Category Archives: French literature

No et moi: What’s with the kitchen gadgets?

posted by Simon Kemp

Here’s an odd little detail from No et moi, Delphine de Vigan’s novel about a thirteen-year-old genius who befriends an older homeless girl. Towards the end of the novel, Lou (the thirteen-year-old) is feeling overwhelmed by the situation. A few weeks earlier, the story almost seemed to have reached a happy ending, with No installed in Lou’s family home, happy, sober and in employment, and Lou’s mother lifted out of the long depression caused by the death of Lou’s baby sister Thaïs by the experience of helping No put her life back on the rails.

Now, though, all of this has fallen apart. No’s drinking and pill-stealing have seen her thrown out of Lou’s home, and Lou has reason to believe that the temporary refuge she has found with Lucas is now under threat. Lou’s own secret crush on Lucas is running up against the harsh reality of their four-year age difference, and she is filled with jealousy at his attention to other girls his age. When No gives Lou an expensive thank you gift, Lou is struck by the contrast between the bleakness of No’s situation and the fake glamour of the perfume advertisement on a poster that forms the backdrop to the scene.

She heads home in a black mood, slams her bedroom door in her mother’s face, and later tells her father:

Depuis que Thaïs est morte maman m’aime plus. 

(The scene, by the way, is pp. 221-22 in the Livre de Poche edition.) Her father tells her she’s mistaken:

Lou, tu te trompes. Maman t’aime, elle t’aime de tout son cœur, elle ne sait plus très bien comment faire, pour le montrer, c’est un peu comme si elle avait perdu l’habitude, comme si elle se réveillait d’un long sommeil, mais dans ses rêves elle pensait à toi, beaucoup, et c’est pour ça qu’elle s’est réveillée.

Lou says ‘d’accord’ to show she’s understood him, and even smiles. But inwardly, she’s thinking… what?

She’s thinking about kitchen gadgets:

J’ai pensé aux vendeurs devant les Galeries Lafayette, perchés sur leurs petits stands, ceux qui font des démonstrations avec des machines incroyables qui découpent les trucs en cubes, en tranches, en rondelles, en lamelles, en roses des vents, qui râpent, pressent, broient, mixent, bref qui font absolument tout et qui durent toute la vie.

N’empêche que moi je ne suis pas tombée du dernier RER.

And there the chapter ends. What does it mean?

Galeries Lafayette is a deluxe department store in Paris, and these salespeople are in the street outside it. (Do they work for the department store, or are they just hoping for a little reflected glory on the product they’re selling?) The kitchen gadget they’re demonstrating is a kind of miracle all-in-one food preparation device that can dice, slice, grind, mix and do all of the other things listed above, plus more besides, and which will never break down as long as you live. Or at least, that’s what they claim.

Lou’s comment on this loosely translates as ‘Even so, I didn’t fall off the last RER’, the RER being the Paris crossrail linking the suburbs to the city centre. Even if you don’t spot the similarity to the more usual French expression, ‘je ne suis pas tombée de la dernière pluie’, you can probably guess from the context that this is Lou’s urban version of the expression meaning ‘I wasn’t born yesterday’.

With that, things start to become clear. The gadgets are just too perfect: they do everything, you can rely on them for ever. Clearly, the salespeople are lying, and the thing will spend a couple of weeks grinding when it’s supposed to grate and slicing when it’s supposed to dice before breaking down completely and spending the rest of its life at the back of a cupboard.

If the kitchen gadgets are a symbol, then, they must symbolize the idea that Lou’s father’s reassurance is also a lie, that the picture he paints of a mother who loves her daughter dearly but just needs a little more time to recover from her depression is also too perfect to be true.

Lou has witnessed how No managed to bring her mother out of her shell, make her smile again and engage with the world, in a way that Lou herself has never been able to. Earlier, Lou was left ‘très en colère’  (on p. 157) when her mother shared a bottle of wine with No and opened up to her about Thaïs in a way she never had with Lou. So Lou is jealous of her mother’s relationship with No, and resentful that her mother hasn’t shown so much closeness to her for years.

It’s never clearly expressed, but we can also speculate about what may lie beneath these feelings: is Lou secretly afraid that her mother would rather that she, Lou, had died and Thaïs had lived?

And if so, is she right to be afraid of that?

We’re left to make up our own minds about these questions. My own view is that Lou’s father is largely right: Lou’s mother has behaved like she has because she has been suffering from depression, not because she does not love her daughter. Lou’s sceptical thoughts about food-processors tell us more about her own (understandable) feelings of insecurity, than they do about her mother’s true attitude towards her.

You may read it differently. However you interpret it, though, it definitely forms a part of the novel’s deeper story about how Lou slowly comes to understand that in real life there are no fairy-tale happy endings, and that broken people cannot be easily fixed.

Europe

posted by Catriona Seth

In 1813, Germaine de Staël published a seminal work called De l’Allemagne, which offered a wide-ranging introduction to German romantic literature and philosophy. She had long been an advocate of learning from one’s neighbours and had a particular admiration for the British political system. She had also written Corinne ou l’Italie, a novel which suggested that Italy, at the time a fragmented series of little duchies, principalities and papal States, could unite around its common cultural heritage. She was very interested in what languages and reading foreign texts or those written in the past can teach us:

Comment pourrait-on, sans la connaissance des langues, sans l’habitude de la lecture, communiquer avec ces hommes qui ne sont plus, et que nous sentons si bien nos amis, nos concitoyens, nos alliés ? Il faut être médiocre de cœur pour se refuser à de si nobles plaisirs. Ceux-là seulement qui remplissent leur vie de bonnes œuvres peuvent se passer de toute étude : l’ignorance, dans les hommes oisifs, prouve autant la sécheresse de l’âme que la légèreté de l’esprit.

Enfin, il reste encore une chose vraiment belle et morale, dont l’ignorance et la frivolité ne peuvent jouir : c’est l’association de tous les hommes qui pensent, d’un bout de l’Europe à l’autre.

This is one of the extracts included in the anthology of texts mainly from the long eighteenth century, freely available to download here. All of them deal with the subject of Europe which seemed to us to be particularly topical. There are pieces taken from works by major figures like Rousseau or Voltaire – and others who did not write in French, like Gibbon or Kant. There are also some by forgotten authors. Most are short, some of them are almost aphoristic, a few of them are in verse. They all show that during the Enlightenment (and indeed before), thinkers were wondering about political integration, ties with neighbouring lands like Turkey or the Maghreb, common cultural practises and social rituals, but also about the role individuals might play in shaping the future of international relations.

Putting together the anthology was a collective effort. Like Tolérance. Le combat des Lumières, published in the aftermath of the January 2015 killings in Paris, it was carried out under the aegis of the Société française d’étude du dix-huitième siècle. Like its predecessor, it was a collaborative effort, piloted by my the Professor of French and Italian from the university of Augsburg, Rotraud von Kulessa, and by myself, with the help of colleagues from different countries. This, however, is only part of the story. We want people, wherever they are, to be able to use the book, to read it freely, to download it, to dip into it or to read it from cover to cover… That is already possible now. We also want it to be available to people who do not speak French or who would benefit from having the texts in two languages. Tolérance was translated into English in an amazing manner by Caroline Warman and 102 students and academics from Oxford—if you have not seen it yet, this is where you can find it:

http://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/418/r

Our plan is to translate L’idée d’Europe in the same way. Language students from all over Oxford and their tutors are getting involved and once the work is finished and the book online, we will make sure you get the inside story on this blog so… enjoy reading L’idée de l’Europe in its initial French version and watch this space for The Idea of Europe.

 

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/

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.

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).

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.

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.

 

 

L’Étranger: When does Meursault tell his story?

posted by Simon Kemp

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.

It’s one of the most famous opening lines in modern literature. And it sounds like it answers our question right away. If Meursault says his mother died today, then, clearly, that’s when he’s telling us his story: on the day that he gets the telegram from the old people’s home informing him of her death.

Except that can’t be right, because everything in the story happens after that moment, and he can’t tell his story before it happens. We follow Meursault through the funeral, through work and leisure back home in Algers, through the shooting on the beach, imprisonment, trial and verdict, and by the time we reach the end of the story, a year has passed and summer has come around again. The last sentence of the book is narrated in the past tense (‘il me restait à souhaiter…’) from a point some time after Meursault has thrown the chaplain out of his prison cell and (we presume) before he gets his head chopped off by the guillotine. So the Meursault telling the story on the last page of the novel is at least a year older than the one who started it on page one.

Most stories that are told in the past tense by a first-person narrator, as L’Étranger is, pick a moment some time after the whole tale is finished and make that their time of narrating (the ‘now’ of the storytelling voice). One of the unusual things about L’Étranger is that Meursault seems to tell his story from several different points during and after the events he’s telling us about. To use the precise terms, it’s narrated intermittently (from time to time through the course of the story) rather than, as is usually the case, retrospectively (looking back from after it’s all over).

You do see first-person narrators in other novels who, like Meursault, tell their stories intermittently. Greg Heffley is one. Bridget Jones is another. Antoine Roquentin is a third. All these stories, though, draw attention to their intermittent narration by using the diary form. Greg, Bridget and Antoine let their reader know clearly when the time of narrating changes by marking a new entry in the diary. (As well as diary entries, a similar effect can be used by telling a story through letters, probably the most famous example of which in French literature is Les Liaisons dangereuses.)

Meursault, though, slips between different times of narrating without always making it clear when he’s doing it… or why.

Here’s the first time it happens, in the very first lines of the story:

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.

Take a look at the tenses of the verbs in this extract, and see if you can unravel how the events fit together in time, and how the time of narrating changes. Next week, we’ll pick it apart in detail together, and think about why Meursault, and Camus, might choose to tell their story this way.

Un Sac de billes: What does the bag of marbles have to do with anything?

billes

posted by Simon Kemp

Joseph Joffo’s memoir of his time as a Jewish ten-year-old on the run with his older brother in Nazi-occupied France is justifiably famous, and it seems to be a popular choice among the set texts on the new A-level syllabus. As the first in our series answering questions about these texts, let’s see why the book has the title un sac de billes, given that marbles don’t feature in the book beyond the opening chapters.

Marbles are, of course, where we start in the story, with the game being played in the street between Jo and Maurice. Why start the story at this moment? Well, the episode is filled with foreshadowing of the story to come:

  • Maurice and Jo will return from the game to find two S. S. officers at their father’s barber shop, leading to their first real encounter with the Nazis and their antisemitism.

 

  • The game of marbles itself is watched by Mémé Epstein, who, Joffo mentions, is a Jewish woman who has found safe haven in Paris from the pogroms, attacks on Jewish people in Russia and Eastern Europe earlier in the century. A repeated theme in the story will be the fact that this kind of mass persecution of the Jews has happened before (including to Jo’s Russian grandfather), and that means it could happen again in the future.

 

  • And, most clearly, marbles come to symbolize the bond between the brothers. Maurice wins Jo’s last marble off him, fair and square, but, knowing how much he likes it, gives it back to him:

 

Un frère est quelqu’un à qui on rend la dernière bille qu’on vient de lui gagner.

 

The bond between the two boys is a central theme of the story, and their concern for each other is what will allow them to survive the coming ordeal.

 

The returned marble itself is also rather special. It looks a little like a miniature globe, and Jo likes to pretend he has the world in his pocket:

 

Il est bon d’avoir la Terre dans sa poche, les montagnes, les mers, tout ça bien enfoui. Je suis un géant et j’ai sur moi toutes les planètes.

 

There’s not much in the way of symbolism or metaphor in Joffo’s memoir, but this is one definite symbol. The world-marble gives Jo a fantasy of immense power, which is ironic as his extreme powerlessness is about to be brought home to him. But there’s also the fact that there actually is now a giant holding the whole planet in its grip, metaphorically at least. Fascism’s influence over the  world, its threat to humanity as a whole, and its pervasive power that can’t be escaped, no matter how far you run, is implicit in the image.

 

But hang on a minute… what about the bag?

 

There’s no bag of marbles in the opening scene. In fact, Joffo specifies that the marbles are in Maurice’s pockets, which are bulging with them : ça lui fait des poches comme des ballons.

So where’s the bag of marbles?

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It turns up in Chapter Three, in a much briefer scene than the opening marbles game, but one that reinforces many of the same themes. Jo has gone to school with a yellow star sewn onto his clothes for the first time, and as a result has found himself insulted by his classmates, ignored by his teacher, and finally, beaten up in the playground. His non-Jewish friend Zérati, who feels guilty at having drawn attention to Jo’s star in the first place, runs after him and proposes a trade:

 

Mon étoile. Pour un sac de billes.

 

The marbles are handed over in another act of kindness : not between brothers this time, but between Jo and a non-Jewish person, foreshadowing the unexpected kindness the brothers will encounter from French people as they travel, and perhaps showing a better world of common humanity that the coming years will very nearly snuff out entirely.

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So the marbles play a double role in the story, covering the twin themes of the book: on the one hand, immense power holding the world in its grasp in Jo’s fantasy, and its flipside of vulnerability in Jo’s real status, and on the other hand, the solidarity that will enable Jo and Maurice to survive the années noires of the Occupation.

 

And as well as all this, the marbles are just what you know marbles are: a children’s game. Perhaps that game in the street, just before meeting the S. S. officers at their home, is the last true moment of childhood in Jo’s life. Certainly, his childhood is over a little while later as he leaves home with his brother. Looking back, Joffo remarks of that night:

 

C’en était fait de l’enfance.

 

His childhood is over, not only because he will lose the security of home and the care of his parents, as he has to fend for himself in the world. It’s also over because any childhood illusions he may have had – that grown-ups are wise and good, perhaps, or that the world is a safe and predictable place – are about to be brutally dispelled.

 

There’s a reason marbles don’t feature in the book beyond the opening pages. They’re for children, and Joseph Joffo’s childhood ended at the age of ten.

Book Club – Hélène Gestern, Eux sur la photo

arton927posted by Catriona Seth

Published in 2011, Eux sur la photo (translated into English in 2014 as The People in the Photo) is the first novel by Hélène Gestern who has published three more since, all to critical acclaim, including her most recent one, L’Odeur de la forêt (2016), which is on the longlist of the prestigious ‘Fémina’ book prize. Eux sur la photo, which won several literary prizes in France, is about a young woman’s quest for her origins. She was only a very small child when her Mother died and she wants to learn about the woman she hardly knew. She finds a photograph and her hunt for clues starts there. As the story unwinds, we get to know more about her and about Stéphane who recognises his Father next to Hélène’s Mother on the snapshot when she has it published in a newspaper column in an attempt to get to gather information. The characters join forces to fill in the blanks as they face the fact that they have a common background about which they knew nothing. Their investigation of their parents’ past becomes a voyage of self-discovery as they learn to trust each other and their feelings. The book is also a reflection on memory and memories as well as on the power of photographs both to reveal and to conceal scenes and sentiments. There are descriptions of different pictures and various documents like letters, text messages and emails. This means the pace is varied but also that there is never a dull moment and the chapters are short and compelling.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book—what the French call the ‘quatrième de couverture’:

Une petite annonce dans un journal comme une bouteille à la mer : Hélène cherche la vérité sur sa mère, morte lorsqu’elle avait trois ans. Son seul indice : deux noms sur une photographie retrouvée dans les papiers de famille. Une réponse arrive : Stéphane a reconnu son père.
Commence alors une longue correspondance, parsemée de détails, d’abord ténus puis plus troublants. Patiemment, Hélène et Stéphane remontent le temps, dépouillant des archives et cherchant dans leur mémoire. Peu à peu, les histoires se recoupent, se répondent, forment un récit différent de ce qu’on leur avait dit.

Parsemer : To scatter
Ténu : Tenuous
Troublant : Unsettling
Dépouiller : Here, it means to scrutinise or to examine something thoroughly.
Se recouper : Here, to overlap.

This is the first paragraph of the book itself:

Le photographe a fixé pour toujours trois silhouettes en plein soleil, deux hommes et une femme. Ils sont tout de blanc vêtus et tiennent une raquette à la main. La jeune femme se trouve au milieu : l’homme qui est à sa droite, assez grand, est penché vers elle, comme s’il était sur le point de lui dire quelque chose. Le deuxième homme, à sa gauche, se tient un peu en retrait, une jambe fléchie, et prend appui sur sa raquette, dans une posture humoristique à la Charlie Chaplin. Tous trois ont l’air d’avoir environ trente ans, mais peut-être le plus grand est-il un peu plus âgé. Le paysage en arrière-plan, que masquent en partie les volumes d’une installation sportive, est à la fois alpin et sylvestre : un massif, encore blanc à son sommet, ferme la perspective, en imprimant à la scène une allure irréelle de carte postale.

This scene of three people with their tennis rackets on a sunny day in the mountains is the photograph which sets Hélène’s thoughts in motion and makes her decide to find out more about her Mother’s past.
Bonne lecture !people-photo146-2