Category Archives: French life

Seasonal greetings from the Queen of France

Rather than racing to get their cards in the post in time for Christmas, the French more often send Cartes de vœux, literally ‘cards of wishes’. These can be written until January 31 and will typically express the writer’s hope that the recipient might enjoy health, prosperity and happiness in the year which has just started. This tradition goes back a long way as a note from tragic queen Marie Antoinette, who was guillotined in 1793 in Paris at the age of 38, demonstrates.

The brief letter is held in the library at Bergamo (Biblioteca Angelo Mai) and addressed to Giovanni Andrea Archetti (1731-1805), an Italian priest who was made a cardinal in 1784. [1]

Here is a transcription of the letter. Despite the calligraphic flourishes, it is relatively legible as the close-up shows.

Mon Cousin. Je suis si persuadée de votre attachement à ma personne, que je ne doute pas de la sincerité des vœux que vous formés pour ma satisfaction au Commencement de cette Année, les expressions dont vous les accompagnés sont pour moi un motif de plus de vous rassurer de toute l’Estime que je fais de vous. Sur ce je prie Dieu qu’il vous ait mon cousin en sa S[ain]te et digne garde.
écrit à Versailles. Le 31. Janvier 1787.
Marie Antoinette


There are few differences with the way we would write things. An accent is missing on ‘sincérité’, there is a capital on the name of the month (which is now considered incorrect in French) and, more importantly, the polite ‘vous’ forms of first group verbs, ‘former’ and ‘accompagner’ are here spelled with an ‘-és’ ending rather than the ‘ez’ we would expect. You may also have noticed the full stop after ‘31’ which was a way of transforming the cardinal number into an ordinal number (the equivalent of 31st). Whilst the practice has disappeared from modern French usage, you will find it in German. The signature makes it look as though the final ‘e’ of ‘Antoinette’ has been swallowed into the ‘tt’.

If you compare the transcription with the photograph of the whole page, you will observe different things even before you look at the meaning of the message: it is written on a very large sheet of paper of which the text only occupies about one third; there are slits down the side of the sheet; a strange seal hangs off an appended strip of paper; you can spot the handwriting of three different people. What explains these surprising aspects?

Paper was a luxury commodity in 18th-century Europe and there was a lot of re-using of scraps. Here, the choice of a sheet much larger than would be necessary for the length of the text is a clear sign of wealth. Unlike most of the inhabitants of France, the queen did not have to worry about waste or expense. In addition, a large sheet rather than a smaller one honoured the recipient: it meant he was being treated with the respect owed to an eminent person. The strange folds and the slits down the side (by the blue-gloved fingers on the first picture and along the opposite edge), as well as the paper-encrusted seal, show that this missive would have been sent with a removable lock. The sealing wax pressed between two sides of paper to ensure it would not get broken is on the strip which served as a lock. This was part of a ceremonial practice again intended to make the document seem important but without including a proper seal. Because of the lack of confidential information on the one hand, but also the important diplomatic value of a letter from the queen of France, a particular closing process was adopted. It allowed for the missive to be opened without breaking the seal—rather like when we tuck the flap in to an envelope rather than sticking it down. The French refer to a seal which does not have to be broken for the letter to be opened as a ‘cachet volant’ or ‘flying seal’. You can discover how it would have been prepared in an excellent video about a similar letter from Marie Antoinette to a different cardinal:

As you will notice if you watch the video, once the single sheet had been folded and sealed, it would have looked a bit like a modern envelope with the addressee’s name on it. No street or town address was included because it would have been entrusted to a courier and delivered by hand.

The letter was written by a secretary, almost certainly a man, who had clear bold and ornate handwriting. You can see a change of ink when you get to the signature. Marie Antoinette is the French version of the names Maria Antonia which the future queen of France had been given at her christening in Vienna in 1755. The third person to have intervened also simply signed. This was Jacques Mathieu Augeard, the ‘secrétaire des commandements de la reine’ who was an important court official and would have ensured the letters were duly sent off to the right people. Clearly, this is not a personal letter addressed by Marie Antoinette to cardinal Archetti, but a formal stock message prepared in her name. She may well not even have read the text before it was signed.

What do the contents of the letter tell us? The first thing to note is that the queen calls the cardinal ‘Mon Cousin’. They were not related. This was a conventional courtesy used between people of a certain rank. The missive is clearly an answer to a letter received from Archetti who had sent his own best wishes—it refers to ‘la sincérité des vœux que vous formez’ and ‘les expressions dont vous les accompagnez’ (modernised spelling). It ends with a pious formula hoping that God will watch over the cardinal. The date of 31 January, the last one on which such wishes could be sent, was usual for the royal family. It bears witness to the eminence of the signatory who has not initiated the correspondence but is providing a response.

We are documenting Marie Antoinette’s letters as part of a project with the Château de Versailles’ CRCV research centre. Oxford student Tess Eastgate is one of the participants thanks to her AHRC-funded Oxford-Open-Cambridge Doctoral Training Partnership. Tess is working on weighty political exchanges from the revolutionary period which are quite unlike the message presented here.

To the casual reader, it might seem disappointing to come across a letter like the one to Archetti, with so little personal content, it is in fact very useful for us to have it. It documents the formal relations between the French monarchs and the Catholic hierarchy. It suggests that there may be other similar missives addressed to different dignitaries across the world (examples of ones to cardinals Boncompagni Ludovisi and Borgia have been located) [2] so, if you are anywhere near archive holdings, take a look at what they have. Who knows, you may even come across seasonal greetings to a cardinal from the Queen of France!

Written by Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature
All Souls College, Oxford


[1] Library reference: Autografi MMB 938-945 Faldone A 2) REGINA MARIA ANTONIETTA DI FRANCIA Lettera con firma autografa da Versailles in data 31 gennaio 1787 portante il sigillo reale diretta al Cardinale Archetti (in francese). My thanks to Dottoressa Maria Elisabetta Manca and the staff at the Bibliotheca Angelo Mai.

[2] See https://villaludovisi.org/2022/11/03/new-from-1775-1787-a-revealing-exchange-of-new-years-greetings-by-louis-xvi-marie-antoinette-with-cardinal-ignazio-boncompagni-ludovisi/ (with a 1787 letter which contains many similar terms to the one published here) and https://auktionsverket.com/arkiv/fine-art/rare-books/2016-12-20/150-letter-from-marie-antoinette-to-cardinal-borgia/ [Links accessed on 11 December 2022].

Dispatches from the Year Abroad: Paris

Third-year undergraduate Beth Molyneux (Lincoln College) has been sharing updates on her Year Abroad travels. Following on from her earlier post about her time in Munich, she is now in Paris.

Even before coming to Oxford, I knew I wanted to spend some time living in Paris, having caught glimpses of the city on family holidays and on a day trip during my French exchange. It’s potentially the least original of year abroad locations, but I really do think there’s a reason for that!

A lot of people come to Paris to do an internship during their year abroad, but I’d chosen to study for this semester, and was quite excited to get back into the academic world after having taken time off from studying in Germany. That’s one of the great things about the year abroad: it gives you time and flexibility to try out a few different things, and mix and match between your studies and the big scary world that comes after university.

Oxford has an exchange programme with La Sorbonne, and I was lucky enough to get a place to study there for the second semester of this academic year. Oxford aren’t very prescriptive about exactly what you have to study if that’s what you opt for on your year abroad, so as long as I do the right amount of credits, I’m pretty much free to choose whatever modules I like. I’ve stayed in my comfort zone so far, with modules from the department of ‘Littérature française et comparée’, but I also know people who’ve branched out into history courses, philosophy, and even Greek. I think I’ve managed to get a really good mix of modules that relate directly to some of the topics and texts I’ve covered in my course at Oxford, alongside some entirely new topics, and some language classes to keep that grammar ticking over.

I say I’ve stayed in my comfort zone, but even when studying a topic area that’s familiar to me, transitioning to a French university is far from simple! Academic systems are unique to each country, and I already feel like I’m beginning to get a flavour of what French university life is like and how it’s different to England, or at least Oxford, on the academic side of things. At the moment it’s harder to get an idea of what the social side of things is normally like, because there are far fewer social events on campus than there would be in ordinary circumstances. In this respect, though, I’m quite lucky that I’ve chosen to au pair alongside my studies, because it means that I have daily contact with a family, and a homely environment, where I have purpose and a little bit of my own space in the city, which might otherwise be a bit big and anonymous.

Living and spending time with a French family really gives you a sense of the difference between speaking French and becoming French. More so than when I was in Germany, I have the sense that I’m not just learning the language, but am also getting  used to the French, or at least the Parisian, way of life: shopping at the local market, eating well, exploring the city at weekends, and, in a few weeks, heading off to the Alps for a winter break, courtesy of the family I’m staying with. Once the COVID situation starts to improve a little and things open up again, I think there will be even more opportunities to soak up the cultural aspects of Paris, its museums, restaurants and libraries, and I can’t wait to experience the city in summer.

It’s hard to capture in a blog post the excitement that comes when you set up your life in a new place for the next six months, knowing that this is the place you really want to be, and having a stretch of time to do and see everything you want to, make the most of the opportunities thrown your way, and work your way towards becoming, slowly, a little bit more French (or German, or Spanish, or Italian), as you get accustomed to a new way of life and find your place linguistically, intellectually and personally. But it’s definitely been a feeling I’ve experienced on my year abroad, and I hope you do too!

by Beth Molyneux

(Image credits Beth Molyneux)

A Year Abroad on the Côte d’Azur

This post was written by Charlotte, who studies French at Worcester College. Here, Charlotte tells us about her year abroad in France.

2018 was an exciting time to be in France for a year abroad. Over the summer temperatures rose in France with the thrill of the World Cup. Bars were brimming with enthused fans, roars matched every goal and with each win the streets became crowded with waving flags, trumpets and cheers of “Allez les bleus!”. In Montpellier, French football fans climbed on historic monuments and beeped car horns throughout the night. When I was caught watching a football match on my computer at work my boss sat down and joined!

In Montpellier there was a heatwave, or canicule, that summer so I spent my time between the beach and a natural lake, both of which were easy to get to by the tram system running through the city. It was warm enough to swim in the ocean up until the end of September! Every Friday in August there was a wine festival Les Estivales with live music and a range of food stands, every Wednesday there was a firework display at the beach, and every evening in the park Peyrou students relaxed in the cool evening, sometimes playing sport or dancing to music.

Autumn was an important time for me as I was working in a yacht brokerage, and autumn is the season of boat shows so I got to work on the marketing of several yachts across various regions in the South of France. September is also the season of Les Voiles de St-Tropez, a sailboat race in St.Tropez which attracts yachting teams from across the world to compete in.

Winter in Montpellier is very special. The Christmas markets opened at the beginning of December, and their opening was celebrated by a huge light show which saw historic buildings lit up with dazzling light projections.

Winter season also coincided with the beginning of the gilets jaunes movement in France, an important event which saw the President, Emmanuel Macron, cave to the demands of the protestors. A year later they are still to be seen on the streets of Paris. At a practical level, it meant that there was less food in the supermarket and it was more difficult to drive to places. Some students I met there got involved with the protests, it was a chance to engage in French social and political issues beyond reading about them in Le Monde.

Years abroad are not a holiday – I was working a full-time job! – but they are an opportunity to make the most of local events and culture which is not always possible in Oxford with the workload and tight deadlines. Towns and regions have different personalities throughout the year, and living abroad allows you to see and experience them all, getting to engage with language and culture beyond the textbook.

Career Profile: Being an Academic

This week in our series on career profiles, we’re speaking to Gemma Tidman, who studied French at Worcester College and graduated in 2011. Having attended a big comprehensive school in a small village in Somerset, Gemma now researches and teaches French literature at St John’s College, Oxford. She tells us a bit about her route into an academic job…

During my degree, I figured out that I wanted a number of things from a career: the ability to use my language skills on a regular basis, to travel, to meet interesting people and to continue learning new things. I also knew that I loved my degree, that I enjoyed academic writing, and during my year abroad I learned that I really liked teaching (I was an English-language teaching assistant in a lycée in South-West France). I wasn’t sure what all this meant in terms of a career, but it sounded like these were things I could keep doing during a Master’s, so that’s where I started. I did the Oxford Master’s course in the European Enlightenment (2011-12), and had some brilliant tutors who inspired in me a love of eighteenth-century French literature and cultural history.

After the Master’s, I still wasn’t sure what to do next. I applied for a PhD, but in the end decided that I needed to try something beyond university. So, I took a job at the Wallace Collection, in London – a national museum that specialises in eighteenth-century French visual and decorative arts, among other things. I worked with a great team of people, on projects involving marketing, public engagement, and fundraising. I loved the job! I got to use my French skills now and then, and to pursue my interest in eighteenth-century France. But, after six months or so, I realised that I missed teaching and research. So, in 2013 I decided to go back to university… and I began a PhD in French, back in Oxford.

‘Large Drawing Room: The Wallace Collection, London’ (M.chohan. Wikimedia creative commons)

My PhD looked at the history of how literature was taught in France, during the second half of the eighteenth century (If you’re interested, you can read more about it here). But a PhD is more than just the 80,000 words you produce at the end of four years: it’s also four years of great experiences. During the PhD I spent a year living in Paris, where I taught at a French university. I spent afternoons conducting research on 250-year-old handwritten papers, held in archives in a castle. I had a month as a visiting student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, working with wonderful academics and students. And I got the chance to do more teaching, which I loved. I also had the time to pursue other projects I cared about: I became involved in university widening participation and outreach work, and I took up triathlon!

After my PhD, I managed to land a one-year research and teaching post at Worcester College: back where I started as an undergraduate. If you had told me, when I began my BA in 2007, that I would be working there as an academic a decade later, I never would have believed you. After that, I moved to my current post at St John’s College. In spite of (or perhaps because of?) some long, hard days of reading, thinking, writing…and sometimes deleting it all and starting again… I love what I do. I’m lucky to work with great colleagues and students, on a subject that I’m passionate about, and to get to contribute to the way we think about, and teach, French literature and cultural history.

Chateau de Vincennes (Image from Wikipedia)

I’d say to anyone wondering whether they have ‘the right’ profile for academia that there is no ‘right profile’. I’m from a first-generation, comprehensive school background; I didn’t always know I wanted to be an academic; I didn’t go straight through from undergraduate to PhD: and I’ve made it this far. Most people know that getting into academia isn’t plain sailing – there are many hurdles to face, from securing postgraduate funding to dealing with tough peer reviews, from long, long hours to finding a permanent post in a competitive field. In all of this, there can be a lot of luck involved, and you’ll need to be prepared to put in some years of groundwork (in terms of further study, fixed contract posts, etc) before you – hopefully – begin to see it pay off. But in terms of the skills you need, if you’re resilient, up for some hard work, and above all if you love reading and writing about your subject, they’re probably the major things you need. To all budding academics: go for it!

À la Dérive: Paris in 3 Months & 5 Quarters – Part 2

Last week, we heard from Hector, one of our undergraduates in French and Spanish. Hector spent his year abroad last year in Chile and Paris. You can read about his Chilean adventures here and here. When we left off last week, Hector was telling us about his stay in Paris, where he lived in five very different areas of the city. Today, we bring you the final instalment in his year abroad adventure.

My stay in Paris was nothing if not diverse: next stop, the 10th arrondissement* A.K.A. l’Entrepôt (‘The Warehouse’). Famous for containing the tranquil Canal Saint-Martin and two of the busiest train stations in Europe, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, I could feel the vibrations of the trains through the floor of the ground-floor studio apartment I was renting from an out-of-town colleague. There is a significant Hindu diaspora in the 10th, which celebrated the birth of Ganesha in magnificent style with the Ganesh Caturthi festival and street procession in August.

For the month of September, I rented an attic room in a coloc (‘flat-share’) on rue d’Aboukir, named after Napoleon’s victory over the Turks during the Egyptian Campaign. The 2nd arrondissement is one of the most typical of Haussmann’s 19th-century renovation of Paris, featuring wide boulevards, small parks, and neoclassical façades. My French-Portuguese housemate, an investment banker by profession, was sports mad and introduced me to the delights of the Top 14 French rugby union league, on the condition that I support his team which, being from the Gironde, was Bordeaux-Bègles.

There’s a reason Paris is the most popular tourist destination in the world, but it’s not the picture-postcard clichés of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, or Louvre. Rather, it is joie de vivre. Far from the stereotype of being blasé, Parisians know what matters: they eat well, drink well, and invest their time in worthwhile pleasures – be they higher or lower. Although I did experience a good number of quartiers, they were all rive droite (on the right bank of the river). Hopefully it won’t be long before the rive gauche (the left bank) is on the itinerary.

À la Dérive: Paris in 3 Months & 5 Quarters – Part 1

Last year on Adventures on the Bookshelf, we heard from one of our students, Hector, who was on his year abroad in Chile. Because he studies both French and Spanish, Hector split his year abroad between French- and Spanish-speaking countries. Over the next two weeks, Hector tells us more about the French part of his year abroad, spent in Paris…

It was not by design that I ended up living in five different Paris quartiers* over the summer of my third year abroad. But it gave me an insight into the City of Light which I wouldn’t otherwise have had, even with my excursions by day as a runner-people-watcher, and by night as a keen flâneur**. After a year teaching English in Chile for the Spanish half of my degree, the French half was immediately indispensable as I navigated my way from Charles de Gaulle airport to my first digs.

These were a single room on the fourth floor of a hostel on Boulevard Barbès, in the 18th of the 20 Parisian arrondissements***. My colleagues at the production company at which I was interning, HENRY TV on Place de la République, were somewhat shocked when I told them where I was living, since the area can be ‘chaud’**** come nightfall. Sure, I saw (and heard) a certain amount of that from my window on Friday evenings, but variety is the spice of life in the 18th: the African markets of the Goutte d’Or are cheek by jowl with such iconic sights as Montmartre, the Sacré Cœur, and the Moulin Rouge.

The African theme continued at my next residence: flat-sitting for friends in the Grandes-Carrières quarter, also in the northern 18th arrondissement, where there is a significant population of Senegalese origin. It was in a Senegalese restaurant when my parents were visiting that we enjoyed our best ever dining experience. Instead of just talking amongst ourselves, as is the norm when going out for an average meal in the UK, we were engaged in conversation and banter over delicious fare by other diners keen to share their culture with us, an unusual addition to the clientele.

As well as flat-sitting, my third pied à terre involved cat-sitting and plant-sitting for friends on holiday in Italy. The Parisian-born cats, Attila and Maurice, though initially somewhat sceptical of me on arrival – as were their human counterparts – warmed to me, and Attila even became quite affectionate despite his war-like name. The flat’s central location in Le Marais (‘The Marsh’) of the 3rd arrondissement, offers far more than its name might suggest. One of the most historic and traditionally aristocratic parts of Paris, the Marais now boasts vibrant LGBTQ+, Jewish, and East Asian communities, as well as plenty of trendy bars and some of the only remaining medieval architecture in the city.

Check back next week to hear about the rest of Hector’s Parisian adventures….

Explanation of vocabulary
* quartier: Each arrondissement (see below) is split into quarters, or ‘quartiers’. There are also historical ‘quartiers’, which often do not map onto the administrative ‘quartiers’ – it all adds to the fun of navigating the city!

** flâneur: a stroller or walker. This comes from the verb ‘flâner’, meaning to stroll or saunter. The ‘flâneur’ became a famous figure in the nineteenth century, associated with people watching and urban exploration.

*** arrondissement: Paris is split into twenty administrative districts, called ‘arrondissements’

**** chaud: this can have several meanings in French, but in this context it means that the area can be a bit risky

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 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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.

Maddymontmartre

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.

Maddyatelier

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.

MAddypark

And if you’re interested…

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

Art

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

Poetry

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).

Music

  • ‘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)


Films

  • 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.