Category Archives: French life

Writing about Rimbaud

This week’s post explores one of the most famous French poets of the nineteenth century, Arthur Rimbaud, whose collections include Une Saison en enfer and Illuminations. Rimbaud captured the imagination of his readers, both on account of his experimental writing style and his turbulent personal life. Prof. Seth Whidden, Fellow and Tutor in French at The Queen’s College, has recently published a biography on Rimbaud. Here, he reflects on the writing process and the tricky relationship between life and literature.

Writing about one of France’s most famous authors was a daunting task, but what made it less so was what makes his story so compelling to all lovers of literature: year after year, generation after generation. If Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) is French teenagers’ perennial favourite, it’s because during the course of his short life and even shorter literary career — he stopped writing poetry by the age of 21 and died at the age of 37 — he embodied some of the fundamental urges that we all have known, at one time or another: bursts of creativity; seeing how far rules can be bent before they break; and the desire to pick up and move away, expanding horizons and learning about self and the world.

Étienne Carjat [CC BY 2.0 ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It was those urges that I tried to capture in my recent biography. Some of it is well-known, and almost didn’t need to be recounted: his childhood in sleepy Charleville (now Charleville-Mézières), in eastern France; his brash arrival in Paris and torrid relationship with fellow poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), which ended with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in a Brussels hotel room; Rimbaud’s departure from poetry and Europe, criss-crossing half of the globe and ending up spending the last fifteen years of his life as a trader in the Arabian peninsula and present-day Ethiopia. Looking back at all that he did, it’s almost possible to forget that he wrote some of the most enduring poems in the French language, blowing his way through centuries of rules to create new ways of thinking about and writing poetry. His innovations include a collection of prose poems — poems set in paragraphs rather than verses — entitled Illuminations. In addition, some time before he left Europe in 1875 he wrote the first two free-verse poems (poems in verse but lacking end-line rhyme) in French.

Mixing life and literature can be dangerous business: reducing a poem to a biographical detail flattens the poem and removes so much of what makes literature sing (how it sounds, how it’s rhythmed, how it feels, how it moves the reader…). Instead, I set out to weave two parallel stories. Yes, of course, it is helpful to know that ‘Le Dormeur du val’ is dated October 1870, and so Rimbaud set out to his presentation of war’s bloody interruption ruining the bucolic Ardennais countryside just weeks after France capitulated in Sedan, a dozen miles from his hometown. But that knowledge doesn’t tell the full story of the poem, far from it: it leaves out how the final line is prefigured (spoiler alert!) in the repeated vowel sound of ‘bouche ouverte’ of line 5; of how the standard twelve-syllable line is destabilized several times, with punctuation an accessory to the crime:

C’est un trou de verdure où chante une rivière
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D’argent; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit: c’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.

Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort; il est étendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.

Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme:
Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.

Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.

It is a green hollow where a river sings / Madly catching on the grasses / Silver rags; where the sun atop the proud mountain / Shines: it is a small valley which bubbles over with rays. // A young soldier, his mouth open, his head bare, / And the nape of his neck bathing in the cool blue watercress, / Sleeps; he is stretched out on the grass, under clouds, / Pale on his green bed where the light rains down. // His feet in the gladiolas, he sleeps. Smiling as / A sick child would smile, he is taking a nap: / Nature, cradle him warmly: he is cold. // Odours to not make his nostrils quiver; / He sleeps in the sun, his hand on his breast, / Silent. He has two red holes in his right side. (translation from Rimbaud, Complete Works, trans. Wallace Fowlie, revised Seth Whidden, Univ of Chicago Press)

Life-writing can help connect some dots, though, and such connections are what makes this biography slightly different from others. In order to appreciate what made Rimbaud’s poetry so revolutionary, it’s important to understand the norm from which he made such a clear departure. Readers of this book will learn some of the basic rules of French prosody: just enough to be able to feel some of his creativity and rule-breaking. They will also see that his creativity doesn’t stop when he leaves Europe; instead, I propose a new way of looking at his African period. Rather than repeating the formula that has served the Rimbaud myth well for over a hundred years — Europe means poetry; Africa means commerce — I propose a new narrative in which inquisitiveness and creativity are constants in his life, informing his activities in both periods of his adult life. It can be easy to keep poetry elevated on its pedestal and assume that a life after poetry is an uninteresting one — easy for literary critics who love poetry, anyway! — but if poetry is just one manifestation of a broader creative force, then there can be other possible moments of creativity. They might not measure up to the brilliance of his poems, but their presence in the story of his life might be worthy of a little more attention.

Ultimately, it’s up to the reader to decide: the reader of Rimbaud’s poetry, first; then the reader of this biography. My final chapter poses a series of questions, and I hope that anyone interested in creativity, rule-bending, and seeing the world will recognize therein some of the questions that we all ask from time to time: about literature, about life, about ourselves and about the world around us.

French Film Competition – a winning entry

This week on Adventures on the Bookshelf we are pleased to showcase one of the winning entries from this year’s French film competition. This competition asked pupils to watch a French film and produce an alternative ending. The film selected for the Years 7-11 category was Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s Une vie de chat (2010). The point in the film at which the rewriting picked up was the 49:20 minute mark, at the moment when Nico says  ‘Allez, accroche-toi bien Zoë’.

One of the winners in this category was Priya Gurcha, who produced an illustrated storyboard. Here, we see Priya’s brilliant alternative ending, which is full of drama and literal flights of imagination. Félicitations, Priya!

C’est la rentrée !

posted by Catriona Seth

            If you happen to be in France, there is one term you will see all over the place at this time of year: la rentrée. Obviously, it means the fact of re-entering… but what do you re-enter? ‘Papeteries’ or stationers and ‘Librairies’ or bookshops will give you a clue to one aspect of the ‘rentrée’ every schoolchild knows about: ‘la rentrée des classes’ or ‘la rentrée scolaire’, when everyone goes back to school. Nobel prize winner Anatole France relates a young boy’s thoughts and demeanour in his autobiographical Le Livre de mon ami, which was first published in 1885 : ‘Vivent les vacances, à bas la rentrée. Il avait le cœur un peu serré, c’était la rentrée. Pourtant, il trottait, ses livres sur son dos et sa toupie dans sa poche’. The spinning top in his pocket tells us a little about what games might have been usual at playtime in a nineteenth-century ‘cour d’école’. If he had come from Germany or parts of Eastern Europe, the young pupil might have been packed off for his first day at school with a ‘Schultüte’, a cone filled with sweets and small presents.

‘La rentrée’ is the time when everything picks up again after the summer. You will hear people of all ages and in all walks of life wishing each other ‘une bonne rentrée’. One of the specific aspects of French ‘rentrées’ is that they see the publication of a large number of books, particularly novels—there are 581 ‘romans de la rentrée’ out this year. This is what is known as ‘la rentrée littéraire’. Newspapers and magazines are full of suggestions about what to read: ‘les meilleurs romans de la rentrée’, ‘les romans les plus attendus de la rentrée’…

One of the books to watch is always Belgian author Amélie Nothomb’s new offering. She produces one book a year, regular as clockwork, and it comes out in time for ‘la rentrée littéraire’. Last year’s bore the same title as a fairy-tale by Charles Perrault, Riquet à la houppe (Ricky with the tuft) and is a fun variation on the ‘beauty and the beast’ theme. Like many of her novels, it is short and easy to read. This year’s offering, her 26th, is called Frappe-toi le cœur, a reference to a twelve-syllable line of verse (‘un alexandrin’) by romantic poet Alfred de Musset ‘Ah! Frappe-toi le cœur, c’est là qu’est le génie’: ‘Ah! Beat your heart, that is where genius lies’. He was suggesting that true genius involves feeling and not just thought. I have included his poem at the bottom of the page for those who want to read it.

And here is a little exercise on ‘rentrer’, the verb, and ‘rentrée’ the noun. See if you can fill in the blanks using the noun where appropriate and any of the following tenses for the verb: the ‘passé composé’, the ‘présent de l’indicatif’, the ‘futur simple’ and the ‘participe présent’.

Comme c’est la __________ Jeanne a un nouveau cartable. Cette année elle __________ à l’école primaire. Son frère Pierre est plus âgé qu’elle : il __________ au lycée l’année prochaine. Leur mère est une grande lectrice et s’intéresse aux romans de la __________. Après avoir déposé Jeanne à l’école, elle __________ chez elle avant de partir travailler. En __________ dans l’immeuble, elle a croisé son voisin de palier qui lui a souhaité une bonne __________. Il était très souriant : il venait d’apprendre qu’il allait avoir des __________ d’argent inattendues grâce à un petit héritage.



Answer: rentrée – est rentrée/rentre – rentrera/rentre – rentrée – est rentrée/rentre – rentrant – rentrée – rentrées

You will have noticed the meaning of ‘rentrée(s)’ in the final sentence is a different one: ‘Avoir une rentrée d’argent’ means to come into some money, not necessarily, as here, through an inheritance.


A mon ami Edouard B.

Tu te frappais le front en lisant Lamartine,
Edouard, tu pâlissais comme un joueur maudit ;
Le frisson te prenait, et la foudre divine,
   Tombant dans ta poitrine,
T’épouvantait toi-même en traversant ta nuit.

Ah ! frappe-toi le cœur, c’est là qu’est le génie.
C’est là qu’est la pitié, la souffrance et l’amour ;
C’est là qu’est le rocher du désert de la vie,
   D’où les flots d’harmonie,
Quand Moïse viendra, jailliront quelque jour.

Peut-être à ton insu déjà bouillonnent-elles,
Ces laves du volcan, dans les pleurs de tes yeux.
Tu partiras bientôt avec les hirondelles,
   Toi qui te sens des ailes
Lorsque tu vois passer un oiseau dans les cieux.

Ah ! tu sauras alors ce que vaut la paresse ;
Sur les rameaux voisins tu voudras revenir.
Edouard, Edouard, ton front est encor sans tristesse,
   Ton cœur plein de jeunesse…
Ah ! ne les frappe pas, ils n’auraient qu’à s’ouvrir !

Alfred de Musset (1810-1857)

Best of Blog: Montmartre

While the blog is on its summer holidays, here are a selection of the best posts from the past couple of years. We’ll be back on the first Wednesday in September with another question on an A-level text: ‘Just how clever is Lou from No et Moi?’

posted by Madeleine Chalmers

Montmartre is a legendary part of Paris – a maze of twisting cobbled streets, trees, squares, that leaves you breathless, and not just from the steep climb.


Tucked away discreetly in a side street behind the Sacré-Coeur, the Musée de Montmartre keeps the memory of the area’s heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries alive. Set in beautiful gardens overlooking the Montmartre vineyards, the museum’s collections are displayed in the house of artist Suzanne Valadon and her son Maurice Utrillo, a building which played host to the most dynamic and innovative artists, painters, and composers of the day. A zinc-topped bar counter, a battered piano with yellowed keys, photographs, paintings, and sketches all conjure up a time when Montmartre was the centre of an extraordinary creative ferment, and a lodestone for artists from across Europe, who would arrive with no money and no French, confident of a generous Montmartrean welcome, with kindness and credit freely given.


Alongside the Moulin Rouge, two iconic cabarets loom large in the museum’s collections: the Lapin Agile and the Chat Noir. Lithe, mischievous, and living by their wits, the nimble rabbit and black cat which form the Montmartre menagerie perfectly encapsulate the spirit of the area. Opened in 1855, the Lapin Agile still offers a nightly dinner and cabaret show 160 years later, although the atmosphere is somewhat different. In the late 19th century, you would step into a spicy fug of tobacco smoke and sweat, the aniseed burn of absinthe hitting the back of your throat. Ears ringing with the plaintive wheeze and rasp of an accordion, and the sound of bawdy, full-throated laughter, you would take a seat at one of the sticky tables, scored with the initials of your predecessors. You never knew who you’d be rubbing shoulders with: wealthy Parisians slumming it for a night, artists’ models, dancers, political radicals, ladies of the night, local eccentrics of every stripe, penniless poets with inkstained fingers or hungry artists still spattered with paint, come from unheated attics and studios to warm themselves with drink and friendship, and to listen to the chansons réalistes of poets such as Aristide Bruant. As their name suggests, these were songs which told the truth about Paris and the seamy underbelly of its nightlife, in a distinctive slang. They were tales of poverty, prostitution, violence, heartbreak, hopeless love, but also bawdy, innuendo-laden or just downright filthy sing-a-longs. They’re emblematic of gouaille – a uniquely Parisian trait, a blend of bolshy straight-talking, cheek, and bravado, with an underlying hint of vulnerability. It’s tempting to sanitize or romanticize the sordid reality of life in Montmartre, but these songs express the extremes of existence there – all human emotions and situations, from joy to misery, expressed with equal intensity.

Montmartre has retained its strong sense of identity: its inhabitants are still defiant outsiders and unrepentant eccentrics, helping each other out and fighting to preserve their traditions. Looking down from the gardens of the museum and imagining summer evenings heavy with the smell of ripening grapes and raucous with the din of the Lapin Agile, it’s easy to fool yourself into hearing the clack and swoosh of the windmills which used to dot the Montmartre hillside – and feeling the breeze of anarchy.


And if you’re interested…

… here’s a flavour of Montmartre’s cultural output during its heyday.


With their exuberant colours, effervescent energy, and startling shapes, these are definitely worth a look:


A larger than life figure, Guillaume Apollinaire was an experimental poet and the father of Surrealism. In his collections Alcools (1913) and Calligrammes (1918), he uses words which are simple individually, but puts them together in surprising combinations. He plays with the layout of his poems on the page to form verbal flowers or fireworks.

A particular favourite of mine is Le Pont Mirabeau (here in the original French, with English translations, and musical French versions).


  • ‘Milord’ – In this rambunctious number, Edith Piaf, the ‘Sparrow of Montmartre’, encourages a broken-hearted lover to drink and dance away his sorrows:

  • ‘Rose Blanche (Rue St Vincent)’ – an iconic poet from the Lapin Agile, Aristide Bruant here sets his pen to tell of a woman’s tragic end at the hands of her gangster lover, on the Rue St Vincent in Montmartre (here in a rendition by variety star Yves Montand)


  • Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001)
    • A modern take on the area, but which has an unmistakeably quirky Montmartrean charm. The director Jean-Pierre Jeunet lives in Montmartre and is a familiar face in its various restaurants and bars.

The Musée de Montmartre can be found at: 12 rue Cortot, 75018 Paris

Madeleine Chalmers.

I’m a 3rd year French student at St John’s, currently on an Erasmus study exchange at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. I have been known to give the odd rendition of a chanson réaliste on my accordion.

Best of Blog: Asterix, from Waterloo to Waterzooi

While the blog is on its summer holidays, here are a selection of the best posts from the past couple of years. We’ll be back on the first Wednesday in September with another question on an A-level text: ‘Just how clever is Lou from No et Moi?’


posted by Catriona Seth

If we were playing a word association game and I said ‘Eiffel Tower’, chances are you would answer ‘Paris’. If I mentioned a village in Gaul which is heroically resisting Roman rule, I surely would need to go no further: menhirs and magic potion would instantly come to your mind and you would answer ‘Asterix’. You would be right. The diminutive Gaul’s adventures have been enchanting French children  since 1959. He was the brainchild of René Goscinny (1926-77) and Albert Uderzo (born in 1927). There have been 36 albums up to and including Le Papyrus de César in 2015, and every time a new one comes out, there is great rejoicing amongst readers of French, young and old.
The Asterix books have been translated into more than a hundred languages. You may well have read them in English. If you have, I am sure you will join me in celebrating the great art of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge who translated them. As bilingual children, my sister and I read Asterix both in English and in French with the same pleasure, and thinking about what made the books funny was one of the ways I got interested in languages. Take the names of the main characters which play on words. It is easy to go from ‘un astérisque’ (the typographical star sign: *) to ‘an asterisk’ and the name of Astérix/Asterix, or to see that ‘un obélisque’ or ‘an obelisk’ gives us Obélix/Obelix, but such obvious translations do not always work. ‘Dogmatix’ is a brilliant name for the little dog, but if you look at the French version, you will find he is called ‘Idéfix’. His English name is, if anything, better than the original, since it keeps the idea that because of his instinct he is rather single-minded which someone who has an ‘idée fixe’ would be (someone ‘dogmatique’ or ‘dogmatic’—the word is the same in French and in English—is unwavering in the conviction that he or she is right or is very set on following a dogma). There is also the added play on words with ‘dog’.
If you read the names of the characters or the places out loud in the original, you will see they are often typical French phrases. The poor old bard who always gets tied up is ‘Assurancetourix’ (an ‘assurance tous risques’ is a comprehensive insurance) and the village elder is ‘Agecanonix’ (to attain ‘un âge canonique’ is to reach a great age). One of the Roman camps is called ‘Babaorum’ (‘un baba au rhum’ is a rhum baba). There are dozens of other fun examples.
Because the Asterix books rely so much on wordplay, it is often difficult to get the same joke in two different languages. Sometimes the translators slip in a pun which is not in the original. I seem to remember an exchange at a banquet in which one character says to the other ‘Pass me the celt’ (for ‘the salt’) and another observes ‘It must be his gall bladder’ with the gall/Gaul homophone providing the joke. This is to make up for the fact that some French puns quite simply cannot be translated.
Beyond the linguistic transfer, there is cultural transfer at work in the English versions of the albums. Preparing a paper for a conference to mark the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo last year, I remembered that in Astérix chez les Belges, before the battle, a warrior, who lives in hope, asks his wife whether he will get potatoes in oil (i.e. chips, the famous Belgian ‘frites’) for his meal. She serves up another justly famous Belgian speciality, a sort of enriched chicken and vegetable stew, called waterzooi (there is usually no final ‘e’). The feisty Belgian looks at the dish and sighs ‘Waterzooie! Waterzooie! Waterzooie! morne plat !’


For the record, it is absolutely delicious and anything but dreary as the photograph shows.

Homemade waterzooi (© Spx)
Homemade waterzooi (© Spx)

The Belgian warrior’s crestfallen rejoinder is a cue for many a cultured Francophone reader to burst out laughing. Why? Because amongst the most celebrated literary evocations of Waterloo—probably the most famous battle ever fought on Belgian soil—is Victor Hugo’s poem ‘L’Expiation’ which contains the line ‘Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! morne plaine !’ The dish set in front of the hungry Belgian and which was not what he hoped for is described in such a way as to echo the dreary plain on which the armies clashed. The reference works at several levels and means you need to recognise the poem on the one hand, Belgium’s national dish on the other. Where does this leave the translators? High and dry, you might think. Clearly there is no way of producing a similar effect here.

Their solution is as elegant as it is clever.


posted by Catriona Seth

(Continued from last week’s post.)

The best known poem in English about Waterloo is certainly Lord Byron’s ‘Eve of Waterloo’ from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Three allusions that I have noticed in the translation of Astérix chez les Belges refer to this poem (there may be others I have missed.) Let me point just one of them out[1]. It is the caption the English translators give to a full page illustration of festivities which is a visual pun on a painting by Breughel: ‘There was a sound of revelry by night’. This is the first line of ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ so they are bringing in a famous poetic allusion to the battle which English-speaking readers might recognise, in the same way as the francophones will hopefully have picked up the reference to Victor Hugo.

The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat
The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat
The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder
The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder

One of the great strengths of the Asterix series is that there is something for everyone, from the highbrow Waterloo poetry puns to the franglais names of the self-explanatory Zebigbos or of a village maiden called Iélosubmarine in honour of the Beatles song. You do not need to get them all to enjoy a good read, but everything you pick up draws you a little further in. The more you read them, in a sense, the funnier they are. So… if you want something instructive and fun to read, go for the French version of any one of the 36 albums which recount ‘les aventures d’Astérix le Gaulois’ or compare the original and the English translation: you will be in for a fun, stimulating and thought-provoking treat.

[1] The others, for curious minds, are ‘Nearer, clearer, deadlier than before…’ and ‘On with the dance. Let joy be unconfined.’

‘Marmite genevoise’



posted by Catriona Seth

One of the most famous characters in Geneva’s folklore is ‘la mère Royaume’. Her feast is celebrated every 12th December, on the anniversary of the republic’s victory against the duke of Savoy in 1602, which is known as ‘l’Escalade’. The name comes from the Savoyards’ attempt to invade Geneva by climbing (‘escalader’) the walls of the city on wooden ladders in the middle of a cold winter night. There was fierce fighting as the Swiss inhabitants, struggling to defend their political and religious freedom, repelled the invaders, many of whom were mercenaries. ‘La mère Royaume’ who was said to be in her sixties, and hailed from Lyons, took a pragmatic approach: she poured a cauldron full of hot soup out of her window onto a Savoyard soldier. Her ‘marmite’ became the stuff of legends—and yes, the marmite you love or hate to have on your breakfast table is called after the French word for cauldron which inspired the shape of its original jar.
In Geneva, hot vegetable soup is served during the ‘Escalade’ festivities; pudding is a chocolate cauldron filled with sweets wrapped in red and yellow, the colours of Geneva, and little marzipan vegetables. It is smashed ceremonially with the following words being repeated by all: ‘Ainsi périrent les ennemis de la République!’, ‘Thus the enemies of the Republic perished!’.
There are serious aspects to the celebrations which many consider to be Geneva’s most important public festivities, like processions to honour the dead of 1602, historical re-enactments or a service of thanksgiving, but one of the best-loved traditions is a recent one: the ‘Course de l’Escalade’ or ‘Escalade race’ which was first run in 1978. course-escalade-2016It is hugely popular and, made up in fact of several races according to the distance you want to run, your age etc. It happens in early December and is the largest event of its kind in Switzerland with tens of thousands of men, women and children taking part, some in fancy dress. Doubtless many of those who start when the whistle is blown and they hear ‘A vos marques, prêt, partez!’ (literally ‘on your marks, ready, go!’) and reach the ‘ligne d’arrivée’ or finishing line, want nothing more than to tuck in to a bowl of hot ‘soupe de légumes’ as the onlookers toast their success and the memory of ‘la marmite de la mère Royaume’ whilst reflecting on the irony of ‘Mother Kingdom’s cauldron’ having helped save the Republic!course-historique137-2

(NB. 2017 French Film Competition for schools in next week’s post.)

Tout finit par des chansons

EUrovision logo

posted by Catriona Seth

            Yes, it’s that time of year again: the daffodils have come and gone, the lily of the valley is blooming, the lambs are frolicking in the fields and… the Eurovision song contest is upon us. As you may know, the French are fiercely patriotic about how much time is given to French chansons on their airwaves. Armed with knowledge of past Eurovision successes in la langue de Molière, like Patricia Kaas’ S’il fallait le faire [If it had to be done] (2009), Marie Myriam’s L’enfant et l’oiseau [The child and the bird] (1977), France Gall’s Poupée de cire, poupée de son [Wax doll, rag doll] (1965) or Belgian Sandra Kim’s J’aime la vie [I love life] (1986), not to mention Céline Dion’s 1988 winner for Switzerland, Ne partez pas sans moi (Don’t leave without me), all of which can be found here,, I trawled the internet to find out what countries which count French amongst their official languages were sending as their musical message to the world. I was in for a severe disappointment. Switzerland is going for The Last of our Kind by a Canadian called Rykka, Belgium for Laura’s What’s the pressure and Luxembourg is not entering this year. France has, perhaps uncharacteristically, gone for a long bilingual song called J’ai cherché [I have looked for] which is here One presumes that the singer, Amir, is hedging his bets and trying to appeal to different constituencies by choosing to sing both in French and in English. Overall, it is a meagre crop for les francophones, you may say. Indeed, so let’s hear it for one candidate who comes from an exclusively German-speaking land, Austria, and is singing in French: Zoë, with Loin d’ici [Far from here].




Zoë Straub is 19 and attended the Lycée Français in Vienna so her French is perfect. Try listening to the song first to see how much of it you catch. It is about a faraway land which is a sort of paradise we should strive for.

Here are the lyrics, with a couple of words explained at the bottom of the page:

Et quand tu chantes, oui moi je chante aussi
Quand tu t’élances, je suis
Et quand tu voles, oui moi je vole aussi
Si tu t’élances, j’te suis

Dans un pays loin d’ici
A la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante, on chante
Dans un pays loin d’ici
A la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante…

Et quand la route nous semble sans issue
Sans aucun doute, j’te suis
Sans aucun doute, même si on s’ra perdus
Sans aucun doute, j’te suis

Dans un pays loin d’ici
À la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante, on chante
Dans un pays loin d’ici
À la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante, on chante

On chante et on danse et on rit, on s’élance, réuni, enivré, dans l’imprudence

Dans un pays loin d’ici
À la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante, on chante
Dans un pays loin d’ici
À la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante, on chante
Dans un pays loin d’ici
À la recherche du paradis
Dans un pays loin d’ici
On chante, on chante

On chante, on chante, on danse, on danse
Dans un pays
On chante, on chante, on danse, on danse
Loin d’ici.

You will notice the elisions in the sung version (j’te instead of je te; on s’ra for on sera).

Je suis here is the first person of the verb suivre, to follow, not of être.

S’élancer is to rush or dash forward.

Enivré is the past participle of the verb enivrer. Être enivré is to be drunk (ivre). It is used her metaphorically.

A quick note on the title of this post. Tout finit par des chansons: this is the last line of Beaumarchais’ famous Mariage de Figaro. In the play, it more or less means It all ends happily. Literally, it means It all ends with songs.

La Galette des Rois

photo [8485]

posted by Catriona Seth

Whilst France is proud of its republicanism with ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ as its motto, and of its secularism or ‘laïcité’, many of its traditions go back to the ‘Ancien Régime’, the pre-revolutionary catholic monarchy. One of these is derived at once from marking Epiphany or Twelfth night (‘l’Epiphanie’ or ‘le jour des Rois’) when the three wise men (‘les rois mages’ or magus kings as they are known in French) are said to have bestowed gifts on Jesus, and from carnivalesque celebrations in which social hierarchies could briefly be reversed, in the spirit of the Roman Saturnalia. The ‘galette des Rois’ is the sweet pie served on the ‘jour des Rois’. Like Victorian Christmas puddings, it contains a charm. Originally ‘galettes des Rois’ were baked with a raw broad bean or ‘fève’. Whoever found it in their portion became king or queen for the day. Modern boulangeries and pâtisseries offer a bewildering variety of ‘galettes des Rois’ with little china or earthenware charms called ‘fèves’ after the more prosaic pulse used in bygone years. The first of these porcelain charms are thought to have been in the shape of babies meant to represent Jesus. When the Revolution briefly renamed the ‘galette des Rois’ ‘galette de l’Egalité’, the republican ‘bonnet phrygien’ or Phrygian cap was the inspiration for the shape of the ‘fève’.

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            The most usual recipes for ‘galette des Rois’ are of ‘pâte feuilletée’ (puff pastry) filled with ‘frangipane’ (frangipani or almond stuffing), except in the South of France where the ‘gâteau des Rois’ is a brioche flavoured with orange blossom (‘fleur d’oranger’).

When the pudding is served, chance plays its part in the selection process which is called ‘tirer les rois’: the youngest member of the party, ‘le benjamin’, squats under the table and calls out the name of the person to whom each piece of the ‘galette’ is to be given. You become king or queen, can choose a consort and are allowed to keep the ‘fève’ if it is your piece of pie. Collectors of ‘fèves’ are known as ‘fabophiles’. Nowadays, pâtisseries and boulangeries supply paper crowns when you purchase a ‘galette’ and the ‘fèves’ come in many shapes, from cartoon characters like Astérix or Tintin to famous people like Marie-Antoinette or Napoleon, from Provençal ‘santons’ to cars, planes or all manner of other things including rings—which may allude to one legend: that the inspiration for the first ‘fève’ was the heroine of Perrault’s fairytale, ‘Peau d’âne’, losing her ring in the cake she baked.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, before the Revolution, when republican ideals were being actively discussed by some intellectuals, the ‘philosophe’ Denis Diderot (1713-1784) wrote occasional verse when he became ‘roi de la fève’ two years running. Here is the beginning of the ‘Complainte’ in which he refers to ‘les embarras de la royauté’, the particular troubles one has to face when one is monarch.


Quand on est roi, l’on a plus d’une affaire,

Voisins jaloux, arsenaux à munir,

Peuple hargneux, complots à prévenir,

Travaux en paix, dangers en guerre,

Ma foi, je crois qu’on ne s’amuse guère

Quand on est roi.


The stanza uses different types of lines (‘vers hétérométriques’). In French verse, stresses are not counted but syllables are and, on the whole, give their name to the lines (the exception being the twelve-syllable line more often called ‘alexandrin’ or alexandrine than ‘dodécasyllabe’, and of which there are two in the last quotation infra). Here you have examples of ‘décasyllabes’, ‘octosyllabes’ and a final ‘tétrasyllabe’ (which acts as a refrain in the rest of the poem). Diderot was a famous thinker and writer, but did not go down in history as a great poet. This is a piece written for fun rather than for posterity. A little further along Diderot says that when he fell asleep during his term as king, in his dreams he carried out heroic exploits and made new laws of a particular kind:


Vraiment, je fis des lois, je les fis même en vers.

En vers mauvais ; qui vous dit le contraire ?

But then writing bad verse, he adds, is not a cardinal sin, even if you are a king!


Avoir une affaire: nowadays ‘affaires’ refer to business. A businessman or woman is ‘un homme ou une femme d’affaires’, if you work in business you are ‘dans les affaires’. If you say ‘j’ai une affaire en ville’ it means I have some business to sort out in town. In the poem ‘avoir plus d’une affaire’ means to have a lot on your plate which you need to sort out.

Arsenaux à munir: ‘arsenaux’ is the regular plural of ‘arsenal’, which was originally where warships were built and armed. It is also, as in English, a weapons depot—and that, incidentally helps explain why Arsenal footballers are known as ‘the gunners’. ‘Munir’ here has the same root as ‘munitions’ (the noun exists both in English and in French). It basically means to stock up or equip. It can be used simply to say that you have what you need for a particular purpose: ‘pour faire mes courses, je suis muni(e) d’un gros sac’ means you are well prepared with a big bag to go shopping.

Hargneux is an adjective formed on the noun ‘hargne’, spite, so it means spiteful or aggressive.

Un Complot : a plot

Prévenir : Here it means to prevent, as in the popular saying ‘mieux vaut prévenir que guérir’. Often it is a synonym of ‘avertir’, to warn.



Here is a 1774 painting called Le Gâteau des Rois, housed in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier. It is by one of Diderot’s favourite artists, Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). It is a ‘scène de genre’ or ‘genre painting’ showing ordinary people in a domestic setting and is a far cry from some of the grandiose mythological pictures which other contemporary painters produced. Greuze made a point of representing family members in their homes, usually wearing their everyday clothes. Here, our attention is drawn to the expressions on the characters’ faces: something special is obviously happening. One piece of the ‘galette des Rois’, in the middle of the picture and of the table, has been set aside. It is probably the ‘part du pauvre’ (literally, the pauper’s share), traditionally kept for anyone who might walk in. The youngest child is not hidden under the table as he would be nowadays. He is pulling the pieces of cake out of a white napkin held by the paterfamilias as the names of the people present are called. Greuze shows how a simple event can turn into a ritual and a moment of domestic harmony. It suggests that you do not need wealth and luxury to enjoy moments of peace and happiness.


End-of-year round-up

NoteCardParis1posted by Simon Kemp

Adventures on the Bookshelf is about to head off for its Christmas break. There’s just time for a quick look back at 2015 before we go.

For France, 2015 opened with a tragedy and has closed with another one. In January, we looked at responses in the French press to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo.

Last month, we found ourselves witnessing another massacre, this time on a much larger scale, with the attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, the Stade de France, and diners and drinkers of Paris’s cafe culture. Again, we looked at some of the responses to the events in the French media.

In between, though, there was much to explore in French language, literature and life. We learned how to make grammatically correct chocolate cake with the aid of glamorous French movie stars, discovered why Terry Pratchett causes trouble for French gender rules, and uncovered the complex secrets of the mysterious Mrs Vandertramp.

Expanding our vocabulary, we encountered the gripping etymological drama of the unicorn and the crayfish, found out what the cool kids on the street are saying these days, and learned the hidden connection between limousines and bayonets. Plus, there was the opportunity to laugh at hapless French sign-writers struggling with their own language, or try your skills in our fiendish faux-amis quiz.

Guest appearances were made by two more heroes who gave their lives to the service of the French nation and their surnames to the service of the French dictionary: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin and Etienne de Silhouette.

We also discovered what the students at Oxford have been up to lately, from turning parchments into webpages to falling in love with the Montmartre district of Paris.

As ever, there were suggestions of books and films you might like to if you want to explore French culture in a little more depth.

And, snuck in among the other posts, were a few reasons why you might like to think seriously about doing a degree in modern languages, and a little advice on how you might go about it if you wanted to apply to study the subject with us.

Merry Christmas to you from the Oxford Modern Languages Faculty. Thank you for reading, and we’ll see you on the first Wednesday in the New Year.



From Saint Nicolas to Petit Papa Noël


posted by Catriona Seth

In places like Lorraine, the former sovereign duchy which became a part of France in 1766 and is now a ‘département’, or in Fribourg, in Switzerland, one of the earliest signs of the festive season is the presence, in the local ‘boulangeries’, of figures made of ‘pain d’épices’ (gingerbread)—which the Swiss sometimes call ‘biscômes’—in the shape of a bishop, complete with a crook or crozier (‘une crosse’) and a mitre (‘une mitre’—the word for the episcopal headgear is the same). He is Saint Nicolas (there is no ‘h’ in the name in French), a 3rd century Turk who is the patron of Fribourg and of Lorraine, but also, amongst others, of sailors, physiotherapists and children. His feast day on December 6th is celebrated with public processions in which he walks the streets, with his donkey, sometimes accompanied by a darkly clad individual, the ‘Père fouettard’, literally the whipping father, who is supposed to chastise badly behaved boys and girls. Saint Nicolas, on the other hand, carries a long basked strapped to his shoulders like a backpack—it is called ‘une hotte’ and is similar to the one used by grape-pickers. In it he has presents and sweets for those who have not been naughty.


Because he was considered to be a major figure of the early Church, Saint Nicolas’ relics were revered in different places of worship like Bari in Italy, Fribourg—where his right arm is preserved in a jewelled reliquary—and Saint-Nicolas-de-Port, South of Nancy, in Lorraine, where one of his finger bones—a ‘phalange’ or phalanx—is still kept in the treasure-house of an important gothic basilica. The modern pageants grew out of religious ceremonies.

The name ‘Santa Claus’ is a deformation of Saint Nicolas or its Dutch version, Sint Nicolaas, and in many French-speaking regions the bishop has been overtaken by the jolly figure of Father Christmas as the purveyor of gifts to be opened no longer on December 6th, but on the 24th or 25th. ‘Le Père Noël’ is called upon to leave presents not in stockings, but in shoes left out at the foot of the tree—‘le sapin de Noël’. Whilst the tradition of singing carols is much less prevalent in French than in English, many French-speakers know the words to the musical equivalent of a letter to Santa, Petit Papa Noël—said to be, in Tino Rossi’s original version, the best-selling French single of all time. The singer (in fact a father giving voice to his sleeping son) asks Father Christmas not to forget his ‘petit soulier’ when he comes down from the skies to deliver thousands of toys—‘des jouets par milliers’. The request comes, even though he admits ‘je n’ai pas été tous les jours très sage’, but then again, hands up anyone who can claim only ever to have been good!

For a time-warp experience, you can find the original Tino Rossi recording of ‘Petit Papa Noël’ taken from the 1946 black and white film Destins here:

And Vincy’s lyrics here.

This is the chorus (‘le refrain’) of Petit Papa Noël:
Petit papa Noël
Quand tu descendras du ciel,
Avec des jouets par milliers,
N’oublie pas mon petit soulier.

And here is some vocabulary for the rest of the song:

La paupière : the eyelid.
Quelque chose me tarde: I am impatient for something to happen. The verb ‘tarder’ has the same root as ‘tard’ and ‘un retard’, meaning late and a delay.


Un joujou: a toy. Remember, ‘joujou’, which is a familiar term derived from ‘jouet’ is one of the words ending in ‘ou’ which has an irregular plural (not an ‘s’, but an ‘x’): des joujoux.

The following words all have irregular plurals with ‘x’: bijou, caillou, chou, genou, hibou, joujou & pou. Some French-speaking children learn the following mnemonic: ‘Viens mon chou, mon bijou, sur mes genoux, laisse tes joujoux et jette des cailloux à ce vieil hibou plein de poux.’

In the mnemonic, ‘chou’ is not used to mean ‘cabbage’ but as the equivalent of ‘dear’. ‘Un pou’ is a louse and ‘un hibou’, an owl.


‘Le marchand de sable’, literally ‘the sand merchant’, is the sandman who is said to sprinkle sand in children’s eyes to make them sleep and dream sweet dreams.


‘faire dodo’ is a familiar expression meaning to sleep. You sometimes encounter ‘dodo’ as a noun: ‘J’ai fait un bon dodo après le déjeuner’ is a way of saying I had a good sleep after lunch.

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