Bringing Proust’s Imaginary Music to Life

posted by Jennifer Rushworth

Many people will have heard of Proust’s ‘madeleine’ moment, where a piece of cake dipped in tea has the power to revive full technicolour memories of the narrator’s past.

Fewer people will have delved further into Proust’s long novel A la recherche du temps perdu (translated originally as Remembrance of Things Past and more recently as In Search of Lost Time). Even first-year French students at Oxford only read the first two hundred pages of the first volume, Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way/The Way by Swann’s). And there are seven volumes in total to get through (not unlike that more modern classic, Harry Potter…)!

Do read on, however, and you will encounter one of my favourite characters and some of my favourite passages. Meet Vinteuil, a composer. Vinteuil is a strange composer, however, for he is purely fictional or imaginary.

Early readers of Proust’s novel were obsessed with identifying the man behind the mask, and suggested a number of famous French composers whose music you may have heard or played: Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Franck… In contrast, more recently readers have quite rightly tended instead to read Vinteuil as pointing not to any real composer, but rather as a specifically literary, entirely imaginary manifestation.

What does it mean for a composer to be fictional or imaginary? It means that their music is essentially silent, heard only in language, and often mediated by the written responses of different characters within the novel.

From Proust’s novel we have only sparse details about Vinteuil’s life. He was a village organist and piano teacher, widowed, and with a daughter. His music earned him neither fame nor riches during his lifetime. Yet two of Vinteuil’s compositions emerge in the novel as sublime works of genius: a sonata for piano and violin, and a septet (a piece for seven instruments, which are never entirely coherently listed by Proust).

Generously supported by the John Fell OUP Research Fund, I am leading a project this academic year (2016–17) to bring to life Vinteuil’s violin sonata.

How can Proust’s novel act as a catalyst for new pieces of music? And what will these new compositions tell us about how musicians read and respond to Proust’s literary music?

Two undergraduate students in Music at Worcester College, Oxford have been commissioned each to write a violin sonata responding to the passages from Proust’s novel where Vinteuil’s sonata is heard and described. These passages have been wonderfully translated into English by a team of undergraduates in French at Oxford, led by Madeleine Chalmers (Cambridge), and can be consulted here in both French and English.

If you can, do join us for a free final concert on Friday 5 May 2017 at the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, to hear these new commissions, alongside readings from Proust’s novel. Free tickets can be booked here.

Alternatively, the new music will be also be available and recorded online, so do check back in May to hear the music of Vinteuil newly imagined by two student composers.

For more information and to explore this project further, please consult the website: https://proustandmusic.wordpress.com/

Letters Home: Le Lunch

In the second Letter Home from our archive, Sam Gormley,  French student at St Hugh’s, and year-abroad hotel-worker in the Auvergne, tells of trouble at the hotel reception. New weekly posts from next Wednesday.

Recently, a woman came to reception to ask for her ‘lunch’. It being a calm point of the day- that particular day was a Wednesday, I think, or a Monday, it doesn’t matter- I had just been quietly minding my own business. The sun was out, I was emptying the dishwasher, nothing special, it was a Wednesday or a Monday, maybe a Thursday, and I was minding mes oignons. 

She asks me for her ‘lunch’.

I merrily ask her to repeat the request.

‘Mon lunch’.

All I hear is ‘moleurrncsh’. I ask her, apologetic, to repeat again.

[With annoyance] ‘Tu sais? Leleeurrrnsch que j’avais commandé hier?’

Nope, sorry, still….

…still not getting it.

She looks at me as if I were an idiot, as if this were all a joke, a hilarious joke on my part, and that no, really, ha!, I know what your ‘leeurrnsch’ is, this just a set-up, you’re actually on television right now, joke’s on you! I ask her again to repeat, and by now I’ve gone bright red, I’m floundering like a beached whale, at least, one that can’t speak French, and, somewhere, all my past languages teachers vomit simultaneously.

She then proceeds to mime shoving food into her face, into her unimpressed French face.

And it suddenly twigs. She’s saying ‘lunch’.

Lunch! Yes! YES. I know what that is! At that point I slapped myself on the forehead, jabbering something about being an idiot, how could I not know what ‘lunch’ meant, and I probably looked like a psychopath and she probably reached into her pocket and quietly started dialling for the police.

Now, as an Englishman, I am generally expected to have a decent grasp of English. But ‘lunch’ throws me entirely. ‘Lunch’.  An English word. I failed to comprehend my own language. I hand the woman her panier pique-nique, which is the set phrase I’m used to, still jabbering pathetic apologies, and she nods and gives me a chilling, sarcastic smile and takes her plastic bag of food.

Fortunately, this has only happened once since I’ve been in working in the hotel. Actually, it’s less common to hear nonsense like that than it is to see it. A few days previously, I notice these words on an advert:

‘Le top shopping sensation!’

No, France, wrong. That’s wrong. That’s not French. That’s English. I am English, trust me, that’s not French. There are lots of these floating around, including, but by no means limited to:

– un total-look

– Stabiloter (i.e., to underline something with a Stabilo highlighter)

– une garden-party

– un one-man-show

– un brunch

It’s a strange phenomenon, but one the student of French just simply has to accept, especially when the English word used does not even seem to make any real sense in English. It’s all part of language change and, love it or hate it, it exists, and the French bloody well love it. If anything it adds to the exciting unpredictability (read: maddening unpredictability) of studying a foreign language. But it also adds to its richness; many bizarre conversations are to be had with foreigners on the subject of word-swapping. Not only do you learn about the way in which a modern French person speaks, you also learn about the huge number of French expressions in English. Here’s the catch: they don’t mean anything in French either. I used the phrase ‘un double-entendre’ when explaining to a French person, well, what a double-entendre was. We all know what it means in English: to a French person? Nothing at all. Just nothing. Not even a flicker. The just heard the words ‘twice-hear’ put together for no reason. So it’s as strange for them as it is for us. When you do travel experiences like this, in France, or Germany, or wherever you go for your Year Abroad, you come face to face with the reality of language as it’s really spoken by people (which, incidentally, is nothing like how you’ll speak it for your GCSE or A-levels- but that’s a matter for another time), and not the kind of French the Académie française wants us to learn. For better or for worse (often for worse, especially when stupid stuff happens to modern language students), languages change. All we can do is deal with it, adapt, move on, and then sob silently when no-one’s watching.

(For my Year Abroad (2012-13) I worked: as a language assistant in primary schools in Briançon, in the Alps, for seven months; then as a waiter/ receptionist/ barman for two months in a hotel in the Auvergne (South-Centre); and finally as an au-pair for three boys, still in the Auvergne, for two months. This article been adapted from a blog post I wrote whilst I was working in the hotel, hence the lack of context.)

Letters Home: The Year Abroad Game

In case you are going away over the Easter break, this week and next week we’re re-posting a couple of letters home from our travelling students on their modern languages year abroad in the third year of the degree. First, from Rowan Lyster, who studied French and Linguistics at Somerville, the Year Abroad Game:

I’ve decided it’s time that the secret competitiveness of being-on-a-year-abroad was made official, and have created the Year Abroad Game. Rewards are measured in smug-points; any inconsistencies in the rules are down to artistic licence (and definitely not the fact I couldn’t be bothered to make up a proper scoring system).

START: You find yourself trapped in a foreign land where nobody has heard of Doctor Who. Will you survive? 

Gain 5 points for each cool attraction you discover in your new hometown.

Such as the ice rink, which has a disco section complete with a light tunnel and hills. In classic French style, this is completely dark, and full of terrifyingly reckless locals. Great fun, despite frequent near-death experiences.

Gain 2 points (and a few pounds) every time you sample a local foodstuff

such as crêpes, of which I’ve eaten a shocking number since discovering the heaven-in-a-pancake that is Nutella with Speculoos-spread.

Gain 10 points if you wring a smile out of one of the bitter and twisted administrators you’ll no doubt encounter.

Such as the receptionist of my accommodation, who regularly tells off residents for the heinous crime of asking for our post. After a determined campaign of sickly sweet bonjour’s, I miraculously got a friendly smile back.

Lose 15 points and go back 3 spaces if you let out a snarky comment to one of the bitter and twisted administrators who’ll no doubt be pointlessly rude to you.

Believe me, the former is ultimately a better way of getting things done.

Gain 30 points if you get a non-disastrous haircut during your time abroad.

I managed this the other day, despite an alarming lack of French hairdressing vocabulary. Aside from nearly accepting an unwanted fringe, it went surprisingly well!

Gain 20 points if you go on a spontaneous trip with no particular destination in mind.

We accidentally did this after attempting to go to Nîmes by bus (it turns out there is no bus to Nîmes, despite the confident assertions of 6-8 locals who sent us on a frankly impressive wild goose chase). After giving up on Nîmes, we hopped on a bus and ended up in Pézenas, a gorgeous town an hour or so away.

 

 

Pézenas

Gain 15 points for each new town you visit.

The Nîmes story has a happy ending; we finally made it there (by train) the other day!

 

 

We saw this gem…

 

 

…and this badass.

Gain A MILLION POINTS if you ever manage to actually receive CAF (the French housing allowance).

I was lulled into a false sense of security by a letter saying I’d been approved for this, but apparently that’s just a hilarious prank they like to play before asking you for every document you’ve ever heard of and a lot that you haven’t. On the plus side, there’s free money available to anyone willing to undergo the seven labours of Hercules.

Lose 1 point every time you accidentally insert snippets of English e.g. ‘yknow,’ and ‘like,’ into your target language.

This is particularly embarrassing in official meetings.

Gain 10 points for each new hobby you take up.

I’ve joined a walking group. Yes, I have become my parents… It’s actually a great way of exploring, as the people with cars drive everyone to somewhere cool.

Gain 15 points per nationality for all the international students you manage to befriend.

So far I’ve met people from Germany, Spain, Italy, Algeria, America, Switzerland, Poland, Brazil and Hungary.

Gain 30 points if you do something ridiculously brave that you’d never do at home.

I went with a German friend to a café that had libre-service instruments, and eventually decided to go for the plunge and play the piano in public. Nobody booed, although hell may have frozen over.

Wild card: OH MY GOD ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN if you completely change your plans for the year.

By ‘completely’ I mean ‘quite a lot’ – I’m moving house at Christmas and have replaced a lot of my study-time with volunteering-time, which conveniently involves interacting with Actual French People.

Gain 100 points if you get mistaken for a French person by another foreigner.

This has happened to me a few times, albeit briefly. I’m also often asked if I’m German, due to my Nordic good looks (I like to think).

And if you get mistaken for a French person by an Actual French Person

Go home, you have won. 

 

Why is there an earthquake in Candide?

posted by Catriona Seth

As the ship on which Candide is sailing nears Lisbon at the end of chapter 5, the sky becomes gloomy : ‘l’air s’obscurcit, les vents soufflèrent des quatre coins du monde, et le vaisseau fut assailli de la plus horrible tempête’. Candide, Pangloss and ‘ce brutal de matelot qui avait noyé le vertueux anabaptiste’ are the only ones on board who survive the storm and as they set foot in town, they feel the earth quake beneath their feet. Voltaire gives a graphic description of what happens. He was drawing on a recent historic event.

An 18th-century engraving of the Lisbon earthquake

 

On November 1st 1755, Lisbon, at the time the third largest port in Europe, was hit by a terrible earthquake and tsunami. Much of the city was destroyed. In the following days, reports speaking of 100 000 deaths reached Geneva where Voltaire was living. These were certainly excessive, but they bear witness to the magnitude of the catastrophe, which is still considered to have been one of the deadliest earthquakes ever.

Voltaire was so distressed by the news that he set about writing a long poem. He called it Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne ou Examen de cet axiome ‘Tout est bien’. He speaks of the innocent lives lost and can find no justification for why Lisbon should have been wiped off the face of the earth rather than similar cities like Paris or London.

‘Tout est bien’ refers to the doctrine of optimism: thinking that on the whole ‘tout va pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles’, as the fictional Pangloss would say. Optimism was defended by the German philosopher Leibniz in his 1710 Theodicy, which justifies the existence of evil. He claimed the world could not have been better: to suggest it was imperfect, he believed, was like accusing God of not being up to the task he had set himself.

Following the earthquake, the philosophy of optimism no longer seemed defensible to someone like Voltaire. As he wrote to a correspondant on November 30th 1755, ‘Vous savez l’horrible événement de Lisbonne […] voilà un terrible argument contre l’optimisme.’

Candide was published four years after the terrible events, in 1759, and with the subtitle ou l’optimisme’. In the book, the earthquake comes hot on the heels of a battle-scene. The slaughter is a manmade disaster. The earthquake is a natural one. You cannot blame anyone for it, in the way you might accuse a bellicose general of making his troops fight. The generous and virtuous Anabaptist drowns at the beginning of the episode set in and around Lisbon, whilst the wicked sailor survives. There is nothing moral about this. It clearly shows that all is not well.

During the whole of the ‘conte’, Candide, whose name means he is candid or naïve, is made to learn through experience (and through unlearning what Pangloss has erroneously taught him). Here he is shown that the force of nature cannot be controlled and that sometimes innocents die when criminals survive. This is an illustration of the fact that Pangloss’ philosophy (optimism) does not offer an acceptable explanation of the world. A number of other passages in the text show this in different ways, like the encounter with the ‘Nègre de Surinam’, a slave mutilated by his nasty owner.

Illustration by Norman Tealby for a translation of Candide (1928)

 

Just after the earthquake in Candide, the Lisbon authorities organise an auto-da-fé: literally an ‘act of faith’, supposed to ward off any future disasters by torturing heretics. Voltaire is very sceptical of such actions. Since earthquakes have physical causes, there is no way that burning criminals will have any effect on their occurrence. The university of Coimbra’s supposed pronouncement that ‘le spectacle de quelques personnes brûlées à petit feu, en grande cérémonie, est un secret infaillible pour empêcher la terre de trembler’ is obviously ironic. Voltaire shows us (and this is a subject to which he frequently returned in his writings) that too often punishments do not fit the crime.

Even the severity of the alleged ‘crimes’ is called into question. One of the people put to death before Candide’s eyes has married his godchild’s godmother—an arcane rule of the Catholic Church said that if you were godparents to the same child you were technically related and therefore could not marry. The two others are executed because they removed the bacon in which some chicken had been cooked: this is thought to reveal their fidelity to the Jewish faith. Though Voltaire believed in God, he thought that established religion served to divide and not to unite people. This scene, depicting the public burning of people who simply failed to conform to what seem to be arbitrary and even insignificant ‘rules’, allows him both to condemn superstitious attitudes to natural catastrophes, and to imply that the world would be better off if reason—rather than blind faith and a slavish adherence to religious doctrine—were to triumph.

An example of an auto-da-fé

 

So, to recap, there are several reasons why the earthquake matters:

  • It is a historical event which would have been familiar to Voltaire’s contemporaries.
  • It is a way of showing that natural disasters are not selective in the victims they make.
  • It forces Candide to start facing facts: all is not always for the best.
  • It demonstrates that optimism is a fallible philosophy.
  • It provokes the the auto-da-fé, which shows that religion can be bloodthirsty, and that by encouraging superstitious actions, the Church is clearly pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes.

Candide is known in French as a ‘Conte philosophique’, a philosophical tale. This is because it is a fictional story which is often quite amusing, but one which sets out to teach us something profound and not just to entertain us. Candide’s learning curve is meant to function for the reader too. Like him, we should be asking ourselves what conclusions can be drawn from his different adventures.

Ninety-Six Percent

posted by Simon Kemp

96%. That’s the satisfaction rate among our students with the French undergraduate course at Oxford.

That compares with an average of 93% satisfaction for courses across Oxford university, a satisfaction rate of 88% for courses across the ‘Russell Group’ of universities, and a satisfaction rate of 84% for undergraduate courses in all UK universities.

We’re very proud of that achievement, and always working hard to make sure our course is the best, most challenging and stimulating course that we can make it.

You can explore statistics on many aspects of our French course here, and through the Unistats link to the government website, you can compare data on our course with those at other universities. (If you do, one odd statistic I noticed is the suggestion that our French course has ‘0% coursework’. I presume they mean ‘0% compulsory coursework’, which is true, but in practice almost all our students choose to include at least one coursework portfolio or dissertation project among their final exams.)

Note too that 92% of our students agreed that teaching staff were good at explaining things to them (which leaves a little room for improvement still, but compares very well to our rival institutions), and 90% of students were in full-time work or study (such as Masters courses) six months after graduating. The excellent employability prospects of a modern languages degree, from here at Oxford or from anywhere else, is something we’ve talked about before, and really can’t emphasise enough.

Les Podcasts dangereux

posted by Simon Kemp

So, you have a room to tidy, a dog to walk, some washing up to do. How, you wonder, can you use your time most productively?

If only, you think to yourself, there was a bite-size podcast available that would keep you informed and entertained for a few minutes until the room was tidy….

Maybe a podcast about one of the most celebrated and notorious works in all French literature, offering fascinating facts and new insights into the novel and its author?

Perhaps a podcast featuring Oxford professors chatting to famous playwrights, contemporary novelists, and the man behind the ‘Dangerous Tweets’ project?

So, a few minutes later, not only will the dog be walked, but you’ll be enriched with a new understanding of a classic text.

Well, wonder no more! As the first of our ‘5×5’ series of short podcasts, Catriona Seth, Oxford’s Marshal Foch Professor of French literature, presents five takes on Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

You can find all the podcasts here:

http://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/5×5/les-liaisons-dangereuses

They include an introduction to the turbulent life and times of Laclos, the author, himself

….an interview with Christopher Hampton, writer of the celebrated stage version of the novel and the famous film adaptation starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich…

…and a talk with the author of a recent sequel to the novel, Murderous Liaisons, along with the genius behind the twitter rewrite, Dangerous Tweets (The Dangerous Tweets themselves can be found here).

Les Derniers Jedi

posted by Simon Kemp

When the title of Star Wars Episode VIII was released a few weeks ago, speculation was feverish. Who was The Last Jedi?

Was it him?

…in which case, is Rey not going to be a Jedi after all?

Or was it her?

…in which case, was Luke Skywalker heading for a sticky end, leaving Rey as the sole remaining Jedi?

Or was it someone else entirely?

Certain regions of the internet were abuzz with many arguments but few answers.

And then, a month or so later the official French translation of the title appeared (along with various other languages too, of course):

…and suddenly, everything was much clearer. The Last Jedi is plural!

Rather like sheep, Jedi, it turns out, do not change in the plural form. So, just as you wouldn’t be able to tell if The Last Sheep was a film about a lone ewe or a whole woolly flock, The Last Jedi is ambiguous about how many Jedi are involved.

In French, though, the English definite article the has to be translated as either le, la or les, to agree with the gender and number of the noun that follows it. In the same way, last must become dernier, dernière, derniers or dernières, forcing the translator to specify whether we’re talking about one or several, male or female Jedis.

So, while The Last Jedi could be about pretty much anyone, Les Derniers Jedi is most definitely a film about two or more Jedi, at least one of whom is male.

It was the gift of the French language to sci-fi nerds everywhere. The French newspaper Le Figaro covered the happy moment in detail here. Here’s a short extract:

Fin janvier, le titre anglais The Last Jedi du huitième épisode de la saga avait engendré de nombreuses théories chez les fans. Ce vendredi matin, la franchise a révélé la traduction française.

Les fans ont eu raison de se méfier, la saga Star Wars a encore une fois habilement brouillé les pistes. Ce vendredi matin, la franchise rachetée par Disney a dévoilé sur son compte Facebook la traduction française du titre du huitième épisode: Les derniers Jedi. Un détail pour certains, un bouleversement pour d’autres.

(If you follow the link to the article, it’s worth also scrolling down to the comments, in which French Star Wars fans excitably debate with each other how English plurals work, and proudly declare the whole episode as evidence that ‘le français est une langue bien plus riche que l’anglais’.)

The ‘last Jedi’/’derniers Jedi’ issue actually illustrates a common problem for translators. In one language, the word or phrase you’re translating has a different scope from what it has in the other language, where it’s either more general or more specific.

Say, for example, you’re translating a French text containing the word ‘étudiante’.

The obvious choice would be ‘student’, but the English word includes male students (‘étudiant in French) as well as female ones, and also includes school students (more usually ‘élève’ in French) as well as university ones. The English word is more general than the French one.

Now let’s say that, later in the same text, you have to translate the word ‘belle-mère’.

You now have the opposite problem. The French word ‘belle-mère’ can mean both ‘step-mother’ and ‘mother-in-law’. The two English words are each more specific than the broader French one.

The solution you decide on will depend on several factors, including:

  • the context of the source text (can you work out which of the two English options the belle-mère actually is?)

 

  • the relevance of the information (does the reader need to know the gender of the student or not? If so, do they need to know right now that she’s female, or can the translator slip in a subtle ‘she’ or ‘her’ later on in the text instead?)

 

  • and the style and purpose of the translation (‘the mother-in-law, or, as the case may be, stepmother’ might be an appropriate rendering if you’re translating a legal contract. If you’re translating a poem, not so much).

It’s a nice example of what makes translation a tricky and fascinating business. Languages never quite map onto each other exactly, and translating between them is never a straightforward matter of replacing words in one language with their equivalents in another. Rather, you have to negotiate your way between two different systems, balancing the need for accuracy with a desire to be stylish or sound natural. Sometimes you may decide to leave out information that you can’t find a practical way to include in your translation (‘the female university student’), and sometimes you may even have to take a best guess about something the source text doesn’t make clear (‘her stepmother, or, you know, possibly her mother-in-law, I can’t really be sure).

Often, language differences can cause real problems for the struggling translator. Sometimes, though, as with the title of Star Wars Episode VIII, a simple difference can make a big change, and the translator can make everyone happy. Apart, perhaps, from the film-makers at Disney who were hoping to keep everyone guessing for a while longer…

Proust Walks Down Steps!

posted by Simon Kemp

You may have seen the above snippet of film in the news recently. It was discovered in the Canadian National Cinema Centre archives (full story here), and it comes from footage of a French society wedding in 1904. The wedding was that of Élaine Greffulhe, whose mother the Countess of Greffulhe, was a friend of the writer, Marcel Proust. She was also a possible model for the Duchesse de Guermantes, a character in his novel, A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

‘Might Proust have been present at the wedding?’ wondered Canadian academic Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan, as he examined the footage. ‘And might he even have been captured on the film?’

And there he is! He’s the man in the light coat and dark bowler hat, descending the stairs alone. Here he is to give you a better look:

The film may not show us very much of him, and it’s not really going to tell us anything new (He could walk! Down steps!) or change anyone’s view of him.

But still, if you’ve spent hours and hours absorbed in his seven-volume, three-thousand-page novel…

…if you’ve spent so much time in his company, and listened to so many of the intimate thoughts of his semi-autobiographical narrator that you sometimes feel you know him better than you know many people in the real world…

…if he’s been a voice in your head, and a handful of still, sad-eyed photographs for a long while…

…then it’s a special little pleasure to see him walking down those steps, and it must have brought a smile to many people.

It’s fitting, too, that it should be Proust that this happened to. His novel opens with an exploration of the way that memories can lie buried within us for years, apparently dead and gone forever, until a chance event triggers their return. For Proust’s narrator it’s the experience of tasting a madeleine sponge-cake dipped in lime-blossom tea, creating a flavour he has not experienced since childhood, and which brings with it a sudden flood of memories of his youth.

In 1904, an early film camera caught a three-second glimpse of Marcel Proust, dressed to the nines and walking down sunlit steps in the company of the cream of French aristocratic society. For a century the film sat in darkness, gathering dust on a shelf in an archive. And now, by chance, it finds itself back in the light, restored to us across the years.

Spend a day exploring languages at Christ Church

posted by Lynton Lees

Join us for our Modern Foreign Languages & Linguistics Study Day on Thursday 16th March 2017!

Are you in Year 11 or 12 with a keen interest in Modern Foreign Languages
Are you considering studying a Language and/or Linguistics at university? 
Or are you interested in studying a language alongside another subject (such as EnglishClassicsHistoryLaw or Philosophy)? 
Do you want to learn a new language at degree-level, such as CzechGermanGreekItalianPortuguese or Russian
Christ Church, one of the colleges of the University of Oxford, is hosting our first ever Modern Foreign Languages Study Day on Thursday 16th March 2017!
This event is open to all Y11 and Y12 students in UK state/maintained schools or sixth-form colleges who are interested in finding out more about what it’s like to study languages and/or linguistics at a top university. The day will include a dynamic and action-packed programme of taster lectures and workshops led by Oxford students and tutors, as well as helpful sessions on making a competitive application to a top university to study languages and linguistics. This is a fantastic opportunity to visit a beautiful Oxford college while finding out more about what a degree in languages and linguistics could have to offer you so don’t miss out!

This event is free of charge and lunch will be provided. This event is also open to any teachers interested in finding out more about applying for language courses at Oxbridge and other top universities. Accommodation on the night of Wednesday 15th March is available for attendees travelling long distances, and we are able to offer assistance with travel expenses to students who require it. For full details please see the information page here. Please share this information with any students or teachers you think would be interested in attending!

To book a place please complete our booking form here. Registration will close at noon on Thursday 9th March. We recommend you book early to avoid disappointment! For questions please contact Lynton Lees, our Access and Outreach Officer (Lynton.lees@chch.ox.ac.uk).

We look forward to welcoming you to college!

L’Étranger: When does Meursault tell his story? (Part Two)

posted by Simon Kemp

Last week we saw the slippery way in which Meursault tells his story from different points along the way, without drawing attention to the fact that he’s doing it.

I left you with the opening lines of the story, which contain the first of Meursault’s time-slips, with an invitation to look at the verb tenses and catch him in the act.

Here’s the passage again, with all the verbs in different colours used to highlight the présent, futur, passé composé, imparfait and futur antérieur (‘will have done’) tenses:

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile: “Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués.” Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.

L’asile de vieillards est à Marengo, à quatre-vingts kilomètres d’Alger. Je prendrai l’autobus à deux heures et j’arriverai dans l’après-midi. Ainsi, je pourrai veiller et je rentrerai demain soir. J’ai demandé deux jours de congé à mon patron et il ne pouvait pas me les refuser avec une excuse pareille. […] Pour le moment, c’est un peu comme si maman n’était pas morte. Après l’enterrement, au contraire, ce sera une affaire classée et tout aura revêtu une allure plus officielle.

J’ai pris l’autobus à deux heures. Il faisait très chaud.

You can see first of all just how complex it all is when you use tenses to work out how everything relates to everything else in time. In the first two paragraphs, the present tense is used to set the scene with facts (L’asile de vieillards est à Marengo) and to tell us Meursault’s current situation (he doesn’t know when his mother died, the line in the telegram doesn’t mean much, it is a bit like she’s not dead). From that present tense anchoring us in now, we head back to events in the past: his mother died, he received a telegram about it, he asked his boss for some leave. With the imperfect we get a situation in the past (his boss wasn’t able to refuse), and a hypothetical alternative present (it feels as if she weren’t dead). We look ahead to a future in which Meursault will get the bus, will arrive at the old people’s home, will watch over the body, will come back home, and the whole business will be over and done with. And finally Meursault imagines looking back to the past from the future, from which point everything will have taken on a much more official air.

So, as you see, the opening lines establish a knot of past and future events around Meursault’s now, from which he’s telling his story, a point after getting the news of his mother’s death and speaking to his boss, but before heading off to the funeral. Straight away, though, when we get to the third paragraph, this now has shifted. The action that Meursault got on the bus and the situation that it was hot are now in past tenses, which means the events are in Meursault’s past, and his storytelling now must have shifted some way into the future.

There are other odd little references to the storytelling now in the book. In Chapter Four, as Meursault is telling us about the day Raymond’s attack on his girlfriend brought a policeman to the flat, he starts by saying what happened ‘ce matin’ suggesting that he’s narrating the chapter from later the same day. And the last chapter of the novel seems to pull a similar trick to the first: the opening lines are narrated from a now before the prison chaplain has come into Meursault’s cell, and then at some point we jump forward, and the chaplain’s visit is told in the past tense. That means there are at least five different points from which the story is told, and probably more — perhaps every chapter is told from a different moment in time.

So what’s the point of doing this?

One important effect is that it makes the novel immediate. Meursault is always telling his story from a point close to the action, either in the heart of events or shortly afterwards when they’re fresh in his mind. This makes the novel much more vivid, and allows us to share Meursault’s experience much more closely, than we would if he were telling us the story retrospectively from a point after it was all over.

Secondly, a related effect is that the story being told feels raw. Because he’s telling us the story more or less as it happens, he hasn’t had much time to process or analyse it. That means he gives it to us straight, without having really thought deeply about what things mean, but also without trying to present things in a way that might put him in a good light. This makes the storytelling seem honest and sincere.

And lastly, the intermittent time of narrating means that Meursault has no hindsight. As he’s telling us about the funeral, he doesn’t know the terrible consequences that his trivial actions will have when they’re brought up at his trial as evidence of his heartless nature. As he agrees to write a letter for Raymond, he doesn’t know that he’s taking the first step along the road to his own conviction for murder. Camus’s philosophy of life, like that of his friend, Jean-Paul Sartre, emphasised the randomness of life. For them, life, unlike stories, was not heading for a particular conclusion and had no meaning or message to impart along the way. Camus’s way of telling his story as it goes along is part of his attempt to capture a vivid sense of life as unplanned and unpredictable.

As a guy who takes life as it comes, going with the flow without too much thought or effort, Meursault doesn’t seem the type to keep a diary. Nor is he the sort of person who’d be writing an autobiography for publication, or even someone likely to recount his story to friends over a drink. This might be why the novel keeps its unusual storytelling in the background. We’re meant to feel that the narration is close to the action, but perhaps not enquire too closely as to how, why, and to whom Meursault is telling his story.

 

 

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!