Category Archives: French literature

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?


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?


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.


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

Summer Reading: Trois Femmes puissantes

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

posted by Simon Kemp

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

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


Marie NDiaye


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

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

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


100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages: Reason 91


posted by Simon Kemp

You get to read.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

to be provoked…

to be moved to tears…

to be shaken in your beliefs…

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

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

Are you tempted at all?

Evening Sun
Evening Sun

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

rien ne s'oppose

posted by Simon Kemp

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

posted by Rachel Skokowski

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

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


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



How about between these two?

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


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


So what exactly is going on here?


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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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


P.S. Who was Rétif de la Bretonne? 

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

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


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

Bookshelf Book Club: D’Argile et de feu

affiche-finale-agathe-212x300 [55473]

posted by Catriona Seth

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

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

You probably understand most of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pichet Marie Talbot [55474]

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

What did French kids read in the nineteenth century?

posted by Alina Ruiz

blog1Typical title page of the Magasin d’éducation et de recreation, the era’s most popular children’s periodical.

What kind of books defined your childhood? In Canada where I’m from, it was all about Robert Munsch, but I personally also enjoyed Franklin, Horrible Harry, Goosebumps, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and of course Harry Potter. When you’re a Master’s student in literature at university, you can feel nostalgic about your childhood reading practices; mostly the fact that you didn’t feel compelled to analyse every passage until all pleasure was lost from reading! Remember when going to the library was part of the class schedule in elementary school and for literally two hours a week the librarian would read to you? Yes, you didn’t even have to read the books yourself! Those were the days!

Fast forward to 2016, and yours truly needed to find a nifty topic for her History of the Book project. I combined my nostalgia with my period of specialization and BAM! the topic ‘Children’s Literature in the Nineteenth Century’ was born. It was a good thing I’m a nineteenth century enthusiast, because as I conducted my research, I found out that Children’s literature didn’t even exist prior to this period. ‘But how is this possible,’ you ask? Surely kids were reading before then? The answer is yes – but they were reading books that were originally destined for adults! Even the Fables by Lafontaine were written for adults (if you ever get a chance to read Émile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he goes on quite the spiel about how inappropriate it is for children to read the Fables).

blog2Remember this song from when you were a kid? They were teaching it in the 19th century too!

At the end of the eighteenth century, the literature available to children ranged from school books dealing with arithmetic, grammar and history, didactic short stories and dialogues written by (mostly) governesses, or whatever kids could find in their parent’s library (they took a strong liking to Robinson Crusoe). Among the literary circles of high society, it was generally accepted that children were not worth writing for. Furthermore, those authors that did write stories for children were not considered ‘real’ writers, and were often ridiculed for their incompetence or shunned from literary gatherings.

blog3Learn about France’s heritage in this segment called ‘Vues et monuments de France’.

Two things happened in the nineteenth century that were to change the way people perceived children and writing. Firstly, the literacy rate amongst the young was skyrocketing due to the introduction of new education laws that established new schools, subsidized the costs of supplies, secularized the curriculum and introduced mandatory attendance. Children suddenly became thirsty for new books, and publishers took the opportunity to monetize on the phenomenon. This brings us to point number two: industrialization. Thanks to inventions of new presses and cheap paper, books could now be mass-produced at lower costs. A new network of railways made transporting these inexpensive books to eager children all over France much easier and sooner than later, books for children were the era’s top bestsellers.


Issue in memorial to P.-J. Hetzel, following the editor’s death.

During my research, I kept coming across the name of one specific publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Out of all the publishers specializing in children’s book, he stood out for me due to his respect, genuineness, and compassion for his audience. Remember how I said that children’s authors were perceived as ‘inferior’ to other writers? Hetzel worked very hard to change that consensus in France. As a publisher of books destined for adults as well, Hetzel commissioned some of the greatest writers of the period to write children’s stories for his first magazine: Nouveau magasin des enfants. Surely you’ve heard of George Sand, Alfred de Musset, and Balzac, but did you know that they wrote stories for children too? Yup! And it may have never happened without Hetzel’s determination to change the face of children’s literature in France.

blog5Notice the footnotes designed to help the young readers with new vocabulary.

Hetzel was a fascinating man and I encourage you to read about his life. For the purpose of my study, I concentrated on what is arguably his greatest accomplishment as an editor: the Magasin d’éducation et de récréation. The title says it all: Hetzel wanted to create a publication that would combine practical information with entertainment. He wanted it to be a high quality project written by renowned authors and academics, and illustrated by the best artists in France. It is important to note that while children’s literature was expanding as a genre, most publishers were purely profit-driven, using the smallest fonts, the cheapest paper and certainly not spending the money to commission illustrations. But not Hetzel. He felt that children deserved better and would be more inclined to learn if you gave them quality material. The paper he used was thick and glossy. The size of his books was large in-8o and hundreds of pictures were featured in each volume. Hetzel’s books were literally works of art.

So what could you read about in this magazine, you ask? Literally everything regarding the arts and sciences. Top academics from the nation’s most reputable schools were invited to contribute factual articles and entertaining fiction. Over the course of nearly forty years of existence, the Magasin included numerous topics including architecture, astronomy, anatomy, geography, family life, history, chemistry, folklore, charity, poetry… you name it! One thing you wouldn’t find, however, was detailed discussion about God and religion. This was demonstrative of Hetzel’s republican values, and his promotion of a secularized society long before the Ferry Laws made it common practice. Another unique aspect of this magazine was that it contained content for all reading levels, meaning that the whole family, from newborns to parents, would enjoy and benefit from it. The most successful writer Hetzel discovered was undoubtedly Jules Verne whose scientific novels first appeared in the Magasin in serials before later becoming classics in their own right. Verne was a perfect example of an author who could appeal to both younger and more mature audiences.

Typical title page of the Magasin d’éducation et de recreation, the era’s most popular children’s periodical
Typical title page of the Magasin d’éducation et de recreation, the era’s most popular children’s periodical

Short poems to teach the letters of the alphabet. Can you see the letters hidden in the pictures?

As you can probably imagine, the Magasin was an immense project that consumed Hetzel until the day he died. But why did he care so much about it? Why did he personally check every manuscript submitted and rework it until he thought it was absolutely perfect? Considering the success of the publication, he probably could have retired early and moved to some exotic, sunny place, right? Well, that was inconceivable for Hetzel. The man was a fervent republican and truly believed in the progress of humanity through literature. He saw that science and knowledge were the avenue through which people would make the world a more comfortable and just place to live in. He also saw that children, if given a good education and taught to respect and help each other, would be the ones capable of bringing real change in the world. Sounds like someone should be giving this man a peace prize!

I’m not sure about you, but to me this magazine seems pretty downright cool! Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era and fear for my own future kids who will be reading books on tablets! They will never know the joy of unwrapping a beautifully illustrated keepsake book on Christmas day (and actually being happy to receive it) or waiting by the mailbox for the next chapter of a Jules Verne novel. Or maybe you think I’m crazy and just want to surf the internet. Regardless of how you read literature, hopefully this little post has enlightened you on children and their literature in nineteenth century France. Don’t forget to let us know your favourite book from your childhood by leaving a comment!

P.S. If the Magasin d’éducation et de recreation sounds really neat to you, you may wish to check out Volume I available for free online through Google Books. While you’re at it, why not check out the Bodelian Library Special Collections website to find out what other gems of the past are hiding in the basements of Oxford.

Alina Ruiz is a postgraduate student in French at Oxford University. This post was developed from her research into the History of the Book as part of her Masters degree.