Silence, moteur, action! How watching films can enhance your French language learning

Ramani Chandramohan is studying for an MSt in Modern Languages at St Anne’s College, and is a long-standing cinephile. In this post she shares some of her favourite French films from her language-learning journey so far.  

It’s a Sunday evening. You’re chilling in bed watching Netflix. And yet you’re also improving your French at the same time. How is this possible?! 

Watching films via any streaming platform or with good old fashioned DVDs is a great way of immersing yourself in the language you are studying beyond grammar textbooks. Films showcase vocabulary, regional accents, culture, history and politics in ways that books alone cannot. Whilst it may be frustrating to not be able to understand what is happening initially or to rely on subtitles, you can eventually work your way up to changing the subtitles to your target language or maybe even turning them off altogether! 

Here are some French films to get you started, although I have avoided some of the most well-known titles such as Les Intouchables, La Haine and Amélie

Classics

These films are part of what is known as the Nouvelle Vague of the 1950s and 60s, a movement characterised by an emphasis on the artistic and the personal and elements such as improvised dialogue, jump cuts, location shooting and handheld cameras. 

Jean Cocteau 

  • Orphée (1950) – this film, along with Le Sang du Poète (1930) and Le testament d’Orphée (1960), forms part of a trilogy that reimagines the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in modern-day Paris. 

La Belle et la Bête (1946) – a sumptuous retelling of the eighteenth-century fairytale originally written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

François Truffaut 

  • Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) – this is the first in a series of five coming-of-age films about a rebellious young boy called Antoine Doinel which were based in part on Truffaut’s own childhood. 
François Truffaut in 1963

Jean-Luc Godard

  • À bout du souffle (1960) follows the adventures of a petty thief and his American girlfriend in Paris. 
  • Bande à part (1964) – in this gangster film, two crooks who are fans of Hollywood B-movies commit a robbery with the help of an English student in Paris. 

Agnès Varda 

  • Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) – Varda was instrumental in the development of the Nouvelle Vague and she received the most votes in a poll conducted by the BBC of the greatest films made by female directors. This film focuses on Cléo’s wait for the results of a biopsy which could turn out to be a cancer diagnosis. 
Agnes Varda at the 2010 Guadalajara International Film Festival

Marcel Pagnol 

  • La Fille du puisatier (2011) – set in Provence in the south of France, this film (based on Pagnol’s 1940 original) follows a father’s struggles as his daughter gets caught up with the son of a rich shopkeeper during the First World War. Other films based on Pagnol’s works include Jean de Florette (1986), Manon des Sources (1986), Marius (2013) and Fanny (2013). Pagnol championed authentic depictions of the south of France, overcoming prejudice against Southern accents in the French film industry. 
  • Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (2008) – this cult classic reveals the hilarious fallout of a post office manager’s move from south to north and the clash of regional stereotypes. It made waves when it first came out, with TGV trains in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region being decorated with film posters, and remains one of the highest-grossing films ever made in France. 

Francophone

  • La noire de…Sembène Ousmane was a famous Senegalese film director and writer; he is sometimes credited as the father of African film. La noire de… focuses on Diouana, who moves from Senegal to the south of France to work as a nanny for a rich French couple but is soon subject to racial discrimination. 
Sembène Ousmane on a visit to Berlin in 1987
  • Un divan à Tunis (2019) – this film deals with a young psychotherapist called Selma who returns to Tunis after many years in Paris to set up her own practice, though it turns out to be far more challenging than she initially envisaged. 
  • Deux jours, une nuit (2014) – set in Belgium, this film stars Marion Cotillard and follows her character Sandra as she tries to convince her work colleagues to give up their bonuses to protect her job. 
  • Juste la fin du monde (2016) – Xavier Dolan is a young and prodigious film director from Montréal in Canada. This film tells the story of a terminally-ill writer who returns home after twelve years away to tell his family of his impending death. 

Historical

  • Au Revoir Les Enfants (2015) – a simple but affecting movie about two boys living in a boarding school in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War. 
  • Le Bossu (1997) – this adventure film is an adaptation of Paul Féval’s 1858 historical novel Le Bossu and stars Daniel Auteuil as Lagardère, a swordsman who becomes friends with the Duke of Nevers. Auteuil is a famous French actor who has been in just about every French movie!

Romance

  • Romuald & Juliette (1989) tells the story of a charming and somewhat unlikely romance between a cleaner working for a yoghurt company and the CEO. 
  • Populaire (2012) throws us into the world of typewriting contests in the 1950s in which love blossoms between a contestant, Rose, and her coach, Louis. 
  • Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (2019) tells the story of the relationship between an aristocratic lady and the female painter commissioned to paint her portrait. 
  • 120 BPM (2017) – winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, this film is set in 1980s France and focuses on the work of Act Up, an advocacy group that campaigns for legislation and research to alleviate the AIDS crisis.

Sci-fi

  • La Planète Sauvage (1973) explores the tensions between two communities on the planet of Ygam: the Oms (small creatures who resemble humans) and the Draags, larger alien-like creatures who treat the Oms like animals and rule Ygam). This film is inspired by Stefan Wul’s 1973 novel Oms en série

Feel-good

  • Les Choristes (2004) – this was the first French film I ever saw and its charm, warmth and humour made me fall in love with the language. It follows music teacher Clément Mathieu’s attempts at setting up a choir out of a group of unruly school boys in a strict boarding school and, unsurprisingly, features a great soundtrack! 
  • Le chat du rabbin (2011) – this animated film is based on a series of comics by Joann Sfar; its protagonist is a rabbi’s cat in 1920s Algeria who swallows a parrot and learns how to speak whereupon he is taught the tenets of Judaism by his owner.

Medical dramas

  • Thomas Lilti is a French film director and practising doctor. He is known for his trilogy of medical films: Hippocrate (2014) focuses on junior doctors; Médecin de campagne (2016) country doctors and Première Année (2018) medical school students. 

Education

  • Entre Les Murs (2008) – set in an inner-city school in Paris, this film is an adaptation of François Bégaudeau’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Bégaudeau stars as a French teacher struggling to deal with his students’ difficult behaviour.
  • Avoir et Être (2002) – this documentary looks at the lives of the pupils and teacher at a village school in the French countryside; the school is so small that it only has a single class of children aged four to twelve. 

Bon visionnement!

by Ramani Chandramohan

Image credits Wikimedia Commons

German classic prize 2021

A German Classic 2021:

Heinrich von Kleist, Die Verlobung in St. Domingo

Participation Guidelines for Sixth Formers

We are delighted to announce the launch of the 2021 edition of ‘A German Classic’ – Oxford’s essay competition for sixth-form students. This year we would like to invite you to read with us one of the most influential German novellas of all time, Heinrich von Kleist’s Die Verlobung in St. Domingo (1811). The story is set in the Caribbean, in what is today the Republic of Haiti, at the time of the insurrection of self-liberated slaves against French colonial rule that led to the country’s independence in 1804. Against this dramatic historical background develops an ill-fated love story between Toni, a mixed-race teenage girl, and Gustav, a white traveller from Europe. Kleist’s take on race relations, civil unrest, and the power imbalance inherent in both colonial structures and gender dynamics has clear resonances in the twenty-first century. Told in Kleist’s signature narrative style, which has influenced countless writers since the nineteenth century, Die Verlobung in St. Domingo is an excellent introduction to German literature. We hope you will want to study it with us!

ELIGIBILITY

Entrants must fulfil the following requirements as of 15 September 2021:

  • be beginning their final year of full-time study at a secondary school in the UK (upper-sixth form, Year 13 or S6 in Scotland);
  • be between the ages of 16 and 18;
  • hold a GCSE, IGCSE or equivalent qualification in German offered in the UK, or have at least an equivalent knowledge of German, as confirmed by their teacher;
  • be resident in the United Kingdom.

Entrants are not, however, expected to have prior experience of studying German literature.

STUDY PACKS

Sign up at https://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/mml_apps/community/public/form?id=ogn-classic-2021-signup by 12 noon, Friday, 25 June 2021 to receive free physical copies of the German original and an English translation of Kleist’s novella, as well as access to a set of free multimedia resources and essay writing guidelines created and curated by us especially for this competition. All study materials will be dispatched in early July.

PRIZES

Up to three prizes will be awarded: a first prize of £500, a second prize of £300, and a third prize of £100. Prizes will only be awarded if work is of sufficient merit. All entrants will receive a Prize Certificate or a Certificate of Participation. Results will be announced in early October 2021.

ESSAY QUESTIONS

Students can enter the competition by writing an essay of c. 1500 words answering one of the following questions:

  1. Why did Gustav not trust Toni? Discuss the breakdown of communication in Die Verlobung in St. Domingo.
  2. To what extent does Die Verlobung in St. Domingo offer a critique of European colonialism?
  3. How is the portrayal of race connected to the portrayal of gender in Die Verlobung in St. Domingo?
  4. Discuss Die Verlobung in St. Domingo as an ‘existential test case, designed to make the reader share in the protagonists’ anguish and question the explicability of human experience’ (Martin Swales).

SUBMISSION

Entries must fulfil the following requirements:

  • be submitted by 12 noon, Wednesday, 15 September 2021, via an online form available on the OGN website from 1 July 2021 – entries received by post, by email or after the deadline will not be considered;
  • answer one of the four essay questions listed above in c. 1500 words – the word count includes the footnotes, but excludes the bibliography;
  • be written in English, with quotations from Die Verlobung in St. Domingo in German;
  • have footnotes and a bibliography including all relevant works consulted;
  • use Times New Roman or Calibri 12 pt, margins of 1 inch, and numbered pages;
  • be submitted in one of the following formats: Microsoft Word document, Open Office document, or PDF;
  • be named in the following way: EntrantSurnameEntrantInitialGCP2021, e.g. BloggsJGCP2021;
  • be the work of the entrant without any additional help from staff, which needs to be confirmed by the entrant’s teacher via an online form available on the OGN website from 1 July 2021 by the submission deadline (12 noon, Wednesday, 15 September 2021); teachers will also be asked to state how long the entrant has been learning or speaking German.

JUDGING CRITERIA

The judges will consider the quality of intellectual and imaginative engagement with the work evident in the essay while taking account of the quality of understanding, analysis and argument, and – where appropriate – linguistic accuracy of the submission. They will also take account of prior opportunity to study German language and literature. The decision of the judges will be final, and no correspondence will be entered into.

QUERIES

If you have any questions, please email the Prize Coordinator, Dr Karolina Watroba, at germanclassic@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk.

Image credit: Foto © H.-P.Haack.

From Texas to Oxford via Oviedo

Katerina Levinson, who is currently studying for an M.St. in Spanish and English at The Queen’s College, shares an insight into the year she spent living in Spain.

The blank page of my journal stared up at me, as it sat on the plane’s tiny folding desk. I looked out my window, filled with butterflies and nervousness. I was leaving my hometown of Austin, Texas and moving to Oviedo, Asturias, a rainy, mountainous region in northern Spain.

At the Fulbright España welcome reception.

‘I am moving to a place where I know absolutely no one and where no one knows me. I have never been in front of a classroom before. Castellano is extremely different from the Venezuelan Spanish I learned to speak at home’, I began to write in my journal, as I thought of all of the obstacles that awaited me.

The cathedral in Oviedo

It was September 2017, and I had just graduated with my B.A. from Baylor University in Texas. I had received a U.S. student Fulbright grant to work as an English teaching assistant for 12-18 year-olds for one year. I had turned down a permanent teaching job offer in Texas, which would have allowed me to stay close to my family and live with my friends. Instead, I chose to move to a place where it would rain more in one week than it would in three months in my hometown; where it was impossible to find any of the Mexican cooking spices from home that I loved; and where I had to change the Venezuelan vocabulary I grew up with so that I could be understood.

‘Have I made the wrong decision?’ I went on to write.

When I arrived in Oviedo, I had found a place to live with a few girls who were around my age. The same night I moved in, they invited me to dinner with their friends. As I began to feel pangs of hunger, we finally left for dinner around 10:30 pm, the normal time when young people would eat in Spain. The group we met up with immediately adopted me as a friend, and I found that it was easier to make friends in Spain that it was at home because of how friendly the culture is. We finished dinner around 1 am, and we walked home through streets filled with people who were eating tapas and drinking cañas as if it was 1 pm.

My friend and I celebrating at an espicha. The restaurant is decorated with barrels because it pours cider for its guests directly from the barrel.

I came to love Spain because there was always an occasion for a fiesta and for socialising. My friends and I would often have long dinners at my house: even after the food was gone, we would continue sharing stories at the table for several hours (the after-dinner conversation is called the sobremesa). There were also many local Asturian holidays and frequent religious holidays that would call for celebration with wine, typical foods, and street parades. I would even walk into the teachers’ lounge at school to be regularly greeted by one of my colleagues pouring me a glass of wine before class because it was a local holiday.

While in Spain, I discovered how distinct each region’s culture is. Asturias is heavily influenced by the Celts, so its cuisine is filled with hearty stews and its cultural music features the bagpipes. The most typical alcoholic beverage of the region is Asturian sidra, cider made from locally grown apples. This drink is poured—escanciado—from as high as your arm can possibly reach. The season for tasting cider is celebrated at special festivals called espichas. Guests drink the cider poured directly from the barrel and stand at long tables filled with typical Asturian platters—cured meats, Asturian cheeses, Spanish omelettes, and more—socialising, while listening to Asturian folk music.

One of the English classes I taught.

When I was in the classroom, I found teaching to be a meaningful time of cultural exchange with my students. My students were very interested in the culture of English-speaking countries. I tried to introduce them to American popular culture by holding debates in English on controversial topics, introducing them to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ for Halloween, and giving them sorting hat quizzes from Harry Potter. I also started an English poetry club for my students outside of class. At our first poetry meeting, my students said they found poetry ‘boring’. But as we discussed how Maya Angelou or Wendell Berry related to Spanish culture and ate American baked goods cross-legged outside, I found that the numbers only multiplied with every meeting.

Nonetheless, our outdoor gatherings were not always frequent; I was not prepared how wet the Asturian climate would be. In fact, Asturias resembles typical gloomy English weather. But because of the frequent rain, it boasts beautiful green mountains and hills, giving it the nickname, El paraíso natural (the natural paradise). It is home to beautiful seaside villages on the Bay of Biscay, where green coastal walking paths undulate along its hilly coastline. When the sun is out, the glory of Asturian nature is iridescent.

After many late-night dinner outings, meaningful cultural conversations with my students, and adventures in the mountains and on the coast of Asturias, I realised I certainly had not made the wrong decision about moving to Spain. As I am now studying Spanish visual art and literature from the Golden Age at Oxford, my Spanish adventure had only just begun.

by Katerina Levinson

Image credits Katerina Levinson

French flash fiction results 2021

We recently launched our annual Spanish Flash Fiction Competition, which closed in March. The competition was open to students in Years 7 to 13, who were tasked with writing a short story of no more than 100 words in French. We had a brilliant response, with entries coming in from across the UK and beyond, and in total we had more than six hundred submissions.

The judges were very impressed with the quality of the entries. We would like to thank everyone who entered the competition and commend you all for your hard work and creativity in writing a piece of fiction in a different language. This is a challenging exercise, and a significant achievement.

We are pleased to say we are now in a position to announce the winning entries.

In the Years 7-11 category, the winner is Cormac Mitchell in Year 7. The runner-up was Nandhitha Agilan in Year 9.

The judges also highly commended Scarlett Chappell, Marina Yu, Mairead Mitchell, Juliette Shaw, Adam Noad, Ava Preston, Chung Yu Kwok, Emily Seager, Alice Hadwen-Beck, and Gabriela Duniec.

In the Years 12-13 category, the winner is Chung Sze Kwok in Year 12. The runner-up was Holly Singleton in Year 12.

The judges also highly commended Harrison Cartwright, Elishe Lim, Joseph Oluwabusola, Safiyah Sillah, Teniola Ijaluwoye, Jamilya Bertram, Benjamin Fletcher, Charles Blagburn, Jamie Hopkins, and Allie Gruber.

Félicitations ! You’ll be receiving your certificates in the post soon.

If anyone is curious to read the winning entries, we will be publishing them in the coming weeks. Congratulations to our winners, once again!

Spanish flash fiction results 2021

We recently launched our annual Spanish Flash Fiction Competition, which closed in March. The competition was open to students in Years 7 to 13, who were tasked with writing a short story of no more than 100 words in Spanish. We had a brilliant response, with entries coming in from across the UK and beyond, and in total we had more than three hundred submissions.

The judges praised the high standard of the entries across both categories. We would like to thank everyone who entered the competition and commend you all for your hard work and creativity in writing a piece of fiction in a different language. This is a challenging exercise, and a significant achievement.

We are pleased to say we are now in a position to announce the winning entries.

In the Years 7-11 category, the winner is Sophie Hobbs in Year 10. The runners up were Adam Noad in Year 11 and Abisola Daodu in Year 9.

The judges also highly commended Joe Gutierrez Thielen, Jonathan Visan Gherghe and Isabella Ooms.

In the Years 12-13 category, the winner is Ada Janowicz in Year 12. The runners up were Sofia Hoad in Year 12 and Eden Farber in Year 12.

The judges also highly commended Hannah Newton and Mariam Siarli.

¡ Felicidades! You’ll be receiving your certificates in the post soon.

If anyone is curious to read the winning entries, we will be publishing them in the coming weeks. Congratulations to our winners, once again!

Olga Tokarczuk’s Storytelling

Aleksandra Majak is currently working on her DPhil in English and Slavonic literature of the twentieth and twentieth-first century. In her project she looks on how the influx of Central Eastern European poetry in translation has galvanized a new, more ‘direct’ mode of poetic expression in the Anglo-American lyric of late modernism. In this post she shares some thoughts on the work of the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk.

Poster: Bartek Bałut
Photography: Łukasz Giza

‘Literature is built on tenderness toward any being other than ourselves,’ said Olga Tokarczuk in a deep, calm voice as she addressed the audience during her Nobel acceptance speech. In 2018, the Swedish academy honored her work for ‘a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life’. That – after Henryk Sienkiewicz, Wladyslaw Reymont, Czeslaw Milosz, and Wislawa Szymborska – made Tokarczuk the fifth Polish author to receive Nobel Prize in literature, and quite possibly the coolest one.

Tokarczuk is a feminist, activist and ethical vegetarian. Still, the most intriguing thing about this author is the way her at once intricate and disturbing books encourage readers to consider the boundaries between the real and the imagined; how, perhaps somewhere on the verge of both, we live in the world of stories yet untold. Indeed, she believes that ‘a thing that happens and is not told ceases to exist and perishes’. Much of her work muses on an ostensibly simple but ultimately rather complex question: why does storytelling matter?

Since her 1993 debut, The Journey of the Book-People, Tokarczuk’s works have explored stories of borderlands; often occurring at the intersections of languages, flowing between literary genres, and taking place botheverywhere and nowhere at once. Early responses to Tokarczuk’s work often focused on its peripheral status vis-a-vis more mainstream tendencies within Polish mid-1990s fiction, until her Primeval and Other Times (1996) – in which a fictitious village evolves into a microcosm of turbulent twentieth-century history and the lives of its eccentric characters intertwine – became her first widely appreciated novel.

Olga Tokarczuk and translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones during New Horizons festival, Wrocław, 2018, Photo: Maciej Kulczyński 

Written in Polish, her books have been translated into over 37 languages, each translation offering a subtly new interpretation of the original. Here, meaning is not – as Robert Frost’s oft-quoted line asserts – ‘lost’ in translation. Instead, it is through translation that literature otherwise ‘foreign’ to some audiences comes to matter. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, an alumna of MML at Oxford and now an award-winning translator of Polish literature into English (including Tokarczuk’s novels), sees a rising interest in contemporary literature in translation but also hopes to see more lost or forgotten classics revived: ‘postwar Polish literature is full of neglected gems.’

So what exactly do critics – most of whom read Tokarczuk in languages other than Polish – have in mind when they esteem the writer for her ‘narrative imagination’ and ‘crossing the boundaries as a form of life’? Part of the answer has to do with the writer’s fascination with the possibilities of telling the same story in multiple ways. Her most complex novels are narrated with unusual ease but in purposefully fragmentary threads – told by unreliable or eccentric characters, or emerging in moments of narrative breaks and silences.

In fact, the author’s keenness for decentralised, maze-like, and box-within-a-box plotlines took is rooted in her interest in psychology, which she went on to study at the University of Warsaw. The novelist once told The Guardian that reading Freud in her youth was her first step towards becoming a writer. Exploring his works on psychoanalysis brought her to the realisation that there are countless ways to interpret our experience – that storytelling, akin to the human psyche, is made up of constellatory rather than linear structures. This excerpt from the English translation of her Nobel lecture captures her desire to challenge narrative linearity (this is at 48:08-50:09 of the online recording of the lecture):

I keep wondering if these days it’s possible to find the foundations of a new story that’s universal, comprehensive, all-inclusive, rooted in nature, full of contexts and at the same time understandable.

Could there be a story that would go beyond the uncommunicative prison of one’s own self, revealing a greater range of reality and showing the mutual connections? That would be able to keep its distance from the well-trodden, obvious and unoriginal center point of commonly shared opinions, and manage to look at things ex-centrically, away from the center?

I am pleased that literature has miraculously preserved its right to all sorts of eccentricities, phantasmagoria, provocation, parody and lunacy. I dream of high viewing points and wide perspectives, where the context goes far beyond what we might have expected. […]

I also dream of a new kind of narrator―a “fourth-person” one, who is not merely a grammatical construct of course, but who manages to encompass the perspective of each of the characters, as well as having the capacity to step beyond the horizon of each of them, who sees more and has a wider view, and who is able to ignore time.

In all its contradictions, the concept of ‘a fourth-person narrator’ is both odd and fascinating. It combines as well as transgresses the well-known forms of narration that we first got to know in school: first or third person narrator; omniscient or limited perspective; direct address or the detached observer. Here the dream for ‘a fourth-person’ narrator, imagined as a tender and curious observer, is not only about the actual narrator but about the dream itself. Its potency, rhetoric, and creative power is able to transcend all the boundaries of traditional narrative. And if the project is intentionally left unfinished, why do you think that might be?

Her polyphonic vision of narration is also important if we consider the political situation of contemporary Poland. In this climate, literature has had a long-standing patriotic obligation towards promoting a monolithic idea of the country and its culture, which – as the noted historian Norman Davies, who works on Central Eastern Europe, has remarked – allows ‘myth to flourish’. Many of these myths have left their mark and much of the Anglo-American accounts of Poland became homogeneous in responding to this.

When the popularity of translation increased rapidly in the mid 1960s, commentaries promoted a naive belief that East Central European literature might be characterised by a few political clichés, prizing its universal aesthetics, and offering the reader an interpretation typically full of loose references to turbulent history or the poetry of witness or survival. It would be tempting though ultimately trite to look on the phosphorescent structures of Tokarczuk’s plots as a counter-balance to the daily reality of a country now overshadowed (and gradually damaged) by the politics of the ruling homophobic Law and Justice (PIS) party.

Tokarczuk’s polyphonic narration resounds ever more meaningfully in the growing popularity of autobiographical writing, particularly the type of one-season celebrity-authored work which has little to offer beyond self-promotion. One of Tokarczuk’s concerns about today’s printing market is the dominance of tales that ‘narrowly orbit the self of a teller who more or less directly just writes about herself and through herself’, thus creating an paradoxical and alienating opposition between the ‘I’ and reality. For Tokarczuk, this presents yet another potentially fruitful opportunity for her to cross the boundary.

Still, if reading Tokarczuk is an exercise in boundary-crossing, it is not without a certain paradox, for to cross the boundaries is to admit that they do exist. The author references this contradiction in a scene from her untranslated book Final Stories (2015), where one of the characters tells the story of an undefined borderland moved during the night to some entirely different place, leaving the people ‘on the wrong side’; as the speaker adds with irony: ‘as humans cannot live without borders, we set off to find one’.

Other than readily available online resources, such as the full version of her Nobel acceptance speech, for a first read of Tokarczuk’s somewhat challenging work I would recommended Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of a Dead in the translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. This riveting novel toys with the genre of crime-fiction in its witty but dark quest to solve a mystery troubling the local community. Comparing the narrative to its film adaptation Spoor (2017) directed by Agnieszka Holland might spark a fruitful debate, especially in considering how the atmosphere and humour of the novel is translated into the visual language.

by Aleksandra Majak

What Makes a Book the ‘Best’? The Prix Goncourt UK, 2021

In this final post by Oxford students who were involved in judging this year’s Prix Goncourt, Ombline Damy (Hertford College) shares some thoughts on the four shortlisted novels.

The four novels that made it to the shortlist of the Prix Goncourt could not be more different from one another, in theme, writing style, tone, voice. The astounding diversity of the texts made our task as judges close to impossible.

The winner of the British Prix Goncourt, Djaïli Amadou Amal’s Les impatientes, interrogates the (elusive) virtue of patience within the context of the oppression of women in Sahel. Written in a simple, but certainly not simplistic, language, the author uses a polyphony of female voices to craft her powerful and harrowing narrative.

Also set in Africa, Maël Renouard’s L’historiographe du royaume explores the intricacies and challenges of life in the service of a king through its narrator and main character Abderrahmane Eljarib, who spends most of his life seeking, more or less successfully, the favour of Moroccan king Hassan II (1929-199).

Moving away from the questions of political power and influence which dominate Les impatientes and L’historiographe du royaume, Camille de Toledo’s Thésée, sa vie nouvelle asks the haunting question of who commits the murder of a man who kills himself. And this man, we find out in the text, is none other than the writer and narrator’s own brother.

Contrasting with the autobiographical tone of Toledo’s text, the winner of the French Prix Goncourt, Hervé Le Tellier’s L’anomalie, is a thought-provoking page turner which skilfully interweaves a plethora of literary genres, in what seems to be, in the end, a sci-fi novel. It is a true challenge to talk about the book without giving away important plot twists, but hopefully I will not be revealing too much about the text when I write that it turns around the question of what would happen if the same plane were to land twice.

Faced with such disparate novels, how is one to choose which one of these four texts is the ‘best’ book? For choosing the ‘best’ book is, in the end, what the role of a literary prize judge is. ‘Best’ according to which standards? Enjoyment? Importance of the subject-matter? Literary and aesthetic qualities? Ultimately, then, as judges for the British Prix Goncourt, we have had to ask ourselves a million-dollar question: What makes for literary value?

If Les impatientes is the novel that won the British Prix Goncourt, there can be no doubt that the three other novels have something to teach us about literary value – and also that each of them is equally deserving of the literary prize itself. Hannah Hodges has written in more detail about Les impatientes in this blogpost.

What impressed me most about L’historiographe du royaume is the author’s capacity to borrow from, imitate and connect distinctive literary styles. Renouard indeed consciously uses the language of Louis Rouvroy de Saint-Simon, whose memoirs commented on and criticised the workings of Louis the fourteenth’s court in Versailles. Renouard does not, however, stop at transposing Saint-Simon’s voice in the context of Hassan II’s reign. He also adopts a Proustian rhythm, and copies the style of the One Thousand and One Nights. What emerges out of this virtuosic pastiche of literary models and references is a rich and carefully thought-through text, whose literary value lies precisely in its intertwining of disparate perspectives and styles in a coherent narrative.

Thésée, sa vie nouvelle is equally virtuosic, but for very different reasons. The narrative that Toledo crafts, investigating the reasons that led his brother to take his own life, is beautifully melancholic, and deeply touching. Toledo pays great attention to the aesthetics of the text on the page. With its use of images drawn from the author’s family albums, bold and italic text, and attention to detail, the text assumes the form of a book-long poem. Toledo’s story becomes the reader’s own, as one is drawn into the narrator’s uncovering of the successive traumas which shape his family’s history. I became acutely aware of my own attachment to the story when I thought I had accidentally thrown away the slip which was wrapped around the book. It’s just a slip, you might think, isn’t important. Believe me, I tried to reason myself in this way too. But, on the slip was a photo of Jérôme, the narrator’s deceased brother, as a child. Losing it made me feel as though I had erased him out of life once again. And, to be frank, I could not bear the thought of having done that. Such is the effect of Toledo’s elegy in memory of his dead brother.

Le Tellier’s L’anomalie could not be more different than Thésée, sa vie nouvelle. And yet, in its own way, this book is also astonishing. Le Tellier is an incredibly gifted engineer of literature. Setting himself a task, writing a novel which brings together different literary genres, he achieves just this. From one chapter to another, Le Tellier takes his reader from crime fiction to chick lit, from science fiction to realistic fiction. The speed with which he draws us into the world of each of his characters is extraordinary. Listening to him speak, we understand why: his characters are real to him; he has a true affection for some of them, a strong dislike for others. They simply exist. And the reader becomes utterly convinced of the same thing. It will be hard to forget Joanna, Slimboy, and Victor Miesel.

Les impatientes, L’historiographe du Royaume, Thésée, sa vie nouvelle, and L’anomalie, then, are each ‘best’ books. It’s a shame that we had to choose only one of them.

To read more about the process of judging the British Prix Goncourt, see Sophie Benbelaid’s blogpost here.

by Ombline Damy

A Worthy Winner of the Choix Goncourt UK: Djaïli Amadou Amal’s Les impatientes

In this second post in a series by some of the Oxford students who were involved in the judging of this year’s Choix Goncourt UK, Hannah Hodges (French and German, Hertford College) shares her thoughts on the winning book.

Is patience always a virtue? Or are there times when impatience gives us strength?

Djaïli Amadou Amal’s novel Les impatientes prompts us to think critically about patience as a quality. Divided into three sections, the novel gives us an insight into the lives and struggles of three women: Ramla, Hindou and Safira. Although very different, these women are united in their suffering under society’s misogynous laws and expectations. Each of these women are encouraged (even forced) to be patient: patient through forced marriage, patient through violence and rape, and patient through polygamy. As Ramla, Hindou and Safira recount the violence and difficulties they face as married women in the Sahel, Amal reveals to the reader the ways in which patience has become a synonym for silent endurance. In this novel, which was inspired by real events, Amal narrates the moments these three women become rightfully impatient.

We begin with Ramla’s story. Ramla’s dream is to become a pharmacist. However, she knows that marriage will put a stop this as married women were not allowed to study, so she rejects several marriage proposals in the hope of finishing her school education and continuing on to university. One day, to the surprise of her mother, she accepts a marriage proposal from a man named Aminou—the best friend of her brother Amadou. Aminou and Ramla had hoped to move away together to study at university. Yet, Ramla’s bubble is soon burst when her uncle informs her that she will marry one of the most important men in the area. Ramla has no option to refuse, she must be patient and do what the men in her family demand. The novel opens with a powerful scene in which Ramla leaves the family compound.  

On this same day, Ramla’s half-sister is also leaving the family home. Hindou has been forced to marry her cousin Moubarak, a violent man and heavy drinker. We hear Hindou’s story in the second section of the novel. Hindou’s attempts to flee the violence of her husband but her attempts are unsuccessful. Hindou’s story demonstrates the difficulty of being impatient or refusing to accept the cruelties of marriage. Despite her attempts to flee, she is found and taken back to her father where she receives violent punishment. Patience is something that is forced upon Hindou: she cannot escape the oppressive household of Moubarak or the oppressed position of women in the Sahel.

In the third section of the text, we read Safira’s story. Safira was the first (and only) of Alhadji Issa’s wives until his marriage to Ramla. Like the other two protagonists, Safira is also required to be patient and to accept her husband’s new bride – something she struggles to do.  Safira’s section of the novel paints a picture of the toxic environment that is created through polygamy. She tries all manner of ways to remove Ramla from the compound. In the end, she succeeds but not without great difficulty. Safira is different to the other women in that she seems attached to her husband. The violence done to Safira stems from the practice of polygamy which throws her into a state of crisis as her position as the only wife of Alhadji is threatened.

Les impatientes is a polyphonic novel. This works particularly well considering Djaïli Amadou Amal’s purpose in writing the text, which seems to be to both emphasise differences in the violence faced by women and also to show that women are united in this struggle. Watching interviews with Amal (including one with Professor Catriona Seth and hosted by the Maison Française, Oxford), one thing that particularly struck me was her insistence that the concerns she raises in Les impatientes are universal, as they relate to the fight for equality between men and women on all continents. This may at first seem surprising, as her novel seems to be anchored very specifically in the culture of the Sahel—Amal describes vividly medicinal practices, cooking, the housing situation in this part of the world. Yet, the novel also demonstrates that even within this one culture, women face different forms of violence and respond differently. Amal gives each of her three female protagonists a distinct voice, but they are also united in a common fight. In this sense, the text encouraged me to think about how the fight for equality for women often means facing different forms of violence and oppression in different places; it is, in its own way, polyphonic.

Choosing the winner of the Choix Goncourt UK this year proved to be particularly tight. Most of the universities were torn between at least two of the nominated texts. However, it was the poignant simplicity, humbling honesty and the enlightening structure of Amal’s writing that meant Les impatientes emerged victorious. Those universities who cast their vote in favour of Les impatientes were not only motivated by Amal’s style which is at once moving and accessible to students whose mother tongue is not French, but also by the political necessity of the novel. In the interview with Professor Seth, Amal speaks of a MeToo movement for the women of the Sahel, a movement which she believes her novel contributes to. More than the characters themselves, it is the novel which is impatient—impatient to grant women a voice in a society which silences them by demanding they be patient. Les impatientes is a powerful reminder of the emancipatory and political potential that writing and literature offers, and this is what made it a worthy winner of the Choix Goncourt UK 2021.

by Hannah Hodges

The Choix Goncourt UK: Judging a literary prize

In the first of a series of posts written by Oxford students who were involved in judging the Choix Goncourt UK, Sophie Benbelaid (French and Russian, New College) reflects on the process of judging a literary prize.

How does one judge a book for a literary prize? How does one get transported from the relative insignificance of a university student to the importance of a book critic, and even more so, one whose opinion directly contributes to a prestigious award? For us as language students, the Choix Goncourt UK 2021 gave us the chance to learn a new skillset: to assess examples of contemporary foreign literature without the guiding hand, or rather the dictating statement, of an essay.

The Prix Goncourt, an annual literary prize bestowed by the Académie Goncourt, is perhaps the most renowned of its sort in France. The French equivalent of the Man Booker Prize, the prestige of this accolade comes from the recognition the winner earns in the literary world, and the subsequent publicity. Although I am sure the 10€ award money does not go amiss either. This award’s popularity in France resulted in the founding of the The Prix Goncourt des Lycéens a few decades ago as a way of giving French high school students the occasion to read the shortlisted works and choose their own winner. In the same vein, the Choix Goncourt UK celebrated its inaugural proceedings last year, thereby providing modern languages university students across the United Kingdom with the same opportunity.

The final ceremony for this second annual Choix Goncourt was postponed from late 2020 to March 2021 as a way of showing solidarity with French bookshops which were sadly shut for the majority of the past year owing to the pandemic. And indeed, such postponing was not the only effect of COVID-19. Every and all aspect of planning and organising the proceedings were transferred to a virtual format. For example, on the final decision day when all participating universities came together to decide on the national winner, the majestic halls of the Institut Français in London were substituted for the equally glamorous halls of Zoom.

Nevertheless, coming to this final decision still seemed far off when we began to prepare Oxford’s choice of winner in early 2021. At university where so much of one’s literature consumption revolves around reading purely for the purpose of an exam or following a syllabus, each of us had to, to a certain extent, relearn how to read and appreciate a French work for fun. It certainly was a novel feeling for many of us to read for leisure a book that was not in our native language, especially in tandem with our respective courses. Therefore, when we came together to discuss the final four shortlisted works – Hervé Le Tellier’s L’Anomalie, Maël Renouard’s L’historiographe du royaume, Djaïli Amadou Amal’s Les Impatientes and Camille de Toledo’s Thésée, sa vie nouvelle – our reaction to each book was greatly influenced by our experiences of reading it as a foreign language.

During our book-club-style discussions, also held in the exalted halls of Zoom, we debated the various merits of each work in terms of plot, accessibility, writing style, intertextual references, and, essentially, enjoyment of reading. Each book was special and captivating in its own way. As a result, when it came to voting for Oxford University’s choice for the award, it was very close between three of the four shortlisted novels. I remember that I remained particularly undecided on my choice and voted on instinct. When viewing the final breakdown of votes, I was astounded to discover that had I opted for my second choice of book, we would have been faced with a three-way tie and the very dramatic prospect of a sudden death round. This is a testament not only to the very high standard of entrants for the Prix Goncourt this year, but also to how difficult it is for the judges to discern which book is more deserving of the final prize.

Of course, in the case of the Prix Goncourt, publishing houses and the reputation of the authors are considered as much as the writing and subject matter itself. For example, it is undeniable that Gallimard, one of France’s most formidable publishing houses, has the largest number of Prix Goncourt laureates. In fact, in 2020, Le Tellier earned them another mention.

In an attempt to be as unbiased as possible, we decided to vote for Oxford’s winner (L’Anomalie) prior to the online interviews with each author that were organised with the participation of the Maison Française d’Oxford, and Oxford’s own Professor Catriona Seth. In hearing about these books from the talented writers themselves, our understanding of what they wanted to achieve was furthered, and these talks (which can still be found on the Maison Française d’Oxford’s YouTube channel) were so engaging that it provoked in many of us, and unquestionably in me, the wish to reread the works in a new light.

In the end, despite the casting votes of all participating universities being as split between the same three books as in Oxford, it was ultimately Djaïli Amadou Amal’s Les Impatientes that stole first place, just like it had in the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens 2020 some months prior. The overall experience was very rewarding, not only because we had the chance to gain insight into the behind-the-scenes world of literary prize-giving, but also because despite all the drawbacks and restrictions of the pandemic, us literature lovers still managed to unite and discuss and debate contemporary French works almost as if we were living in a world so keenly affected by the pandemic. And if 2020’s Choix Goncourt UK is proof of anything, it is that not even something as potentially devastating as the times we find ourselves in is able to stop the power of literature and the excitement that it evokes, and will continue to evoke, in its admirers.

by Sophie Benbelaid

A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!