We’re delighted to announce that our Oxford University Modern Languages Teachers’ Network, the Sir Robert Taylor Society, is holding its annual conference this year on Thursday 23 and Friday 24 September. If you’re UK modern languages teacher, or have an interest in modern languages teaching at school and university in the UK, you’re warmly invited to attend. Due to Covid, the conference will once again be online this year, with two evenings of roundtable talks and guest speakers.
On Thursday 23 September, from 19:30-21:00 on Microsoft Teams, the theme will be Modern Languages and Careers.
We’ll be talking about, among other things:
Career paths of modern languages graduates
Employability and demand for modern language skills in the workplace
Transferable skills from modern language study
STEM pressure and the value of humanities subjects
On Friday 24 September, again from 19:30-21:00, the theme will be Modern Languages and Diversity.
We’ll be talking about, among other things:
Revisiting the canon: diversifying and decolonizing the curriculum in language, literature and film
Race, gender and sexuality as topics of study in language, literature and film courses
Racism, homophobia and other prejudice in literary texts and film
Diversity in the student body: widening participation in modern language courses
During the events, participation from delegates through the chat and live discussion will be warmly welcome. If you’d like a seat at the Round Table to talk more substantially about either of these topics in secondary or higher education, please let us know, and we’ll be very pleased to accommodate you.
Ramani Chandramohan is studying for an MSt in Modern Languages at St Anne’s College, and is a long-standing cinephile. In this post she shares some of her favourite French films from her language-learning journey so far.
It’s a Sunday evening. You’re chilling in bed watching Netflix. And yet you’re also improving your French at the same time. How is this possible?!
Watching films via any streaming platform or with good old fashioned DVDs is a great way of immersing yourself in the language you are studying beyond grammar textbooks. Films showcase vocabulary, regional accents, culture, history and politics in ways that books alone cannot. Whilst it may be frustrating to not be able to understand what is happening initially or to rely on subtitles, you can eventually work your way up to changing the subtitles to your target language or maybe even turning them off altogether!
Here are some French films to get you started, although I have avoided some of the most well-known titles such as Les Intouchables, La Haine and Amélie.
These films are part of what is known as the Nouvelle Vague of the 1950s and 60s, a movement characterised by an emphasis on the artistic and the personal and elements such as improvised dialogue, jump cuts, location shooting and handheld cameras.
Orphée (1950) – this film, along with Le Sang du Poète (1930) and Le testament d’Orphée (1960), forms part of a trilogy that reimagines the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in modern-day Paris.
La Belle et la Bête (1946) – a sumptuous retelling of the eighteenth-century fairytale originally written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.
Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) – this is the first in a series of five coming-of-age films about a rebellious young boy called Antoine Doinel which were based in part on Truffaut’s own childhood.
À bout du souffle (1960) follows the adventures of a petty thief and his American girlfriend in Paris.
Bande à part (1964) – in this gangster film, two crooks who are fans of Hollywood B-movies commit a robbery with the help of an English student in Paris.
Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) – Varda was instrumental in the development of the Nouvelle Vague and she received the most votes in a poll conducted by the BBC of the greatest films made by female directors. This film focuses on Cléo’s wait for the results of a biopsy which could turn out to be a cancer diagnosis.
La Fille du puisatier (2011) – set in Provence in the south of France, this film (based on Pagnol’s 1940 original) follows a father’s struggles as his daughter gets caught up with the son of a rich shopkeeper during the First World War. Other films based on Pagnol’s works include Jean de Florette (1986), Manon des Sources (1986), Marius (2013) and Fanny (2013). Pagnol championed authentic depictions of the south of France, overcoming prejudice against Southern accents in the French film industry.
Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (2008) – this cult classic reveals the hilarious fallout of a post office manager’s move from south to north and the clash of regional stereotypes. It made waves when it first came out, with TGV trains in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region being decorated with film posters, and remains one of the highest-grossing films ever made in France.
La noire de…Sembène Ousmane was a famous Senegalese film director and writer; he is sometimes credited as the father of African film. La noire de… focuses on Diouana, who moves from Senegal to the south of France to work as a nanny for a rich French couple but is soon subject to racial discrimination.
Un divan à Tunis (2019) – this film deals with a young psychotherapist called Selma who returns to Tunis after many years in Paris to set up her own practice, though it turns out to be far more challenging than she initially envisaged.
Deux jours, une nuit (2014) – set in Belgium, this film stars Marion Cotillard and follows her character Sandra as she tries to convince her work colleagues to give up their bonuses to protect her job.
Juste la fin du monde (2016) – Xavier Dolan is a young and prodigious film director from Montréal in Canada. This film tells the story of a terminally-ill writer who returns home after twelve years away to tell his family of his impending death.
Au Revoir Les Enfants (2015) – a simple but affecting movie about two boys living in a boarding school in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War.
Le Bossu (1997) – this adventure film is an adaptation of Paul Féval’s 1858 historical novel Le Bossu and stars Daniel Auteuil as Lagardère, a swordsman who becomes friends with the Duke of Nevers. Auteuil is a famous French actor who has been in just about every French movie!
Romuald & Juliette (1989) tells the story of a charming and somewhat unlikely romance between a cleaner working for a yoghurt company and the CEO.
Populaire (2012) throws us into the world of typewriting contests in the 1950s in which love blossoms between a contestant, Rose, and her coach, Louis.
Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (2019) tells the story of the relationship between an aristocratic lady and the female painter commissioned to paint her portrait.
120 BPM (2017) – winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, this film is set in 1980s France and focuses on the work of Act Up, an advocacy group that campaigns for legislation and research to alleviate the AIDS crisis.
La Planète Sauvage (1973) explores the tensions between two communities on the planet of Ygam: the Oms (small creatures who resemble humans) and the Draags, larger alien-like creatures who treat the Oms like animals and rule Ygam). This film is inspired by Stefan Wul’s 1973 novel Oms en série.
Les Choristes (2004) – this was the first French film I ever saw and its charm, warmth and humour made me fall in love with the language. It follows music teacher Clément Mathieu’s attempts at setting up a choir out of a group of unruly school boys in a strict boarding school and, unsurprisingly, features a great soundtrack!
Le chat du rabbin (2011) – this animated film is based on a series of comics by Joann Sfar; its protagonist is a rabbi’s cat in 1920s Algeria who swallows a parrot and learns how to speak whereupon he is taught the tenets of Judaism by his owner.
Thomas Lilti is a French film director and practising doctor. He is known for his trilogy of medical films: Hippocrate (2014) focuses on junior doctors; Médecin de campagne (2016) country doctors and Première Année (2018) medical school students.
Entre Les Murs (2008) – set in an inner-city school in Paris, this film is an adaptation of François Bégaudeau’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Bégaudeau stars as a French teacher struggling to deal with his students’ difficult behaviour.
Avoir et Être (2002) – this documentary looks at the lives of the pupils and teacher at a village school in the French countryside; the school is so small that it only has a single class of children aged four to twelve.
We recently launched our annual Flash Fiction Competition, which closed in March. The competition was open to students in Years 7 to 13, who were tasked with writing a short story of no more than 100 words in French. We had a brilliant response, with entries coming in from across the UK and beyond, and in total we had more than six hundred submissions.
The judges were very impressed with the quality of the entries. We would like to thank everyone who entered the competition and commend you all for your hard work and creativity in writing a piece of fiction in a different language. This is a challenging exercise, and a significant achievement.
We are pleased to say we are now in a position to announce the winning entries.
In the Years 7-11 category, the winner is Cormac Mitchell in Year 7. The runner-up was Nandhitha Agilan in Year 9.
The judges also highly commended Scarlett Chappell, Marina Yu, Mairead Mitchell, Juliette Shaw, Adam Noad, Ava Preston, Chung Yu Kwok, Emily Seager, Alice Hadwen-Beck, and Gabriela Duniec.
In the Years 12-13 category, the winner is Chung Sze Kwok in Year 12. The runner-up was Holly Singleton in Year 12.
The judges also highly commended Harrison Cartwright, Elishe Lim, Joseph Oluwabusola, Safiyah Sillah, Teniola Ijaluwoye, Jamilya Bertram, Benjamin Fletcher, Charles Blagburn, Jamie Hopkins, and Allie Gruber.
Félicitations ! You’ll be receiving your certificates in the post soon.
If anyone is curious to read the winning entries, we will be publishing them in the coming weeks. Congratulations to our winners, once again!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
Over the last few weeks, we have shared with you some of the material we would normally tell you about at an open day. Dr Simon Kemp, Tutor in French and Co-Director of Outreach, gave us a video overview of what it’s like to study modern languages at Oxford… but do the current students agree?
We asked three current undergraduates to tell us a little bit about their experience of studying languages with us: Dalveen is in her first year studing Spanish and Linguistics; Alex is in his second year studying French and History; Charlotte also studies French and History and is in her final year. Here they give us a glimpse of what Oxford has been like through their eyes.
It’s our final flash fiction post of the season and, to wrap up, we bring you some of the brilliant stories from the students in the Years 7-11 category who were commended by the judges. Félicitations!
Comment être un chien
Pour être un chien, il faut être très mignon. Tes yeux sont faits pour dire, « j’ai très faim ! » ou « je veux jouer toute la journée, sans arrêt ! » et ta fourrure est réconfortante à toucher. « Voilà, Galette. » dira ton maître, et il te câlinera. Tu as, maintenant, une tranche de bœuf magnifique. Aussi, tu dois manger tout, aller au jardin, jouer tout le temps et marcher sur le tapis avec des pieds sales. « Non, Galette ! » Mais surtout, cherche toujours le sourire de ton maître, parce que s’il n’est pas content, ton travail n’est pas fini.
(Carla Lubin, Year 7)
C’est le 6 Juin 1844 à Luc sur
Mer, je prépare ma toile pour la peinture. La plage est silencieuse. Je suis
perdu dans ma dessin quand brusquement, le ciel devient gris, la pluie couvre
le ciel mais mes doigts ne veulent pas s’arrêter. Je peins plus que je peux
vois. La mer semble rouge alors que des centaines d’hommes montent la plage de
navires et battements métalliques que je n’ai vu jamais auparavant. Tous les
hommes portent la même vert vêtements. Ma toile est rempli avec guerre et horreur.
Mon frère il regarde la toile. ‘Quelle imagination tu as’.
(Lara Hardy-Smith, Year 11)
une journée normale à Londres, en Angleterre, à la fin de l’été 1666. Il
faisait chaud et le soleil brillait brillamment sur la Tamise. La place du
marché grouillait d’acheteurs et de vendeurs et la boulangerie avait une longue
file d’attente; très probablement en raison de l’odeur de pain sortant du four.
Au fil du temps, les cris des marchands sont partis et le soleil s’est couché
sous l’horizon. Dans la boulangerie, le boulanger emballait ses pains lorsque
quelqu’un entra. En fait, c’était un chien! Un petit chien mignon. Un petit
chien mignon avec une torche allumée dans sa bouche. Soudain, il jeta la torche
au fond de la boulangerie et un terrible incendie se déclara.
C’est vraiment ce qui s’est passé et ce qui a déclenché le grand incendie de Londres.
(Aiden Politiek, Year 10)
Mes ennemis suivent mon moindre pas, je ne peux pas m’arrêter. Je marche, seul, hanté par une peur invisible et féroce. Je suis un chevalier perdu, épouvanté par ma solitude et craignant de ne jamais revoir mon royaume. Soudainement, une figure pale surgit des bois obscurs : elle s’avance et la lumière révèle un visage grave. “Aidez-moi, s’il vous plait…” ma soif et fatigue sont telles que mes lèvres ne bougent presque plus. Mais l’homme, sans empathie, indique l’horloge. “C’est l’heure, mademoiselle, rentrez chez vous.” Alors, timidement, je ferme le livre et me hâte de laisser la bibliothèque déjà vide.
(Silvia Rossi, Year 10)
L’ombre de Venise
Venise. Le soleil plongeait ses couleurs corail dans le canal. Un jeune garçon longeait les quais, jetant des galets dans l’eau opaque. Il aperçut une ombre, regarda vers le ciel. Rien. Il suivit le fantôme vers des ruelles lugubres et isolées, seules quelques étoiles perçaient le crépuscule. Soudain son pied fut happé à travers les planches tordues dans le canal brumeux. Des bulles jaillirent de sa bouche, ses cheveux se métamorphosèrent en corail argenté, de fines écailles grises transpercèrent sa peau devenue diaphane. Il hurla, regarda ses mains palmées. L’ombre fit un signe. Il s’enfonça dans les profondeurs de Venise.
(Clémence Buffelard, Year 9)
Je ne dormais pas. Je m’appelle Jacques et je ne dormais pas. Depuis que cette chanson a été faite, ma vie a changé. Tous les jours, tout le temps, les enfants chantent la chanson ennuyeuse. Je trouve ça ennuyeux car je ne dormais pas mais je mangeais mon petit déjeuner. J’appréciais ma bouillie mais j’ai alors oublié de sonner les cloches du matin. Donc, je vous en supplie, s’il vous plaît, arrêtez de chanter la chanson.
(Kairav Singh, Year 9)
Je cours. Je n’ai pas beaucoup de temps. Je besoin de la faire avant ils réalisent je suis parti. J’arrive à le pont. Il y a les voitures au-dessous de moi. Il y a l’excès de vitesse le long de l’autoroute. J’arrive à la barrière. J’escalade. Je saute. Je me réveille. Je retourne à le pont. J’arrive à la barrière. J’escalade. Je saute. Je me réveille. Je retourne à le pont. J’entends un moteur vrombissement. Un camion vient à moi. Il me frappe. Je ne vois rien. Certain choses vous ne pouvez pas échappé.
(Jonathan Stockill, Year 7)
“Soit dit en passant, Harry,” dit le professeur Dumbledore à mi-chemin du livre six, “une prophétie dit que vous seul pouvez vaincre le mal Lord Voldemort. C’est pour ça qu’il essaie de te tuer. Vous devez détruire les sept morceaux de son â me, et il vous reste un livre pour le faire. Ne vous attendez pas à de l’aide de ma part; Je serai assassiné de façon spectaculaire en deux chapitres. En plus de cela, il ya des examens à passer et des remous hormonaux à composer avec. Maintenant, souhaitez-vous être allé à ce Muggle complet?”
(Ryan Kwarteng, Year 7)
C’était son premier jour. Après que sa carrière musicale n’ait pas fonctionné, Morhange s’est retrouvé à regarder la grande entrée de Fond de L’Etang, un endroit qu’il avait toujours voulu quitter mais qu’il n’avait jamais pu. Il est entré dans l’école et a vu son ancienne salle de classe. à l’intérieur, ses nouveaux élèves attendaient patiemment. Morhange pensa à Clément Mathieu et le remercia avant de prendre une profonde inspiration et d’entrer dans la pièce. Un étudiant a crié: “Qui êtes-vous?” Souriant, Morhange a dit “Bonjour classe. Je m’appelle M. Morhange. Je suis votre professeur de musique.”
A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!
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