Category Archives: French literature

Literature Masterclass: Theatricality

In March, Dr Simon Kemp gave us an introduction to ‘Time and Tense‘ for sixth-formers studying French literature. We return to the literary toolkit today with an introduction to another aspect of literary analysis you might wish to consider, particularly when looking at plays: theatricality.

In this presentation, Dr Jessica Goodman, Tutor in French at St Catherine’s College, gives us an overview of this concept, touching on questions like who is talking and to whom?, what is happening onstage and offstage?, and what difference does the presence of the audience make? Join us for all the ‘drama’ below…

Literature Masterclass: Time & Tense

Approaching a text in a foreign language for the first time can be both exciting and daunting at once. How do we begin to analyse the way the text works? What should we pay attention to in terms of linguistic features and the structure of the text?

One of the simplest but also most important aspects of a text we can analyse is the tense in which it is written. Tenses are something we are aware of from day one when we are learning a foreign language: indeed, as non-native speakers we are perhaps more aware of different tenses in a foreign language than we are in our mother tongues. But sometimes, when we are focussing intently on an unfamiliar grammatical system, it can be easy to lose sight of how that grammar can be used for literary effect.

In the presentation below, Dr Simon Kemp, Tutor in French at Somerville College, gives an introduction to Time and Tense in French literature. Focussing on a few extracts from texts on the A Level syllabus, he takes us through some of the various effects the use of different tenses can produce.

Virtual Book Club goes French

Last month saw the launch of our virtual book club with an episode in Russian.

This month, we’ve moved on to discuss an extract of a text written in French. This episode focuses on a passage from Suzanne Dracius’s La Virago. Dracius is an author and playwright who was born in the Caribbean island of Martinique, which is a French overseas territory. Dracisu grew up on the outskirts of Paris, and her writing draws on her dual heritage as both Caribbean and French.

Watch as Dr Vanessa Lee guides some undergraduates through a discussion of gender assumptions, narrative suspense, and reader expectations in this text, touching on details like the use of tenses and imagery. To receive a copy of the text, as well as future book club updates, email us at with your name and school.

Joint Schools Part 2: Applying

Last week, Georgina Ramsay, who studies French and English at The Queen’s College, gave us an introduction to studying a modern language alongside another subject. This week she tells us more about applying…


Once I was certain I was going to apply for English and French the first challenge was writing a personal statement that conveyed my passion for both the subjects. Something I would advise when it comes to writing personal statements for joint-honours degree courses is to find connections between the two subjects because, after all, the reason you are applying for two subjects rather than one is because you think they are complementary.

Admissions Test

Something to consider when applying for a joint-honours course at Oxford is that you might have to take two admissions tests. For me that meant taking both the ELAT and the MLAT on the same day. Before the day of the tests try to do as much practice in timed conditions as you can, using the past papers available online. If possible – especially with the MLAT – it can be useful to ask your languages teacher to have a look through it or go over anything you are unsure of. On the day of the tests remember to pace yourself!


As you are applying for two subjects you need to be interviewed, and then accepted, by both tutours for both subjects. One of my concerns as my interview approached was speaking in the foreign language in my French interview. This is a common worry but remember that tutors do take into account that you are an A-Level student and also that you are probably nervous, so they are not expecting anything at all close to fluency. In fact, I remember in the last few minutes of my interview being asked a question in French and stumbling through and probably making mistakes. Do your best but do not worry about perfectionism! When it comes to analysing literature in the foreign language tutors are also aware that you may not have done this before but as the course places a large emphasis on literature it is definitely something to be aware of when applying.

Joint Schools: What are they?

At the University of Oxford you can study Modern Languages in combination with a number of other subjects: Classics, English, History, Linguistics, Middle Eastern Languages, and Philosophy. In this post, Georgina Ramsay, who studies French and English at The Queen’s College, tells us about what motivated her to do a Joint Schools degree. More information about Joint Schools Degrees can be found through the course listings on the University admissions pages. Over to Georgina…

It wasn’t until I was applying to university that I came across the term ‘joint-honours’ but I was definitely glad when I did. I had always assumed that I would apply to study English at university but following GCSEs, the first year of A-Levels and then attending the UNIQ Summer School I started to really consider the possibility of studying French. As excited as I was by the prospect of continuing to improve my French skills I was still conflicted between my two favourite subjects.

Taylor Institution (Modern Languages Library), Oxford

It was whilst researching degree courses that I realised that it was possible for me to continue with both English and French as there were some universities, including Oxford, that offered joint-honours degrees. I narrowed down my options, taking into account the split between the two subjects (some institutions place more emphasis on one subject) and what I liked about the Oxford course was that there was a 50:50 split.

English Faculty Library, Oxford

As an avid reader and bibliophile I had wanted to study English Literature because I liked the window it gave me into the world, history and different cultures. However, these reasons also applied to why I wanted to study French. A-Level French had been my first introduction into reading literature in another language and I had really enjoyed it. I realised that in studying French I would have access to a whole new world of Francophone literature.

After now having completed a full academic year I am certain that deciding to apply for both English and French was the right decision. I am now in my second year and I am still realising more and more the connections that can be made between the two sides of my course. For example, last year on the English side of my course I was really interested in postcolonial literature and looked at works by Frantz Fanon, a Martinican writer. I also studied Aimé Césaire in my French classes where I also learnt more about France’s colonial history. As a result I was able to see Fanon’s influence on Césaire and ultimately each side of the course was enriched by the other – which was what I had hoped for when I decided to apply.

Next week Georgina will tell us some things to consider when applying for a Joint Schools degree.

PS. We maintain that Modern Languages has a prettier library. 😉

Writing the Great War

There have been many events commemorating the centenary of the First World War and its key moments. A new book edited jointly by an Oxford academic, Toby Garfitt, and a young researcher from France, Nicolas Bianchi, takes a fresh look at some of the literary responses to the conflict on both sides of the Channel. The volume is deliberately bilingual, and is entitled Writing the Great War/Comment écrire la Grande Guerre? This was very much a collaborative, interdisciplinary project, bringing together specialists from departments of English and French Studies in Britain, France and Belgium, and the preface is by the distinguished war historian Sir Hew Strachan.

The subtitle, ‘Francophone and Anglophone Poetics’, makes it clear that the word ‘Writing’ in the main title is essential. Just how do you write such an overwhelming and unprecedented experience? French authors favoured prose, with some major exceptions, but how far could and should prose negotiate the line between realism and invention? English authors favoured verse, but that verse needs to be appreciated in a wider context of writing. There is a proliferation of voices, registers and styles, with traditional genre-distinctions often breaking down. How can one reconcile the complexity of experience and perception with literary form or political ideology? What is the place of irony and humour? What types of character are developed? What do we know about non-European, non-white perspectives on the war as revealed in poetry and songs from across the world?

You may know, or think you know, about Owen and Sassoon, Apollinaire and Barbusse and Céline, but what explains their different perspectives? What about their personal letters, what about the process of writing and correcting? This book offers a stimulating challenge to readers on both sides of the Channel to broaden their understanding of texts, contexts, and critical studies (the bibliography is particularly full and helpful).

The Tutorial

posted by Simon Kemp

One thing we’re very proud of at Oxford is the tutorial teaching system. In most weeks of the undergraduate course you’ll write an essay on a topic to do with literature, linguistics, film or some other part of your course. You’ll hand it in for your tutor to read, and then you’ll have an hour, in a pair or trio, or occasionally just you, to talk through the topic with the tutor, exploring it from all angles, clearing up any questions or misunderstandings arising from the essay, and testing out your views. It’s a great way to really get to grips with a subject, and a chance to share ideas with a world expert in the topic. Here’s an example of a modern languages tutorial in action:

No et moi: Who lives in the Invisible City?

posted by Simon Kemp

‘La ville invisible’ (the invisible city) is the metaphor that introduces the final section of Lou’s presentation to her class in Delphine de Vigan’s No et moi. The novel reproduces the section in full (in fact, it’s the only part of Lou’s speech that the book does include). Here’s what she says:

Il y a cette ville invisible, au cœur même de la ville. Cette femme qui dort chaque nuit au même endroit, avec son duvet et des sacs. À même le trottoir. Ces hommes sous les ponts, dans les gares, ces gens allongés sur des cartons ou recroquevillés sur un banc. Un jour, on commence à les voir. Dans la rue, dans le métro. Pas seulement ceux qui font la manche. Ceux qui se cachent. On repère leur démarche, leur veste déformée, leur pull troué. Un jour on s’attache à une silhouette, à une personne, on pose des questions, on essaie de trouver des raisons, des explications, et puis on compte. Les autres, des milliers. Comme le symptôme de notre monde malade. Les choses sont ce qu’elles sont. Mais moi je crois qu’il faut garder les yeux grands ouverts. Pour commencer. (p. 70)

 à même le trottoir : (right) on the pavement

recroquevillé : huddled up

faire la manche : to beg

se cacher: to hide

repérer: to spot, notice

la démarche : the way [they] walk

déformé: stretched out of shape

troué: with holes in it


So the ville invisible is the same city in which everyone else lives (Paris, in Lou’s case), but it is the city made up of homeless people. Her first examples are those we might expect: people sleeping on the streets surrounded by their belongings, under bridges, in stations, lying on cardboard or huddled on benches. Begging for small change. They’re invisible because people choose not to see them: embarrassed, afraid or indifferent, we walk past without acknowledging the presence of the homeless, acting as if there was nobody there.

But these are not the only people Lou is talking about, and this is not the only kind of invisibility in the invisible city. The homeless are not just the people we avoid looking at, but the people we see without realizing they are in distress. The second part of Lou’s paragraph focuses on the people who hide their homelessness, but whose status can be betrayed by small clues in their appearance:

On repère leur démarche: You can spot them by the way they walk (because of drugs or alcohol? untreated injuries? or simply the fact of having nowhere to go?)…

On repère […] leur veste déformée: You can spot them by a stretched-out jacket (bulked out by extra layers of clothing beneath it for warmth?)…

On repère […] leur pull troué: You can spot them by the holes in a worn-out jumper.

Lou has found herself starting to ‘tune in’ to the presence of these people, people like No, and she’s here encouraging her classmates to try to do the same thing. The first step is to see the invisible people, to start to realize just how many of them there are. Then you can try to do something to help them.

The idea of the invisible city crops up several more times in the course of the novel, for instance on p. 76 and 119. As Lou thinks more about it, it develops into an image of a parallel world, occupying the same space as ours but treated as if in a different dimension: ‘ce monde parallèle qui est pourtant la nôtre’ (p. 119). Lou refuses to accept that her world must remain separate from No’s. The story is her quest to find ‘un endroit où les mondes communiquent entre eux’ (p. 76).

No et moi: Just how clever is Lou?

posted by Simon Kemp

D’où vient qu’avec un Q.I. de 160 je ne suis pas foutue de faire un lacet ? (p. 13) says Lou in Delphine de Vigan’s No et moi, looking down at her untied shoelace. An IQ of 160 is very high – it puts her on a par with Stephen Hawking. Her genius, and the effect it has on her life, comes up for discussion a few pages later in Lou’s first conversation with No, the homeless girl she meets at the station. No asks:


— T’as quel âge ?

— Treize ans. […]

— T’es en quelle classse ?

— En seconde.

— C’est pas l’âge normal, ça ?

— Ben… non. J’ai deux ans d’avance.

— Comment ça se fait ?

— J’ai sauté des classes. […] J’ai appris à lire quand j’étais à la maternelle, alors je ne suis pas allée au CP, et puis après j’ai sauté le CM1. (pp. 17-18)

This is one of the main ways Lou’s high intelligence has shaped the situation in the novel : she has skipped two years of school, and is a thirteen-year-old in a class of fifteen-year-olds. The references to the French school system might benefit from a little explanation. ‘Maternelle’, where Lou learned to read, is pre-school, which is not compulsory in France but available for three- to five-year-olds. Then come five years of École primaire (Primary School). They begin with a year of Cours préparatoire or CP, the first year that Lou skips), then two years of Cours élémentaire (CE1 and CE2), followed by two years of Cours moyen (CM1 and CM2), the first of which Lou also skips. After that comes collège, which is Middle School, equivalent to Years Seven to Ten in the British system. The class names count down from sixième (Year Seven) to troisième (Year 10). Finally come the three years of lycée (High School), beginning with seconde, where Lou is currently studying, then première, and finally terminale (Year Thirteen). The names are all feminine, by the way, because ‘la classe’ is a feminine noun.

Lou is not the only person in the novel to be in the ‘wrong’ year of school. Lucas is also in seconde, but at seventeen years old he’s two years out of step from the other direction. The opposite of ‘sauter une classe’ is ‘redoubler’, and redoublement, repeating a year, is obligatory in France for students who fail to make the required grade to progress to the next level at the end of the year. Having students of different ages in the same class is very common in France. Vigan only tweaks the typical situation a little to create the intriguing premise of the brilliant thirteen-year-old as classmate to the slacker seventeen-year-old, to allow their unlikely friendship to form.

There are other effects too of Lou’s cleverness on the story beyond setting up her relationship with Lucas. For a start, it allows Vigan to narrate the story with the sophistication of an adult. Lou does not write like a normal thirteen-year-old: her grammar and vocabulary are of adult standard, and her use of narrative structure, metaphor, and everything else you expect of a novel are operating at the height of Vigan’s storytelling powers, without it seeming implausible that a thirteen-year-old should be doing this.

But what’s crucial to the story is not just that Lou has the intelligence of an adult. It’s that she combines the intelligence of an adult with the personality of a thirteen-year-old. She has a passion for justice, and when she sees homeless people in the streets she has a burning desire to put things right. Older people may be content to walk on by, blame the government, or shake their heads about insoluble problems, but not Lou. Combined with this is a thirteen-year-old’s naivety. She has confidence that No can be fixed. All it will take is a roof over her head, some kind words and a few square meals. Much of the novel’s narrative development comes from Lou’s slow realization that the happy ending which seemed so easy may not ever be in reach. Over the course of the story, we see her become a wiser person, but also a more disillusioned one, as No’s problems prove increasingly beyond her ability to solve, no matter how clever she may be.

Best of Blog: Asterix, from Waterloo to Waterzooi

While the blog is on its summer holidays, here are a selection of the best posts from the past couple of years. We’ll be back on the first Wednesday in September with another question on an A-level text: ‘Just how clever is Lou from No et Moi?’


posted by Catriona Seth

If we were playing a word association game and I said ‘Eiffel Tower’, chances are you would answer ‘Paris’. If I mentioned a village in Gaul which is heroically resisting Roman rule, I surely would need to go no further: menhirs and magic potion would instantly come to your mind and you would answer ‘Asterix’. You would be right. The diminutive Gaul’s adventures have been enchanting French children  since 1959. He was the brainchild of René Goscinny (1926-77) and Albert Uderzo (born in 1927). There have been 36 albums up to and including Le Papyrus de César in 2015, and every time a new one comes out, there is great rejoicing amongst readers of French, young and old.
The Asterix books have been translated into more than a hundred languages. You may well have read them in English. If you have, I am sure you will join me in celebrating the great art of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge who translated them. As bilingual children, my sister and I read Asterix both in English and in French with the same pleasure, and thinking about what made the books funny was one of the ways I got interested in languages. Take the names of the main characters which play on words. It is easy to go from ‘un astérisque’ (the typographical star sign: *) to ‘an asterisk’ and the name of Astérix/Asterix, or to see that ‘un obélisque’ or ‘an obelisk’ gives us Obélix/Obelix, but such obvious translations do not always work. ‘Dogmatix’ is a brilliant name for the little dog, but if you look at the French version, you will find he is called ‘Idéfix’. His English name is, if anything, better than the original, since it keeps the idea that because of his instinct he is rather single-minded which someone who has an ‘idée fixe’ would be (someone ‘dogmatique’ or ‘dogmatic’—the word is the same in French and in English—is unwavering in the conviction that he or she is right or is very set on following a dogma). There is also the added play on words with ‘dog’.
If you read the names of the characters or the places out loud in the original, you will see they are often typical French phrases. The poor old bard who always gets tied up is ‘Assurancetourix’ (an ‘assurance tous risques’ is a comprehensive insurance) and the village elder is ‘Agecanonix’ (to attain ‘un âge canonique’ is to reach a great age). One of the Roman camps is called ‘Babaorum’ (‘un baba au rhum’ is a rhum baba). There are dozens of other fun examples.
Because the Asterix books rely so much on wordplay, it is often difficult to get the same joke in two different languages. Sometimes the translators slip in a pun which is not in the original. I seem to remember an exchange at a banquet in which one character says to the other ‘Pass me the celt’ (for ‘the salt’) and another observes ‘It must be his gall bladder’ with the gall/Gaul homophone providing the joke. This is to make up for the fact that some French puns quite simply cannot be translated.
Beyond the linguistic transfer, there is cultural transfer at work in the English versions of the albums. Preparing a paper for a conference to mark the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo last year, I remembered that in Astérix chez les Belges, before the battle, a warrior, who lives in hope, asks his wife whether he will get potatoes in oil (i.e. chips, the famous Belgian ‘frites’) for his meal. She serves up another justly famous Belgian speciality, a sort of enriched chicken and vegetable stew, called waterzooi (there is usually no final ‘e’). The feisty Belgian looks at the dish and sighs ‘Waterzooie! Waterzooie! Waterzooie! morne plat !’


For the record, it is absolutely delicious and anything but dreary as the photograph shows.

Homemade waterzooi (© Spx)
Homemade waterzooi (© Spx)

The Belgian warrior’s crestfallen rejoinder is a cue for many a cultured Francophone reader to burst out laughing. Why? Because amongst the most celebrated literary evocations of Waterloo—probably the most famous battle ever fought on Belgian soil—is Victor Hugo’s poem ‘L’Expiation’ which contains the line ‘Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! morne plaine !’ The dish set in front of the hungry Belgian and which was not what he hoped for is described in such a way as to echo the dreary plain on which the armies clashed. The reference works at several levels and means you need to recognise the poem on the one hand, Belgium’s national dish on the other. Where does this leave the translators? High and dry, you might think. Clearly there is no way of producing a similar effect here.

Their solution is as elegant as it is clever.


posted by Catriona Seth

(Continued from last week’s post.)

The best known poem in English about Waterloo is certainly Lord Byron’s ‘Eve of Waterloo’ from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Three allusions that I have noticed in the translation of Astérix chez les Belges refer to this poem (there may be others I have missed.) Let me point just one of them out[1]. It is the caption the English translators give to a full page illustration of festivities which is a visual pun on a painting by Breughel: ‘There was a sound of revelry by night’. This is the first line of ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ so they are bringing in a famous poetic allusion to the battle which English-speaking readers might recognise, in the same way as the francophones will hopefully have picked up the reference to Victor Hugo.

The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat
The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat
The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder
The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder

One of the great strengths of the Asterix series is that there is something for everyone, from the highbrow Waterloo poetry puns to the franglais names of the self-explanatory Zebigbos or of a village maiden called Iélosubmarine in honour of the Beatles song. You do not need to get them all to enjoy a good read, but everything you pick up draws you a little further in. The more you read them, in a sense, the funnier they are. So… if you want something instructive and fun to read, go for the French version of any one of the 36 albums which recount ‘les aventures d’Astérix le Gaulois’ or compare the original and the English translation: you will be in for a fun, stimulating and thought-provoking treat.

[1] The others, for curious minds, are ‘Nearer, clearer, deadlier than before…’ and ‘On with the dance. Let joy be unconfined.’