Category Archives: French literature

Tolerance: Beacon of the Enlightenment

posted by Caroline Warman

You might have seen that in the vigils and marches that followed the Charlie Hebdo assassinations on 7 January 2015, posters of Voltaire like this one appeared everywhere, along with some of his polemical slogans about the importance of religious tolerance.

voltaire

Dozens of university lecturers in France who teach Voltaire and other eighteenth-century writers, and who were all as distressed by the events and by the increasingly polarised politics that followed as anyone else, decided to put together an anthology of texts from the Enlightenment. This anthology would make available to everyone what writers of the time said about liberty, equality, and fraternity, about the importance of religious tolerance, about the rights of women, about the abomination of slavery, about the exploitation created by a system of global capitalism, and so on. It would contain the original text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, enshrined in the French Constitution since 1789, and it would also contain the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen drawn up by Olympe de Gouges, which was roundly rejected in an atmosphere of general hilarity. Some of the extracts would be witty, some would be serious or even tragic, some might even seem objectionable to us now, but all would be arguing their point with great passion, and the collection as a whole would shine a light onto a world and a century which have many more connections with us than we would ever have thought. This anthology, entitled Tolérance: le combat des Lumières, was published in April 2015 by the Société française d’étude du dix-huitième siècle.

 

We in the UK wanted to support and applaud this initiative, and we wanted to extend its readership. So we decided to translate it. And we thought, who better to translate this texts than our students? They are the citizens, female and male, of today and tomorrow, they are deeply engaged in our world, and they are brilliant at languages.

 

At Oxford we do a lot of translation anyway – we translate about half a page of French into English, and the other way round, every week.  We do that because it develops our language skills immensely – it challenges us to be linguistically inventive while never letting us off the hook in terms of grammatical accuracy and syntactical fluency. It is quite hard, but we love it, not least because we all do it together in college classes. You’d never believe how many different ways of translating a single sentence there are. Translation is also a particularly intense way of reading, because to translate something you really have to get inside the text. It’s incredibly stimulating, because you’re both reading and writing at the same time.

 

So, one hundred and two of us – tutors and their second-year students (who don’t have any exams) from lots of different colleges – translated the anthology this past summer term. And we published it on 7 January 2016, the first anniversary of the shootings. We launched it at the annual conference of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, which supported the project, and it has received some nice coverage in the press and online. On the first day it was downloaded more than 4000 times. We were amazed!

 

So here it is, free to download. Every single text has a link to the original French, sometimes in the original eighteenth-century edition. Have a look! Because if there’s one audience we really want to reach, it’s you! You are our future, and our future needs open-minded thinkers, and it needs linguists. Go for it!

TOLERANCE: BEACON OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT

Discovering Simone de Beauvoir

posted by Simon Kemp

One of my favourite French writers to teach is Simone de Beauvoir, the twentieth-century writer and thinker who more or less kick-started modern feminism with her monumental essay, Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex). A startling amount of what she says about the roles women are expected to play in society, in childhood, marriage and motherhood, retain a lot of truth more than sixty years on. Her analysis of how women are represented in literature, art and folk culture is eye-opening. Read it, and you’ll never watch the female characters in a Hollywood movie in quite the same way again. Some students are provoked by Beauvoir’s ideas; others are inspired. Nobody is indifferent to them.

But enough from me. The writer and comedian Nathalie Haynes is a fan of Beauvoir, and recently wrote in The Independent about her experience of discovering the writer for the first time. The full article is here, and here’s a short extract.

“I hesitated for a long time before writing a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new.” That’s an audacious way to begin your masterwork. And this witty, astringent tone pings throughout Beauvoir’s writing.
No wonder, when you consider who she was reading. On the second page [of Le Deuxième Sexe], Beauvoir quotes one of my favourite lines from Dorothy Parker: “I cannot be fair about books that treat women as women. My idea is that all of us, men as well as women, whoever we are, should be considered as human beings.”If I had to summarise my own feminism, it would boil down to this: women are the same thing as people. That’s it. They aren’t a weird, incomprehensible sub-group, they’re just people. This is why Freud’s ponderings on what women might want have always annoyed me: women don’t all want the same thing any more than men do. Why on earth would we? We’re not members of some bizarre cult, we’re just people. So we tend to want the same thing as some other people would want. In this particular instance, I wanted to go on reading The Second Sex, because it’s hard not to like someone who likes the same bits of Dorothy Parker as you do.

We’re so used to seeing austere photographs of Beauvoir, her eyes slightly hooded and her mouth set in a straight line, as though she was thinking high-minded thoughts about a complicated thesis. She was half a head taller than Sartre, and she had the slight stoop of a woman who didn’t want to use her height to intimidate. Why bother, when you had a brain that could crush a person without breaking a sweat? But there are a couple of pictures of her where she was caught in a less formal pose, and a smile rearranged her features. The hooded eyes crinkled with merriment and – in her later years especially – there was something joyously expectant about her. It reminds you that she was probably a lot happier than Dorothy Parker, even if Parker was funnier.

If you’re interested in discovering Beauvoir for yourself, I have three recommendations for you. Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée [Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter] is her celebrated autobiography of her childhood and adolescence, using the example of her own life to show the social and familial pressures on women to conform. If you’d prefer to try her fiction, and to start with something shorter, the title story of the collection, La Femme rompue [The Woman Destroyed] is a good place to start: it tells of what happens when a woman who’s defined herself as a wife and mother finds that neither role is needed by anybody any more. Lastly, if you want to tackle her ideas directly, the Mythes section at the end of the first volume of Le Deuxième Sexe is her take on how society’s view of what women are and how they should behave has been shaped by images, myths and stories from the Virgin Mary to  D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.

Literary Treasures Online

posted by Jessica Allen

Digital Humanities are certainly a very modern invention. They are a way of creating a copy or a version of a text, literary or otherwise, and putting this online so that it is available to a wider audience than it would be if only the physical, printed format were available. Whilst looking at a screen is no substitute for having the actual material object in front of you, it’s certainly good to be able to continue reading or researching whilst you are away from university, or to look at rare books without having to journey deep into some stacks. Browsing is also very easy and often free so readers tend to discover a few unexpected treasures along the way.
The web is home to an ever increasing number of Digital Humanities projects, so it can sometimes be difficult to know where to start. As part of my year abroad I was lucky enough to intern on a Digital Humanities project in Tours, France. The Bibliothèques Virtuelles Humanistes, often known simply as the BVH, is dedicated to 16th Century French literature and provides Renaissance fans with a treasure trove of manuscripts and first edition printed books in pdf format, as well as searchable transcripts and image databases. The online database is divided into several sections, so I’m going to write about my favourite bits here:

MONLOE (MONntaigne à L’Œuvre)

monleo rousseau annotated version

Michel de Montaigne was a 16th Century French thinker whose three volumes of essais provide the basis for what we consider to be an essay today. In writing his essais, one of his main aims was to offer a portrait of a self which was constantly changing and developing. The online editions are particularly magical because the pdfs allow us to see his marginalia and additions (or his allongeails, as he called them) in their original state, so therefore the development of this self, as well as those added by his editor and fille d’alliance (adopted daughter) Marie de Gournay. The MONLOE corpus also contains books owned by Montaigne himself and sources which inspired the Essais, so it is a must for any Montaigne fan. You can access this part of the library here: http://www.bvh.univ-tours.fr/Montaigne.asp

ReNOM Renaissance

renom image

This project focuses on the work of Renaissance writer François Rabelais, most famous for the ground-breaking collection La Vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, and of the poet Ronsard, the most prominent member of the Pléiade. Both writers’ texts are peppered with place names, so ReNOM provides surfers with an interactive map which allows them to browse extracts from the books whilst matching them to their real location. This is a brilliant way to make the most of a sightseeing trip and to really make literature come alive. Looking at the map shows just how geographically wide-ranging these texts are: http://renom.univ-tours.fr/fr/cartographie

There’s no better way to discover the Renaissance than by looking at authentic materials, so definitely check out the BVH. Don’t forget that there are online resources to suit all tastes, so if the Renaissance isn’t your cup of tea, perhaps try looking at Gallica (http://gallica.bnf.fr/), which is run by the National Library of France in Paris and covers all periods of literature. Your next literary adventures are just a few clicks away…

Magneto! Gandalf! Grandet!

Someone at the BBC likes French literature, since they’ve barely finished their dramatization of Marie NDiaye’s Trois femmes puissantes and they’re already starting on Honoré de Balzac’s nineteenth-century masterpiece, Eugénie Grandet.

And this time, they have Gandalf.

Yes, Sir Ian McKellen is currently appearing as Grandet, the monstrous father to the luckless Eugénie, in a two-part radio production that you can stream (if you’re in the UK) here.

McKellen throws himself into the role with gusto (in fact, he’s just won an award for Best Actor in an Audio Drama for the performance) as the rich, miserly wine-grower who hoards his wealth while accusing his wife and daughter of turning their home into a bordello if they light too many candles in the living room. (Candles cost money, you see.)  Eugénie puts up with his eccentric ways, while patiently waiting to be married off to one of the many provincial bourgeois families buzzing around her and the rumoured fortune that she’ll inherit on her father’s death. Then, cousin Charles from Paris turns up on the doorstep, hoping to move in with the family now that his father has lost all his money and, we shortly discover, his life. The prospect of another mouth to feed sends Grandet into a huge fit of grumpiness, but what he doesn’t yet know is that a much bigger problem is brewing up as the charming, handsome and sophisticated Charles catches his daughter’s eye.

Trouble lies ahead…

 

Eugénie Grandet is perhaps the best-loved of all Balzac’s many stories. In his prolific output and his lively storytelling he’s French literature’s closest equivalent to Charles Dickens, except that — whisper it — he’s actually better than Dickens, because all his stories take place in the same fictional universe, which means that the same characters pop up in different novels, and you can trace a single character’s life across a dozen books, now a background extra in someone else’s story, now centre-stage in their own. All Balzac’s work is available in English translation as well as in French, lots of it has been filmed (including a great version of Le Colonel Chabert with Gérard Depardieu), and it’s definitely worth your time to check some of it out.

Bookshelf Book Club: Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Strong Women) by Marie NDiaye

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.

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.

The particular reason for mentioning the novel now is that an adaptation of it is currently being broadcast on UK radio. BBC Radio Four has turned the book into an audio drama in two parts. If you’re based in the UK, Episode One is available to listen to here for the next four weeks, and the second and final episode will be broadcast next Sunday, and available on the iPlayer after that. I’m not entirely sure why they’ve gone for a two-part adaptation, which gives you one-and-a-half strong women per episode. If I were you, I’d reconstitute it into its three stories (each story is about 40 minutes long), and iPlayer them to yourself one by one. The adaptation is very faithful (unlike certain current BBC adaptations of great French literature we could mention…) and will give you an idea of what makes NDiaye such a major figure in contemporary French writing. It may even inspire you to seek out more of her work.

Bookshelf Book Club: Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano

 posted by Simon Kemp

 As promised, a reading recommendation from the works of France’s newest Nobel laureate. Unusually for Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder (1997) is actually non-fiction, but it reads so much like his novels that many of its early readers thought it was one.

The story begins when Modiano comes across a brief article in an old French newspaper, dated 31 December 1941, at which point France was under Nazi Occupation. The article was a plea for information about a missing girl, with a description of her appearance and the clothes she was last seen wearing. Here it is:

PARIS
ON RECHERCHE une jeune fille, Dora Bruder, 15 ans, 1 m. 55, visage ovale, yeux gris marron, manteau sport gris, pull-over bordeaux, jupe et chapeau bleu marine, chaussures sport marron. Adresser toutes indications à M. et Mme Bruder, 41 boulevard Ornano, Paris.

PARIS. A young girl, Dora Bruder, is missing, 15 years old, 1 m. 55, oval face, grey-brown eyes, grey sports coat, dark red jumper, navy blue skirt and hat, brown sports shoes. Any information to M. and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.

 

For some of Modiano’s readers, this petite annonce was already familiar, since it had appeared in an earlier novel of his, with no indication at that point that it was a genuine newspaper article. As Modiano explains in Dora Bruder:

 

Je n’ai cessé d’y penser durant des mois et des mois. (…) Il me semblait que je ne parviendrais jamais à retrouver la moindre trace de Dora Bruder. Alors le manque que j’éprouvais m’a poussé à l’écriture d’un roman, Voyage de noces.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months and months. (…) I felt that I would never manage to find the slightest trace of Dora Bruder. So the lack that I was feeling pushed me into writing a novel, Honeymoon.

 

In returning to Dora’s story in non-fiction, Modiano isn’t simply writing her biography. Indeed, the story of the troubled Jewish girl who runs away from home, returns, and some months later is arrested, interned in Paris, and finally sent to her death in a concentration camp, has left so little mark on history that Modiano struggles to find the barest details of who she was and what she experienced.

Rather, he gives us the story of his investigation, exploring archives for mentions of her name, revisiting the places she lived to absorb their atmosphere. In the  course of his research, he discovers police reports on the arrests of French Jews, desperate pleas in letters from the relatives of those taken, and letters home from the internment camps on the eve of deportation. Many of these find their way into Modiano’s book verbatim, so that at some points Modiano’s own account fades behind a collage of documents from the Occupation. And intertwined with these strands of Dora’s story, the story of Modiano’s research, and the fragments of other stories of those caught up in the Holocaust, comes one further narrative strand, which is Modiano’s own story, and the roots of his obsession in his own troubled family background. Modiano’s father, we learn, was a Jewish man who survived the Holocaust through his close association with a band of collaborationist thugs, the Rue Lauriston Gang, who at one point intercede after he has been arrested to save him from deportation to the death camps. This difficult legacy of a father who was both Jew and collaborator, victim and accomplice in the Holocaust, lies at the root of all Modiano’s writing, but rarely as clearly shown as here.

Like all Modiano’s books, Dora Bruder is short, written in simple, accessible French, and a very powerful piece of writing.You’ll find no better introduction to France’s années noires, and the uneasy memories of those years in contemporary French society. Here, to finish, is a short extract from the book, in which Modiano visits the military barracks where Dora was held with other Jewish people, before being sent to Drancy, and thence to Auschwitz:

 

Le boulevard était désert, ce dimanche-là, et perdu dans un silence si profond que j’entendais le bruissement des platanes. Un haut mur entoure l’ancienne caserne des Tourelles et cache les bâtiments de celle-ci. J’ai longé ce mur. Une plaque y est fixée sur laquelle j’ai lu :

ZONE MILITAIRE

DÉFENSE DE FILMER

OU DE PHOTOGRAPHIER

Je me suis dit que plus personne ne se souvenait de rien. Derrière le mur s’étendait un no man’s land, une zone de vide et d’oubli. Les vieux bâtiments des Tourelles n’avaient pas été détruits comme le pensionnat de la rue de Picpus, mais cela revenait au même.

Et pourtant, sous cette couche épaisse d’amnésie, on sentait bien quelque chose, de temps en temps, un écho lointain, étouffé, mais on aurait été incapable de dire quoi, précisément. C’était comme de se trouver au bord d’un champ magnétique, sans pendule pour en capter les ondes. Dans le doute et la mauvaise conscience, on avait affiché l’écriteau « Zone militaire. Défense de filmer ou de photographier ».

The boulevard was deserted that Sunday, and lost in such deep silence that I could hear the rustle of the plane trees. There is a high wall around the former Tourelles barracks which hides its buildings. I walked along this wall. There’s a sign on it, on which I read:

MILITARY ZONE

NO FILMING OR PHOTOGRAPHY

I said to myself that nobody remembers anything any more. Behind the wall stretched out a no-man’s-land, a zone of emptiness and oblivion. The old buildings of Tourelles hadn’t been destroyed like [Dora’s] boarding school in the Rue de Picpus, but it came down to the same thing.

But under this thick layer of amnesia you could still feel something now and then, a distant, stifled echo, although you couldn’t say what exactly. It was like being on the edge of a magnetic field, without a pendulum to capture its waves. In doubt and troubled conscience, they had put up the sign: “Military Zone. No Filming or Photography.”

 

Dora Bruder

Dora Bruder is available in French, as a paperback or e-book, or in English translation.

Bookshelf Book Club Halloween Special: ‘Le Horla’ by Guy de Maupassant

‘Il nous faut autour de nous des hommes qui pensent et qui parlent. Quand nous sommes seuls longtemps, nous peuplons le vide de fantômes.’ 

‘We need thinking, talking men around us. When we are alone for a long time, we fill the emptiness with ghosts.’

French literature may not be as well-known for its ghost stories as English and German, but it has produced some real spine-chillers, particularly among nineteenth-century short stories  by writers like Théophile Gautier, Prosper Mérimée, and Guy de Maupassant. ‘Le Horla’ (1887) is a story by Maupassant, whom you might have heard of for his Prussian War satire, ‘Boule de suif’, or the novel Bel ami, filmed a couple of years ago with Robert Pattinson in the title role.

‘Le Horla’ takes the form of a diary written by a man who lives alone, but who comes to believe that he is not alone. Gradually, he begins to sense an invisible, malign presence shadowing him. He names it the horla, a made-up word that suggests hors-là, a creature from the beyond. Evidence for the entity’s existence is slight: a full glass of milk at the narrator’s bedside at night is empty when he wakes, without his remembering having drunk it, and other small, uncanny incidents. But in his mind, the narrator has all the evidence he needs: he is overwhelmed by the insistent feeling of a demonic being in the room with him. Unless, that is, in his mind is the only place the creature exists…

‘Le Horla’ is a superior chiller from one of the great masters of French literature, and an excellent choice of reading material for a dark autumn night when you’re alone in the house. In French, you can get it in a stand-alone volume or as part of a collection, as well as in English translation or in a helpful French/English parallel text version. There’s also a lesser-known earlier version from 1886 which doesn’t use the diary form; the 1887 story is the one you want. I take no responsibility for any subsequent sleepless nights, and just remember, you can’t see the horla, so leaving the lights on won’t help at all…

Nobel Prize Number Fifteen

You may have heard last week that the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the French novelist, Patrick Modiano. It’s the fifteenth time a French writer has won the prize since its inauguration in 1901, putting France at the very top of the Nobel league table, with more prizes for literature than all the countries of Africa, Asia and South America put together.  How far this demonstrates something exceptional about French literary culture, and how far it’s a matter of the personal tastes of the Swedish jurors who award the prize, remains open to debate…

The very first Nobel Prize for Literature went to a Frenchman, the poet Sully Prudhomme in 1901. Next up were the Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral, writing in the Occitan language (1904), serial novelist Romain Rolland (1915), and Anatole France (1921), who followed the Nobel with the further ‘distinction’ (in his words) of having his entire literary output condemned by the Catholic Church the following year. The philosopher Henri Bergson and novelist Roger Martin du Gard complete the pre-war line-up. It’s probably fair to say that none of these first six is very widely read these days, although Bergson’s essays about consciousness are enjoying something of a revival in the era of cognitive science. During this period, the prize committee managed to miss both Émile Zola (who died in 1902) and Marcel Proust, although we should forgive the latter oversight, since Proust died before the later volumes of his masterpiece were in print.

Sully Prudhomme: yes, please.

Post-war, the Nobel jury have a better record of picking winners who last. The novelists André Gide (1947), François Mauriac (1952), Albert Camus (1957) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1964) who turned it down, plus the slightly more left-field choice of the poet Saint-John Perse (1964), make up the next generation. Samuel Beckett (1969) is counted by the Nobel organization for the Ireland of his birth rather than his adopted homeland, otherwise the French total would be sixteen.  Avant-garde New Novelist Claude Simon won the prize in 1985, followed by Chinese émigré,  Gao Xingjian (2000). Lastly, J. M. G. Le Clézio, who writes about colonisation, immigration, and the confrontation of cultures, won the prize in 2008.

Jean-Paul Sartre: no, thank you

All the French winners have been men, as you can see, and this in a period when such luminaries as Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Yourcenar, Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras were writing. The Nobel prize for literature didn’t have a great record through the twentieth century in recognizing women writers of note from any nation, although it’s now getting better. Perhaps Marie NDiaye or the French-Algerian writer, Assia Djebar, will catch their eye soon and make good this failing by providing French literature with its first female laureate.

Simone de Beauvoir: not asked

Modiano, the new Nobel laureate, is a writer whose work I know well and like a lot. I’ve written about him a couple of times, and he features prominently in the undergraduate option I teach about French representations of the Second World War, the Occupation and the Holocaust.  He’s a prolific writer, with over thirty novels published, along with the screenplays to several films. His novels are short, accessible, and are usually variations on the same theme of troubling and faded memory, a struggle to capture an identity (the character’s own or someone else’s), and a dark and secret past that often connects to the Nazi Occupation of France. A few years ago, when I read a dozen Modiano novels in the space of a few months, I did get the feeling that he sometimes comes close to writing the same story over and over again, but he does it so well, in such haunting and moving style, that we can forgive him a certain, shall we say, specialization in his work.

Patrick Modiano

A lot has been written online about Modiano in the past few days. You can read introductions to the man and his work in English here and here, and in French here or here, plus a guide to the five ‘most essential’ Modiano novels here. He’s an excellent writer to take on as your first attempt on a French novel in the original language. Rue des boutiques obscures is probably his best known novel, about an amnesiac detective attempting to uncover his own missing past. My favourite, though, is the non-fiction Dora Bruder, about Modiano’s discovery of an advertisement placed in a 1941 Paris newspaper by worried parents looking for their missing daughter, and about his subsequent efforts to uncover her story. Dora Bruder will be making an appearance in our book club early next year, when we’ll talk a little more about French literature’s reluctant new global celebrity.

Bookshelf Book Club: L’Étranger by Albert Camus

posted by Simon Kemp

L’Étranger (usually translated as The Outsider) is probably the most widely read of all twentieth-century French novels. Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past) may be more famous, but not as many people get to the end of its 3000 pages. L’Étranger is short, intriguing, and written in such simple French (not a passé simple verb in sight) that it’s often the first choice for non-native-speakers wanting to try a real work of French literature in the original language. It’s the most-mentioned text on UCAS forms from prospective candidates by some margin — a fact that put me rather in two minds about including it in the book club. It’s already read by almost as many candidates as all other French literature put together, so it hardly needs my recommendation to find any more readers.  But there is something special about its combination of accessible language and thought-provoking content that fully justifies its popularity.

The novel is set in colonial-era Algeria (it was written in the 1940s) , and the story is told by Meursault, a French-Algerian colonist. He likes warm sunshine and swimming in the sea. He doesn’t like damp towels in the bathroom. Most things he has no opinion on at all. ‘Ça m’est égal’ (‘I don’t mind either way’) is his constant refrain.  He gets on with his life, enjoying small pleasures, and staying largely detached from other people.  We meet him as he is told of his mother’s death and summoned to the old people’s home for her funeral. After that event, during which he smokes a cigarette by the coffin and sheds no tears at the graveside, we follow him on a trip to the beach with a girl,  and through the events of an ordinary day.

Everything changes when Meursault is drawn into a feud between his disreputable neighbour, Raymond, and the family of Raymond’s Arab girlfriend, who is in an abusive relationship with him. Following a brawl at the beach with the girlfriend’s brother and other men, Meursault shoots one of them, in an act for which he offers no motivation other than that he was dazzled and disoriented by the sun.

The second half of the novel deals with Meursault’s trial. To Meursault’s bemusement (and here the novel takes on a slightly surreal air), the circumstances of the shooting are largely disregarded by the investigators and lawyers dealing with the case. Rather, it is Meursault’s behaviour during and after his mother’s funeral that attracts the interest, and condemnation, of the establishment. In their eyes, Meursault’s greatest crime is failing to weep at his mother’s funeral, further compounded by enjoying life in the days that followed. Meursault, we realize, is being condemned for not playing by society’s rules, and for refusing to play-act emotions he does not feel in order to make other people feel comfortable.

Meursault’s story is simply told. He gives us the facts of what is said and done, but offers few interpretations of his own or anyone else’s behaviour. The novel offers more questions than answers, and challenges the reader to take sides in a moral debate that’s not easy to settle (its hero is, after all, a killer without remorse,  who’s also complicit in Raymond’s abuse of his girlfriend). It’s an uncomfortable read, deliberately provocative, and if you like being provoked then it’s well worth your time. It will also introduce you to the idea of the Absurd, the tragi-comic mismatch between our need to find meaning and purpose in life and the world we live in that often seems to have neither. It’s an idea that has a lot of influence on twentieth-century French literature, and is also explored, for example, in Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot and Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée. So do go ahead and give Camus’s little masterpiece a try. But do also remember that Other French Novels Are Available.

Bookshelf Book Club: Un Coeur simple (A Simple Heart), by Gustave Flaubert

posted by Simon Kemp

Is it time for a classic? After a couple of recommendations of recent novels, I think it’s time we had a go at one of the great masters of French literature, Gustave Flaubert.

The French novel, like the English one, had a real golden age in the nineteenth century, when writers like Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, Émile Zola, and Flaubert wrote novels of sweeping social panoramas and vivid details of everyday life which have come to be known as French Realism. There are many masterpieces among them, including Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir and Zola’s Germinal, but at many hundreds of pages, they can be a daunting prospect, particularly if, as a learner of French, you’re tempted to tackle these authors in the original language. We’ll come back to them some other time, but for now, I’d like to recommend a more modest way in to discover Realist literature: Flaubert’s short story, Un cœur simple (A Simple Heart).

Flaubert said he wanted to write ‘un livre sur rien’ (‘a book about nothing’), and in Un cœur simple he’s not far off. Félicité is a poor and uneducated woman in rural France, who, after disappointment in love, takes up service in a middle-class household.

She is loyal to her widowed mistress and devoted to the children of the house. Her life has small pleasures and larger sorrows; she is generous with her kindness, which is not often repaid. In later life, her dearest love is a parrot.

Later still, her dearest love is a deceased parrot, stuffed and mounted on a perch.

Then, a gang of international art thieves mount an operation to steal the parrot, which they mistakenly believe to be an ancient Maltese statuette of inestimable value.

(Actually, not that last one.)

The story is funny, sweet and sad, and has the most beautiful ending. If you’d like a little introduction to the world of the Realist novel, and are prepared to consider that there might be more ways to write a great story than dramatic incident, extraordinary people or complex plotting, then you should give it a try.

You can get it as a single volume, as one of Flaubert’s Trois contes collected together, or, of course, in English translation. If you like it, there are two places to go from here. One is Julian Barnes’s brilliant Flaubert’s Parrot, the tale of a Flaubert obsessive’s attempt to track down the actual stuffed parrot Flaubert used for inspiration while writing Un cœur simple.

The other, of course, is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, most famous of all nineteenth-century French novels, where the same setting of humdrum small-town life in northern France is the backdrop to a rather more eventful life story, as the young heroine’s dreams of romance, passion and high-society glamour cannot be reconciled with her apparent fate as the wife of a country doctor whose only aspiration is a pair of slippers by the fireside.