Category Archives: French literature

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 Rewarding Discovery: Exploring Agency in Sixteenth-Century Women’s Writing

DPhil student Nupur Patel (Lincoln College) gives us a glimpse into her research on sixteenth-century French women’s writing, and reflects on her journey to postgraduate work in French.

Admittedly, when I first began my Bachelor’s degree as an undergraduate of French and History, I had no intentions of pursuing postgraduate study. As much as I loved my degree, I always thought it was a distant dream to join the table of scholars at the University, and I was yet to find my own specialised area of interest. My third year was a transformational moment; I began to delve into early modern women’s writing which lit a fire in me. For my undergraduate dissertation, I came across Marguerite de Navarre, who is sometimes called the ‘Mother of the Renaissance’ for her great influence during her lifetime, and beyond. As I become more acquainted with her literature, I decided to explore her role as a playwright and patroness. In the process of reading and writing, I came across other women writers and became fascinated by questions of women’s agency and experiences. This coincided with discussions about intersectional feminism, activist movements and the global Women’s Marches which were placed at the forefront of newspapers and TV screens. These events encouraged me to study a DPhil which looked more deeply into early modern women’s agency.

Les oeuvres de Mesdames Des Roches, de Poitiers, mère et fille. Image credit Wikimedia Commons.

My research looks at responses to the concept of modesty in the works of four sixteenth-century French women’s writers. In the early modern period, modesty was fundamental to the ways in which women are perceived and understood in society. It was means of controlling women’s bodies and sexuality, and was intimately linked to other concepts of chastity, shame and honour. In my project, I look at four sixteenth century women writers – Marguerite de Navarre, Les Dames des Roches and Gabrielle de Coignard – all of whom lived in different areas in France and show that it was possible for writers to challenge, rethink and even completely overturn modesty’s place in early modern French society. In the world of literature, they use their texts as ways to respond to modesty in ways that give them agency and liberate other women from the oppressive term. It is an empowering means for women to reclaim their bodies and sexuality from men who seek to constrain them. An important example where this takes place is late sixteenth century Poitiers, where poet Catherine des Roches lived with her mother, Madeleine des Roches. Together, the pair were known as Les Dames des Roches, and they produced three works in their lifetime: Les Œuvres and Les Secondes Œuvres – which included poetry and prose – followed by Les Missives – the first private letters to be published by women in France.

Portrait of Catherine Des Roches from Costumes historiques de la France. Image credit Wkimedia Commons.

Catherine’s life was particularly intriguing, for she veered away from gender expectations of the time. Instead of marrying and having children, she chose to live with her mother with the hopes of nurturing her great passion for learning and writing. Her mother encouraged her writing, which scholars such as Estienne Pasquier and Scévole de Sainte-Marthe wrote about with great admiration in their dedications. Such figures honoured both women as very talented writers and salon hostesses. Estienne Pasquier, especially, was very fond of Catherine and recalled to his friend, Pierre Pithou, one particular moment during a salon meeting in which a flea landed on Catherine’s bosom; this inspired great wonder in him, which resulted in the publication of La Puce de Madame des Roches, a collection of poems by Pasquier and other male poets who write about this story. These poems come in the form of different languages and reveal an attempt to turn Catherine into an object of male desire. Many of the poets, including Pasquier, are mesmerised by the sight of the male flea sucking blood from her breast. Instead of reflecting male desire, Catherine chooses to reject them in her own flea poem. In her striking account of the flea landing on her bosom, she decides to make the flea a female nymph who seeks refuge from a tyrannical male god. Catherine transforms her body, once a site of eroticism, into a place of shelter and honour; she liberates it from shame and desire and turns it into artistic inspiration for her poetry. Her poem is a striking example of how a woman writer can use her writing to challenge modesty and society’s conceptions of the female body; she, and others in my study, reveal moments of empowerment within the confines of patriarchal society.

Studying Catherine des Roches and the other women in my study has been a very rewarding experience, and a great reminder of the breadth of topics that can be studied in French literature. As I try to unearth moments of early modern women’s agency, I have colleagues who study medical literature, postcolonial texts, the depiction of disabilities, and dancing manuals. As my first undergraduate dissertation taught me, when studying languages, the possibilities at endless, whether, like me, you are looking at women’s writing in the sixteenth century, or at something completely different.

by Nupur Patel

New Resources for Sixth-Form Language Learners

On Tuesday 12 January 2021 the Faculty hosted our first virtual literature masterclass for sixth-form students. The event usually takes place in Oxford each January but, as with most things this academic year, it has been necessary to move it online. We were joined by around 80 Year 12 and 13 students from nine different schools; colleagues led eleven parallel workshop sessions, each focusing on a different set text from the French, Spanish, or German A level curriculum. Participants were able to get a flavour of how tutorial teaching works, and to get to grips with some in-depth literary analysis. The virtual format enables us to broaden our geographical reach, and we hope to be able to offer similar sessions to more schools over the course of the year.

We’ve also begun producing a series of short videos focusing on particular literary techniques. You can find these over on our YouTube channel, on the playlist titled ‘Literary Masterclass for Sixth-Formers’. To date we have videos for French on ‘Perspective’, ‘Theatricality’, ‘Time and Tense’, and ‘Lexis and Imagery’, and a video for German on ‘Perspective’. Over time we hope to add more to the collection, with videos for Spanish learners as well as more for those studying German. Do subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive a notification when we upload a new video!

The first Choix Goncourt Britannique: When we talk about writing

Julia Moore is a third-year student at Christ Church reading French and English. Here are her personal reflections on being part of the first Choix Goncourt Britannique.

Writing a book is hard—you know, you get a publisher, or fail to, and you spend years grovelling at the feet of your work and perhaps a man behind a well-known desk. At least, that’s how the authors write it. In Anna Gavalda’s Je Voudrais Que Quelqu’un m’Attende Quelque part, she includes a postscript in the form of another short story. By using her form to embrace the technical realities of the (physical!) copy the reader holds, she shines a humorous light on the whole affair—the inspiration, rejection, ridiculous meticulous search for the right colour of paper binding. A light, certainly, but a spotlight as well: this is how it happens, she says, this is it.  Publication becomes a story: this sort of fictional concern with the more tedious aspects of writing can reinforce what we think about inspiration, construction, or even the political undertones of writing, especially to sell.

In Little Women, Jo’s plight of publication is just as mundane—and yet, it arrives as a crucial moment in the history of what it means to be a female commercial writer. By becoming a story, it demonstrates itself. Writing about writing makes us more aware of all the things that are happening in and around the book.  Jane Eyre was originally published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, after all. What is it that we feel about the first-person women, and their direct or indirect free speech? All four of the books we were to discuss were in the first person. We tended to take this for granted;  Dame Marina Warner, one of the senior judges and member of the Royal Society, made our group of student judges feel rather silly when she pointed out that none of us had  even mentioned, let alone questioned, the first person in the narratives we were presented with.

Judging fiction is a strange mix—sometimes, it can seem just as mundane and unromantic as publishing it. Unpicking and debating- all that de-storifying can seem slightly unfair at times—to the book, to the author—the French Goncourt jury has often been accused of publishing bribes and stakes in great shares. Judging a book isn’t just about that though, not really, especially if the people doing it sit behind food and wine, or on a bed or in a bus. People like you and me—and there were a few of us in Oxford, and a few in 6 other universities[1] who did just that.

The French Goncourt Prize is more or less equivalent to the Man Booker prize in the UK. It is a big cultural institution in France, and is judged rather unconventionally by 10 novelists (sometimes referred to as “Les Dix”) who are members of the “Académie Goncourt”, in the Restaurant Drouant, Paris. The prize is a symbolic cheque for ten euros, and the well-recognised accolade: Prix Goncourt. Proust won it in 1919, exactly 100 years from the Choix Goncourt Britannique last year. A Choix Goncourt is a choice made from the same shortlist by a different group of people: there is a Prix Goncourt des Lycéens for a secondary school jury in France, for example. December 2019 was the first Choix Goncourt Britannique, but other countries like Belgium or Lebanon have student juries like ours pick their winner.

We had four books[2] to read, and we had to come up with a winner. Not alone—about 10 of us in Oxford, and similar numbers in Queen’s Belfast, Cardiff, Aberdeen, Cambridge, Warwick, and St Andrew’s. Two of each group met in London to discuss and award the first (perhaps not-yet-coveted) Choix Goncourt Britannique. The word choice is what sets student juries apart from the French group of restaurant-going novelists that award the Prix Goncourt. The focus of choice is not just who gets chosen picked, but also who is choosing. We were very aware of ourselves and our very obviously personal choices. What do we know about picking and choosing the novel we think is best? Well, what should we know? And does anyone? We pinpointed things: style, narrative, underlying images, characterisation,… the list goes on. And it can—the thing was that we were never completely finished.

In Oxford, and, later, in London, we decided on Tous les Hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon by Jean-Paul Dubois. It was salient to so many of the individuals in our group that it quickly became the centrepiece of comparative discussions. It is about a man, his cell-mate, and the people that make up his past. We talked about way that the narrative works, crossed between the past, the present, and the succession of dog smiles and technical failures that exist in both. We liked reading it—we enjoyed looking everyday words up and wondering about whether or not the book was “About Capitalism”. There’s something very joyful about being able to read and think and think and read, completely essay-less, yet with a real discussion with real people who also have thoughts and readings about fiction. The fact that all the books are contemporary adds to the immediacy of looking forward to the translation of our book-elect, and to Jean-Paul Dubois’ tour of  UK universities; the gleeful possibilities of being alone with a book are sustained, rather than dampened, by the idea of an author to talk to.

To read more about the Choix Goncourt Britannique, see a piece by another Oxford member of the panel, James Hughes, in The Oxford Polyglot https://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/oxford-polyglot/2019-20/2/united-kingdoms-choix-goncourt-more-book-club and read Professor Dame Marina Warner’s speech at the award https://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/oxford-polyglot/2019-20/2/awarding-frances-most-prestigious-literary-prize


[1] Oxford, Cambridge, and Warwick from England, Cardiff from Wales, Aberdeen and St Andrew’s from Scotland, and Queen’s Belfast from Northern Ireland

[2] Soif, by Amélie Nothomb, Tous les Hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon, by Jean-Paul Dubois, Extérieur Monde by Olivier Rolin, and La Part du Fils, by Jean-Luc Coatelem.

A New Year’s Gift

In this last blog post before Christmas, we take a look at a festively themed quatrain written by the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé in 1896. One of a group of poems called ‘Dons de fruits glacés au Nouvel an’ [Gifts of glazed fruits at the New Year], these four lines commemorate the turning of the year in a single crystallised image:

Le temps
                nous y succombons
Sans l’amitié pour revivre
Ne glace que ces bonbons
A son plumage de givre.

[Time
                we succumb to it
Without friendship to relive
It glazes only these sweets
With its feathers of frost.]

Stéphane Mallarmé

A very brief bit of background about Mallarmé…

Stéphane [Étienne] Mallarmé was born in Paris in 1842 and died in 1898 in Valvins, near Fontainebleau. He is one of the most famous French poets of the second half of the nineteenth century and is often linked to the Symbolist movement, although Mallarmé himself resisted this categorisation to a degree. The Symbolists were broadly interested in pursuing the ‘Idée’ and adopted Mallarmé’s attempt to ‘peindre, non la chose, mais l’effet qu’elle produit’ [paint, not the thing itself, but the effect it produces]. They sometimes took an avant-garde approach to poetic form, and were amongst the earliest writers to experiment with vers libre and prose poetry. Mallarmé himself produced poetry in both verse and prose, as well as critical work and the long experimental poem Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. His poetry is known for its syntactic playfulness and linguistic precision, each poem representing a challenge to the reader and opening up a space for potentially limitless interpretation. Blank space, nothingness, the void – these become the source of artistic creation as the poet sought to bring something out of nothing, striving to evoke no one flower but, rather, ‘l’absente de tous bouquets’ – the ideal flower that cannot be found in any real bouquet.

So what about the poem itself?

This quatrain is an example of what Mallarmé called ‘vers de circonstance’: circumstantial poems, written for a particular occasion or in response to stimuli he encountered in his everyday life. For instance, in addition to writing a number of poems around holiday times to mark the Christmas, New Year, and Easter periods, he wrote toasts to be given at special dinners, birthday poems for his friends, and even snippets of poetry to his correspondents when he sent them letters, the poems a playful way of representing the recipient’s address.

These vers de circonstance are often amusing but they can also gesture towards some of the more serious themes within Mallarmé’s wider work, a more lighthearted way for him to reflect on the deeper questions he had explored elsewhere. Let’s dive deeper into this example…

Close reading

The opening words of the poem reveal its central concern: time and the effect of time on personal relationships and on the writing process. We are told that ‘nous succombons‘ – we succumb – to time, thereby personifying it in an image that suggests oppression or temptation and yielding. Time is also the subject of the verb ‘glacer’ and the possessor of a ‘plumage de givre’: two icy images of an abstract temporal figure.

And yet, there is someone else also present in this poem: the speaker. And the speaker is not isolated and solitary, but speaks in the first person plural, ‘nous succombons’. Who is this ‘nous’? With whom is the speaker interacting? We don’t know exactly, but what we do know is that the poem accompanies a ‘don de fruits glacés au nouvel an’, a gift of glazed or candied fruits, or bonbons, to commemorate the new year. We might therefore assume a degree of friendship between the speaker and the addressee as they are close enough to exhange this gift. The bonbons are an illustration of intimacy and this is also true of the poem itself, where that ‘nous’ acts as a link binding two people, a textual representation of their friendship.

Speaking of friendship, that ‘sans amitié’ might feel out of place at first (this is one of the challenges of reading Mallarmé!). Who, we might ask, is friendless? We are tempted to assume it is the person most recently referred to in the line above – the speaker and his nameless addressee. But this does not make sense, because we know that the speaker and his addressee are exchanging a festive gift and that neither of them can therefore be thought friendless. The only other option is that time itself must be friendless. The personification of time, together with the icy imagery, suggests that time is a lonesome figure, which can only freeze the world around it, whereas the speaker and his addressee have the warmth of companionship.

Candied orange slice.

But it’s not all solitude and misery because there’s an element of humour at work in this poem as well. Immediately, our eye is drawn to the split first line: by breaking the line in this place and indenting ‘nous succombons’, Mallarmé offers us a visual pun on the verb ‘succomber’ as the second half of the line submits to the first by continuing below it.

Moreover, the more oppressive tone of ‘succombons’ is offset by the fact that it rhymes with ‘bonbons’. The reference to sweets lightens the mood: we may be talking about submission but we are also talking about candy. Putting aside the possibility of some nightmarish Willy Wonka vision, the bonbons add a dose of characteristic Mallarméan playfulness to a serious reflection on our relationship to time. In this reading, time might appear less as an oppressor exerting pressure, and more as a temptation to which we might reluctantly give in – and it is difficult not to hear the echo of ‘temps’ in ‘tentation’.

Besides the succombons/bonbons pairing, there is another important rhyme in the poem: revivre/givre. ‘Givre’, meaning frost, is a reference to the sugar which coats the fruit offered in the poem. If we speak of ‘une orange givrée’, we mean a candied orange, with ‘givré’ in this sense a synonym for ‘glacé’. If you picture a slice of candied orange, it is easy to see how the sugar resembles frost. But this is no accidental allusion to frost, just as ‘glacer’ is no accidental allusion to ice: winter imagery is common in Mallarmé’s poetry and is a means for him to think about the creative process. In his earlier poetry, this is a way of figuring sterility, an anxiety about writing in the fin de siècle (the late nineteenth century) when Mallarmé would write in another poem, ‘Brise marine’: “La chair est triste, hélas! et j’ai lu tous les livres” [The Flesh is sad, alas! and I have read all the books]. Creativity has been exhausted and time, that icy figure, has rendered poetry infertile.

In this sense, the winter imagery of this quatrain is in dialogue with some of Mallarmé’s other, more extensive texts. We might think particularly of his text ‘Hérodiade’, a dramatic poem related to the story of Salomé, and which centres around a virgin princess who frets over her own purity. Sterility is a central theme in this text, and Hérodiade expresses this with reference to both coldness and her mirror: ” la froideur stérile du métal,/ […]/ Assez! Tiens devant moi ce miroir./ Ô miroir!/ Eau froide par l’ennui dans ton cadre gelée […]” [the sterile coldness of the metal,/ […]/ Enough! Hold this mirror before me./ O mirror! Cold water frozen by ennui in your frame […].].
This alignment of the mirror with coldness recalls the double meaning of ‘glace’ as both ice and mirror. Thus, when this new year’s quatrain refers to time’s ability to ‘glacer’ the bonbons, we might consider that time is not only glazing the fruit but is also mirroring it or rendering it double. Where might we look for the reflection or double of the fruit? Perhaps to the poem itself, which acts as the fruit’s double, a glazed offering of friendship as a riposte to temporal suspension.

Besides ‘Herodiade’, the other clear intertextual reference is to Mallarmé’s sonnet ‘Le vierge le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui’, which focuses on the image of a swan trapped on a frozen lake, unable to fly. Traditionally, swans have been a metaphor for poets, and the fact that Mallarmé’s swan is grounded indicates we are once again dealing with the question of poetic sterility. This poem alludes to many of the things mentioned in our New Year’s quatrain, evoking in particular “Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre/ Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui!” [This hard, forgotten lake which is haunted beneath the ice/ By the transparent glacier of flights which have not taken off!] and also referring to the swan’s ‘plumage’. The fact that ‘plumage’ appears again in the New Year’s quatrain reinforces the suggestion that this quatrain was written with Mallarmé’s earlier sonnet in mind. In the quatrain, the word ‘plumage’ gestures towards the fronds of sugar on the candied fruit which may resemble feathers, but it also alludes to a ‘plume’, a feather or quill, and is therefore a nod to the act of writing. By reading this quatrain alongside Mallarmé’s other writing, we see the themes of sterility and writing come to light.

So it becomes clear that this is a poem about poetry: about what it means to write and the frustrations of the creative process, which can feel sterile or infertile. Nonetheless, while the Mallarmé of the 1860s, who wrote ‘Hérodiade’ and ‘Le vierge le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui’, was anxious about sterility, we should bear in mind that Mallarmé’s later poetry moved away from this preoccupation and towards a different way of understanding the bare white space of winter: as a blank canvas waiting for the writer and reader to bring it to life. The mirror’s surface, the icy lake, the blank page: these become a space of endless potentiality. The New Year’s quatrain, written in 1896, may be more reflective of this later Mallarmé than the early Mallarmé. This is why it is important that ‘givre’ rhymes with ‘revivre’: there is room here for renewal and creative hope. What’s more, the ghost rhyme latent in a poem such as this must surely be ‘livre’, another reference to writing. In this light, time may offer potential for renewal as opposed to a sterilising of creativity, and we might indeed read that ‘succomber’ as an indication of temptation rather than oppression.

This lighthearted quatrain, therefore, is more than simply a few trite lines composed on the occasion of sending a friend a gift of candied fruit. The poem itself is a present, an embodiment of friendship, and it is also a comment on the writing process. Permanence, the act of creation across the blank page, fin-de-siècle stasis and renewal: all are encompassed in this small text. Poetry thus becomes a way of submitting to, but also resisting, time. It is a new year’s gift to us, as readers, an offering of renewal.

We hope you enjoyed that reading of a festive quatrain in our last post before Christmas. We’ll be back on 8th January and all that remains to be said is Happy New Year – or bonne année!

Virtual Book Club returns to French

The Virtual Book Club is back, and this episode features a discussion of a text in French. Here, Junior Research Fellow, Macs, talks to undergraduates Isobel and Hector about a short extract from Rachid Boudjedra’s Topographie idéale pour une agression caractérisée (Paris: Denoël, 1975, pp. 173-4).

They consider questions such as:

  • What is the style of this passage? Is it difficult to read and understand and if so, why?
  • Is there a relationship between the style and what’s happening in the excerpt?
  • What kinds of translation take place in this passage?
  • How does the protagonist respond to the image of the lotus? Is it right to say that he’s reading the advertisement even though he’s supposedly illiterate? Is he misreading it? What would a “correct” reading of this advertisement look like?
  • What language skills are required to read a map or an advertisement?

If you would like to be sent a copy of the text so you can follow the discussion, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

The next episode will be on German, and will be a special tie-in with this year’s German Classic Prize. Stay tuned…

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.

Literature Masterclass: Theatricality

In March, Dr Simon Kemp gave us an introduction to ‘Time and Tense‘ for sixth-formers studying French literature. We return to the literary toolkit today with an introduction to another aspect of literary analysis you might wish to consider, particularly when looking at plays: theatricality.

In this presentation, Dr Jessica Goodman, Tutor in French at St Catherine’s College, gives us an overview of this concept, touching on questions like who is talking and to whom?, what is happening onstage and offstage?, and what difference does the presence of the audience make? Join us for all the ‘drama’ below…