Category Archives: Recommended Reading

From Sixth Form to Second Year

posted by Jessica Allen, second-year student of French and German at Jesus College

The Oxford modern languages degree places considerable emphasis on the study of literature. With most schools teaching very little or even no literature as part of their modern languages curriculum, it can be very difficult to know where to start. Here I’m going to share my own literary journey thus far to hopefully inspire those who are still at school to develop their interests and to not be intimidated by the really quite challenging task of tackling their first foreign novel.

This story actually begins with my discovery of German literature. I was fifteen years old and inspired by the fleeting reference to Kafka in Bridget Jones’ Diary to read some of his work in the original German. My German teacher told me that this would be impossible for someone who hadn’t even done her GCSEs, so, determined to prove her wrong, I spent three months teaching myself advanced German grammar and reading children’s books. Then suddenly I was reading Kafka’s works and understanding them in German. I felt a great sense of achievement and knew then that what I wanted to study was German literature.

I was also curious about French, the other language I was studying. I wanted to do the same thing, although I had no natural starting point to lead me into the literature. So one lunchtime I went into the school library and headed over to the solitary shelf of French literature. I picked up Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, mainly because it was the shortest. It was also the best introduction to French literature I could have had at the age of sixteen. From next year, this will be a prescribed text for first years at Oxford, therefore it’s an ideal book for those who are just starting their literary studies. It’s written in dialogue form and when I read it for the first time I had never seen anything like it, which instantly made it more interesting. It also means that it’s easier to understand it, for the two opposing points of view are always clearly represented by the dialogue participants, and it’s certainly easier to get through than a six hundred page novel. When I first read it I was ignorant of the context in which it was written and applied the book’s lesson about universal values and a return to nature to my own teenage existence. It all began to truly make sense as I found out about the original context of the text: it was written in the eighteenth century in order to criticise the social and political structures in France prior to the Revolution by comparing them to the basic moral codes based upon nature which governed Tahiti. I began to actively consider the concept of universal values and luckily my google searches led me to more eighteenth century texts which explore similar themes in the same context: Voltaire’s Candide, Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes and Rousseau’s Le Contrat social. I devoured them and eventually made them the subject of my EPQ (Extended Project Qualification). I had fallen in love and I knew that wherever I went to university, there had to be lots of eighteenth century French literature. So if you’re in sixth form, I would definitely recommend these texts as a way into French literature. Eighteenth century French is often easier to understand than that of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, plus the idea of challenging a long-established regime and system of values as expressed in these texts certainly appeals to frustrated teenagers.

 

So where did I go from there? Well I spent the rest of sixth form reading any French and German literature I could find. This was helpful not just in terms of my Oxford application, because it gave me plenty of ways to show that I was interested in taking languages further, but also because when I arrived here for first year I wasn’t daunted by the reading list or by the task of tackling foreign texts because I’d already been doing it for a couple of years. Okay, as a second year I now look back and laugh at the naïve and simplistic views of these texts that I often expressed whilst still at school, but even as you progress through Oxford your thought process is always changing and it’s often fun to contrast your current interpretation with your previous. Above all, I genuinely enjoyed discovering the wonders of French literature and it is certainly the best way to practice your language skills outside of the classroom, as teachers always encourage you to do. So my advice to sixth formers is to read any French texts which take your fancy and hopefully find some that really interest you. Don’t worry if you don’t understand certain phrases or references and try to work on grammar and vocabulary before you do it, however tedious it might seem, because it all really helps in the long run!

Bookshelf Book Club: Un secret, by Philippe Grimbert

posted by Simon Kemp

If you’re looking to read a novel in French that’s fairly short and accessible, but a serious piece of literature that will stay with you long after you finish it, then Philippe Grimbert’s Un secret would be a good choice. It won the Prix Goncourt des lycéens when it was published (France’s only literary prize to be awarded by a panel of sixth-formers), and has since been made into a film by Claude Miller.

The autobiographical novel is about the terrible family secret Philippe uncovers during his childhood. The story begins with his unusual quirk, as a child, of having not an imaginary friend, but an imaginary brother:

 

Fils unique, j’ai longtemps eu un frère. Il fallait me croire sur parole quand je servais cette fable à mes relations de vacances, à mes amis de passage. J’avais un frère. Plus beau, plus fort. Un frère aîné glorieux, invisible.

[An only child, for a long time I had a brother. You had to take my word for it when I served up this tale to people I met on holiday or casual acquaintances. I had a brother. Stronger, more handsome. A glorious, invisible older brother.] 

 

But not only does Philippe have an imaginary brother, he also knows the brother’s name, Simon, and owns the cuddly toy dog that once belonged to him. Simon, it begins to appear, is not so imaginary after all, but pieced together from half-remembered whispers and silences about Philippe’s parents’ lives before he was born. And the mystery seems somehow connected to the fact that their real name isn’t Grimbert at all, but the Jewish surname, Grinberg. What Philippe finally discovers is a history of love and betrayal among his parents and their circle of friends during the German Occupation of France in World War II, culminating in a dramatic event, the ‘secret’ itself, which, once you learn it, you won’t forget for a long time.

Bookshelf Book Club: Antéchrista by Amélie Nothomb

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One of the aims of this blog is to point interested readers in the direction of French books which are worth your time, and which are accessible to language learners who are prepared to make a bit of an effort to get to grips with a real French novel. In schools, when novels are recommended or (increasingly rarely these days) set as part of a course, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger is the go-to option, followed some distance behind by Joseph Joffo’s Un sac de billes and Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour tristesse. Good novels all, with Camus’s book in particular in a league of its own for its combination of accessible language and thought-provoking content. I’ll be getting round to pointing out a couple of interesting things about it in a later post. But I’d like to take you a little off the beaten track, and introduce you to novels and writers you’ll hopefully enjoy, but which you might not otherwise have come across.

First up, cult Belgian author, the award-winning Amélie Nothomb, who attacks the French bestseller lists every September with a new short novel. All her books are spiky, funny, attention-grabbing reads, often built around a high-concept premise: Métaphysique des tubes purports to be her autobiography from the womb to age three; Attentat is a love story between the ugliest man and the most beautiful woman imaginable; the prize-winning Stupeur et tremblements (now a film by Alain Corneau) recounts the descent of the hapless ‘Amélie’ down the hierarchy of a Japanese corporation from office-worker to lavatory attendant as she repeatedly fails to grasp the niceties of Japanese etiquette. Any of these is worth reading, but what makes her particularly popular with young people is her writing about the dramas of adolescence in novels like Antéchrista, which lay out in often blackly comic fashion the teenage hell of social anxiety and loneliness, or problems with body-image and eating disorders.

Despite the title, Antéchrista has nothing to do with religion, beyond the fact that it’s about a girl called Christa who makes life hell. The novel’s heroine, Blanche, is a shy sixteen-year-old, unhappy in her skin, who is flattered and astonished to find herself suddenly friends with the prettiest, boldest, most popular girl in college, Christa. Christa, though, lives far away, and could do with a place to crash on Monday nights before the girls’ 8 a.m. class on Tuesday mornings. Blanche’s parents agree to let her stay over in the family’s flat, on a camp bed in Blanche’s room. She’s a delightful house guest and a hit with the parents. Only with Blanche herself, when the two are alone in their room, does Christa begin to show a darker side to her personality.

Then she moves into the family home full time.

Charming and helpful, graceful and sophisticated, she’s the kind of the daughter Blanche’s parents must have dreamed of having. Already she’s starting to seem as much a part of the family as Blanche herself, maybe even more so. By the time Blanche learns the true nature of this cuckoo in the nest, it may already be too late to fight back.

At only 150 pages long, it’s a fast-moving story, with a twisting plot that will keep you turning the pages, but it’s also a memorable description of what it’s like to feel an outsider in life, and ultimately even in your own family. You can find it here, and find out more about Amélie Nothomb and her other novels here.

posted by Simon Kemp