Category Archives: Recommended Reading

Virtual Book Club: Italian takes a turn

The Virtual Book Club is back once again, this time with an episode on Italian. The Italian episode features a discussion about a poem by Patrizia Cavalli, which was published in 1992. Here, doctoral student Nicolò Crisafi guides two undergraduates, Kirsty and Hannah, through the poem, looking at topics like gender, voice, and form.

If you would like to receive a copy of the poem to follow as you watch the discussion, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at

A Two Minute Introduction to Goethe

This post was written by Isabel Parkinson, who studies German & Philosophy at Worcester College.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born, rather poetically, on a summer’s day in Frankfurt in 1749 just as the church bells were striking noon. In true sensitive-artist style he studied law as a young man and detested it, preferring to attend poetry lectures instead and write Baroque-style verse for his lover. Goethe became a literary celebrity at just twenty-five when he wrote Die Leiden des jungen Werthers – a quite beautiful story that’s not only unchallenging enough to be read for pleasure, but has been so excellently translated that no knowledge of German is required. It’s achingly melancholy and endearingly optimistic in equal measure with a core of reverent, self-sacrificial, and occasionally obsessive love; the young hero Werther is so desperately infatuated with Lotte that he sends his servant to her house when he himself cannot visit, just to have someone in his home who has seen her.

Werther made Goethe an overnight success, and by the 1790s he was collaborating and communicating with the other major player in the German literature scene, Friedrich Schiller. In 1809 Goethe published his third novel, Elective Affinities. It is written in prose, rather than in the epistolary style of Werther and is a similarly excellent story, with not so much a love triangle as a love square or maybe even a pentagon.

Goethe turned his hand to many things – politics, science, prose – and his epic reworking of the classic legend Faust is an example of his dabbling in the closet drama genre. Part One is closely connected to the original famous legend, while Part Two – published in 1832, the year of Goethe’s death – pushes the story and the soul wager to its conclusion. The rich detail and sheer length of Goethe’s Faust may unfairly paint it as an impenetrable work; these misconceptions hide a vividly imagined and often quite humorous tale. It is true that one can make much of the religious, moral, and philosophical questions, but they are balanced with lighter touches such as a shape-shifting poodle and Mephistopheles accompanying Faust on a double date through a garden – and what Oxford student can fail to identify with the dissatisfied academic who trades his soul for knowledge and pleasure?

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.

Look out – it’s our Virtual Book Club!

Last month, the Modern Languages Faculty at Oxford launched our virtual book club. For all you bookworms out there, this is a chance to engage more with literature beyond your school curriculum, and in languages other than English.

Each month we will focus on a different language but will always provide the text in translation, as well as in the original language. At the start of the month, we will circulate the texts chosen, which will be poems or short prose extracts, by email. At the end of the month we will upload a video discussion of the text with some of our academics and undergraduates.

The first episode focussed on a passage from the Russian novel The Naked Year, by Boris Pilnyak. It is available below. To receive a copy of the text or to sign up for future episodes, email us at with your name and school.

Post-WW2 Italian Literature: Calm in the face of a storm?

This post was written by Kirsty Bailey, a second-year French and Italian student at Exeter College

Picture the scene. It is post-WW2 Italy, and two Italian Jewish writers, Primo Levi and Natalia Ginzburg, are writing about their wartime experiences. Levi was a prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp, while Ginzburg’s husband was killed for his anti-Fascist activism.

You might expect, in these circumstances, that Levi’s memoir, Se Questo è un uomo (If This is a Man, 1947) would be emotionally charged, with an angry or despairing narrator. While the work does pack an emotional punch, leaving the reader horrified at what the camp’s inmates were forced to endure, Levi’s narrative style is surprisingly measured – he remains calm; even detached. He seeks to analyse the situation, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. He never laments his own personal struggles, but reflects on the experiences of the prisoners as a collective:

Bisogna risalire la corrente; dare battaglia ogni giorno e ogni ora alla fatica, alla fame… O anche, strazzare ogni dignità.” (“One has to fight against the current; to battle every day and every hour against exhaustion, hunger… Or else, to throttle all dignity.”)

The narrative style of Ginzburg’s autobiographical work, Lessico Familiare (Family Sayings, 1963) is similar to Levi’s, in that the narrator never expresses outrage or despair over the atrocities of the war. Her work, as suggested by its title, is rooted in her family and friends, rather than the larger workings of history. She remains detached from her own personal emotions – even when her husband dies, she worries more about his friend, Cesare Pavese (a fellow twentieth-century Italian writer), than her own grief:

“Era stato il suo migliore amico. Forse annoverava quella perdita fra le cose che lo straziavano.” (“He had been his best friend. That loss may have been one of the things which tortured him”).

A sense of detachment and restraint can therefore be found in both Levi and Ginzburg’s works, despite their emotive subject matter. Their respective narrative voices succeed in remaining calm in the face of a terrifying, terrible storm – making for intriguing narratives well worth a read.

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).

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: What’s with the kitchen gadgets?

posted by Simon Kemp

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

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

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

Depuis que Thaïs est morte maman m’aime plus. 

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

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

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

She’s thinking about kitchen gadgets:

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

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

And there the chapter ends. What does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is there an earthquake in Candide?

posted by Catriona Seth

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

An 18th-century engraving of the Lisbon earthquake


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

An example of an auto-da-fé


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

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

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

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.