’s a special track for if you happen to married to a certain former French President ), but it’s actually surprisingly practical and on-the-money in its advice.

Behold, your francophone social anxieties resolved:

 

Screen-Shot-2014-07-15-at-3.26.32-PM

Handy as this is, unfortunately social media and online culture seem to be changing the rules of how all this works faster than even the French can keep up. We’ll stay with this topic next week to see how Twitter and Facebook are changing they way French people talk to each other.

Summer Reading: Un secret

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

If you’re looking to read a novel in French that’s fairly short and accessible, but a serious piece of literature that will stay with you long after you finish it, then Philippe Grimbert’s Un secret would be a good choice. It won the Prix Goncourt des lycéens when it was published (France’s only literary prize to be awarded by a panel of sixth-formers), and has since been made into a film by Claude Miller.

The autobiographical novel is about the terrible family secret Philippe uncovers during his childhood. The story begins with his unusual quirk, as a child, of having not an imaginary friend, but an imaginary brother:

 

Fils unique, j’ai longtemps eu un frère. Il fallait me croire sur parole quand je servais cette fable à mes relations de vacances, à mes amis de passage. J’avais un frère. Plus beau, plus fort. Un frère aîné glorieux, invisible.

[An only child, for a long time I had a brother. You had to take my word for it when I served up this tale to people I met on holiday or casual acquaintances. I had a brother. Stronger, more handsome. A glorious, invisible older brother.] 

 

But not only does Philippe have an imaginary brother, he also knows the brother’s name, Simon, and owns the cuddly toy dog that once belonged to him. Simon, it begins to appear, is not so imaginary after all, but pieced together from half-remembered whispers and silences about Philippe’s parents’ lives before he was born. And the mystery seems somehow connected to the fact that their real name isn’t Grimbert at all, but the Jewish surname, Grinberg. What Philippe finally discovers is a history of love and betrayal among his parents and their circle of friends during the German Occupation of France in World War II, culminating in a dramatic event, the ‘secret’ itself, which, once you learn it, you won’t forget for a long time.

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.

 

affiche-finale-agathe-212x300 [55473]

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]
***

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.

 

livre-en-gros-caracteres-meursault-contre-enquete

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

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!