Category Archives: French

Modern Languages Summer School

Calling all Year 12 French, German and Spanish students from UK state schools – an exciting opportunity awaits!

Wadham College are running their annual Modern Languages Summer School in Oxford from Monday 15th August to Friday 19th August 2022. This is a wonderful opportunity for Year 12 students who are interested in pursuing a degree in Languages to get a feel for life at university and at Oxford more specifically.

Throughout the week, pupils will take part in an academic programme, live in College, meet student ambassadors studying at Oxford, and receive information, advice and guidance on applying to university. 

This Summer School is completely free and Wadham will provide financial support to pupils to cover any travel costs.

Students on Wadham’s Modern Languages Summer School, taken from Wadham College’s website

In terms of the academic programme, pupils will engage in a seminar series led by Wadham’s language tutors, including language classes in their selected language of study (French, German or Spanish) with opportunities to try other languages as beginners (including German, Portuguese and Russian).  They will also complete an assignment on a main topic with feedback from tutors.  Pupils will also be able to receive support from current undergraduates and from the College on making successful applications to top universities.

Students talking to a Wadham Student Ambassador, taken from Wadham College’s website

Wadham are delighted to be able to run this Summer School event in-person, allowing participants the best experience of life at the university. The feedback from last year’s Summer Schools was hugely positive with a third of participants subsequently securing offers to study at the university.

You can find out more information and the application form here. Applications are currently open and the deadline to submit is Friday 3rd June at 5pm.

Don’t miss out on the chance to be an Oxford student for a week!

Un sac de billes: What is ‘une musette’?

by Simon Kemp

Un sac de billes, by Joseph Joffo

This is a post about the memoir Un sac de billes by Joseph Joffo, which you may encounter on the French A-level course.

A single marble that looks like a miniature Planet Earth…

a star-shaped piece of yellow cloth with the word ‘Juif’ written across it in stark black letters…

a canvas bag full of marbles with a shoelace as a drawstring…

…some of the objects we come across in the opening pages of Joseph Joffo’s Un Sac de billes take on outsized meaning for us as readers and for the two young protagonists who are about to go on the run from Nazi persecution in Occupied Paris. Among these objects are the musettes, the cloth bags in which the boys’ mother packs changes of clothes, soap and toothbrush and folded-up handkerchiefs on the evening that they are sent away from home:

Sur une chaise paillée, près de la porte, il y avait nos deux musettes, bien gonflées, avec du linge dedans, nos affaires de toilette, des mouchoirs pliés. (p. 35)

And out of all the things we see at the start of the story, it is the musette that returns to focus at the end. Joseph notes on his return to Paris:

J’ai toujours ma musette, je la porte avec plus de facilité qu’autrefois, j’ai grandi. (p. 228)

And the final image before the epilogue is of his reflection in the window of the family barber’s shop, full circle to the home he left years before:

Je me vois dans la vitrine avec ma musette.

C’est vrai, j’ai grandi. (p. 229)

A musette  is a cloth bag with a shoulder strap, sometimes translated as satchel or haversack. It’s often associated with ordinary soldiers in the two World Wars, so kit-bag is another possible English rendering. Plus, if you fill it with oats and put the strap over a horse’s ears rather than over your shoulder, it can also be the French word for a nose-bag.

If it seems an odd word for a bag, that’s because it’s actually related to cornemuse, the French word for bagpipes, and musette can actually still mean a variety of French mini-bagpipes, as well as the sort of traditional French country music you might hear played on them – although these days you’d be more likely to hear it on an accordion. Even more oddly, the muse part of the words musette and cornemuse doesn’t seem to be related to musique/music at all: rather, it comes from museau/muzzle to refer to the face you have to make as you puff out your cheeks to inflate the bag while you play the pipes.

In the novel, the epilogue shows us why the musette is the thing Joffo has chosen to tie the start of the story to the end of it. Partly, it’s to show the literal circularity of Jo’s and Maurice’s journey, drawing our attention to the things that are the same (a boy with a bag standing in front of a barber shop window), and the things that are not (the child is now a young man, his father is no longer on the other side of the window). But as the epilogue makes clear, it’s also about another kind of circularity: the cycle of history repeating itself, generation after generation. The adult Joffo imagines what it would be like having to say the same thing to his own son as his father once said to him:

J’imagine que ce soir, à l’heure où il va pénétrer dans sa chambre, à côté de la mienne, je sois obligé de lui dire : « Mon petit gars, prends ta musette, voilà 50 000 francs (anciens) et tu vas partir. » Cela m’est arrivé, cela est arrivé a mon père et une joie sans bornes m’envahit en songeant que cela ne lui arrive pas. (p. 230)

But this ‘boundless joy’ is not the emotion on which the novel closes a few lines later. Rather, it’s on a note of foreboding that we end with an image of the musettes stored away in the attic, just in case:

Les musettes sont au grenier, elles y resteront toujours.

Peut-être… (p. 231)

When Joffo’s father was forced to flee, we learned back at the start of the book, it was the violence of the anti-Jewish pogroms that forced him and his family from their home. That home was ‘un grand village au sud d’Odessa, Elysabethgrad en Bessarabie russe’.* The region of Bessarabie is part of modern-day Ukraine. As people once again flee from Odessa and the surrounding area in fear for their lives, while at the same time not one but two far-right candidates are prominent in this year’s French presidential election, Joffo’s work has never felt more timely than it does today.

* Joffo’s Elysabethgrad may or may not be today’s Kropyvnytskyi, which was called Elizabethgrad before 1924 and was the site of severe anti-Jewish violence during pogroms incited by the Russian Tsar in the early twentieth century. Kropyvnytskyi is a city rather than a village, however, and north of Odessa, so there may have been some confusions as the family tale was passed down the generations.

Last Chance to Enter our Flash Fiction Competitions!

With just over one week to go until the deadline, there’s still a chance to enter our Flash Fiction Competitions in French and/or Spanish – don’t miss out on your chance to win £100! A reminder of the competition details and how you can enter can be found below…

What is Flash Fiction?

We’re looking for a complete story, written in French or Spanish, using NO MORE THAN 100 WORDS.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

What are the judges looking for?

We’ll be looking for imagination and narrative flair, as well as your ability to write in French or Spanish. Your use of French or Spanish will be considered in the context of your age and year group: in other words, we will not expect younger pupils to compete against older pupils linguistically. For inspiration, you can read last year’s winning entries for French here, and for Spanish here.

What do I win?

There are two categories: Years 7-11 and Years 12-13. A first prize of £100 will be awarded to the winning entry in each category, with runner-up prizes of £25. The winning entries will be published on this blog, if you give us permission to do so.

How do I enter?

The deadline for submissions is noon on Thursday 31st March 2022. If you would like to submit a story in French, please do so via our online submission portal here. If you would like to submit a story in Spanish, please do so here.

You may only submit one story per language but you are welcome to submit one story in French AND one story in Spanish if you would like to. Your submission should be uploaded as a Word document or PDF.

Please note that, because of GDPR, teachers cannot enter on their students’ behalf: students must submit their entries themselves.

If you have any questions, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk.

Bonne chance à tous! ¡Buena suerte a todos!

THE UNIQ EXPERIENCE

by Simon Kemp, Associate Professor of French and Co-Director of Outreach

What are your plans for July this year? Might you have four days to spare, say from July 10-13 or July 17-20? Might you consider spending them with us in Oxford, getting a taste of our modern language courses in the daytime and a feel for what student life is like in an Oxford college in the evenings?

Once the exams are over and the students have gone home for the summer, for many of us Oxford academics the next thing on the horizon is the UNIQ summer school. I’ve been teaching on it for several years now, and it’s always one of the most rewarding parts of my year. In modern languages we invite between sixty and eighty sixth-formers from state schools across the UK to join us for a four-day course of language and cultural study and an experience of student life. It’s aimed at people who are just finishing Year 12 in England and Wales (Year 13 in Northern Ireland and S5 in Scotland), who are interested in studying modern languages at university and curious to check out what Oxford is like. We run courses for students of French, Spanish and German, all of which include some language work and broader cultural studies designed to give you a taste of the university course as well as helping with your sixth-form studies. Plus, every course also offers a dip into some of the other languages and cultures you might choose to pick up from scratch in a degree course here, such as Portuguese, Russian, Italian, or Beginners’ German. Our undergraduate ambassadors look after you through your stay, and can tell you anything you want to know about being a student here. Plus, for those who are interested, there’s information and guidance about applying to study at Oxford as an undergraduate both during the summer school and in the run-up to the admissions process in the following autumn.

If you’d like to find out more, all the information about Oxford’s UNIQ summer school programme is here:

UNIQ website

Applications close in less than two weeks on Monday 7th February at 11pm, so act now if you think this could be for you, and please tell others who you think might be interested. I hope to meet many of you this summer.

UNIQ 2022 – Applications now open!

After two years of online delivery, UNIQ 2022 is delighted to be able to welcome Year 12 students back to Oxford! UNIQ 2022 will combine the best aspects of our residential summer school and sustained online programme to offer a hybrid UNIQ programme to 1600 students across the UK. 

UNIQ logo

What is UNIQ?

UNIQ is Oxford University’s flagship outreach programme for Year 12 students at UK state schools/colleges. It is completely free and prioritises places for students with good grades from backgrounds that are under-represented at Oxford and other universities. The UNIQ programme offers a fantastic opportunity for these students to immerse themselves in the Oxford environment, sample some of our teaching, and try out life as an Oxford student.

What does the programme entail?

UNIQ 2022 offers both an in-person residential in Oxford and an online support programme. Taking place over several months, UNIQ starts in April, with academic courses in the summer, followed by university admissions support.

During the summer residential, students have the opportunity to experience life as an Oxford undergraduate by staying in an Oxford college and exploring the city for themselves. They will also get to know some of our Oxford undergraduates and work with our academics in face to face lectures, labs and tutorials.

What does this look like for Modern Languages?

For Modern Languages, there will be courses available for Spanish, French, and German. All three courses enable students to explore the language, literature, theatre, film, and linguistics of each discipline, while also providing the opportunity to have a taster of four other European languages at a beginners’ level.

Our aim is to give students a taste of what it is really like to study Modern Languages at Oxford, and to provide a sense of the breadth of our courses – including several of the languages you can study here as a beginner.

UNIQ student testimony

What are the benefits?

Throughout the UNIQ programme, students will explore subjects they love and gain a real insight into Oxford life, helping them to prepare for university, and decide what is right for them. UNIQ also enables students with similar interests in local regions and across the UK to connect with each other through social and academic activities.

Most UNIQ students go on to apply to the University of Oxford and they also get help to prepare for our admissions tests and interviews. In general, UNIQ students who apply to Oxford have a higher rate of success than other applicants.

How do I apply?

We welcome applications from:

  • Year 12 students from England and Wales, in the first year of A level studies or equivalent
  • Year 13 students from Northern Ireland, in the first year of A level studies or equivalent
  • S5 students from Scotland, studying Highers or equivalent

The online application process is quick and easy – it only takes 15 minutes! – and can be completed via the UNIQ website. Applications close on Monday 7th February at 11pm.

You will need:

  • the name of the school where you did your GCSEs (or equivalent) or your Nationals if you are a Scottish student.
  • the name of your current school.
  • your first and second choice UNIQ courses.
  • your teacher’s surname and email address.
  • a list of your qualifications.

As UNIQ is an access programme, admission to UNIQ 2022 will be based on a range of criteria that relate to students’ academic potential and socio-economic background. You can read more about this here.

UNIQ student testimony

Good luck to all applicants!

FRENCH AND SPANISH FLASH FICTION COMPETITIONS NOW OPEN!

We’re delighted to announce the return of our ever-popular French and Spanish flash fiction competitions for school students. If you are learning French and/or Spanish in Years 7-13, you are invited to send us a *very* short story to be in with a chance of winning up to £100. Read on to find out more…

What is Flash Fiction?

We’re looking for a complete story, written in French or Spanish, using NO MORE THAN 100 WORDS.

What are the judges looking for?

We’ll be looking for imagination and narrative flair, as well as your ability to write in French or Spanish. Your use of French or Spanish will be considered in the context of your age and year group: in other words, we will not expect younger pupils to compete against older pupils linguistically. For inspiration, you can read last year’s winning entries for French here, and for Spanish here.

What do I win?

There are two categories: Years 7-11 and Years 12-13. A first prize of £100 will be awarded to the winning entry in each category, with runner-up prizes of £25. The winning entries will be published on this blog, if you give us permission to do so.

How do I enter?

The deadline for submissions is noon on Thursday 31st March 2022. If you would like to submit a story in French please do so via our online submission portal here. If you would like to submit a story in Spanish please do so here.

You may only submit one story per language but you are welcome to submit one story in French AND one story in Spanish if you would like to. Your submission should be uploaded as a Word document or PDF.

Please note that, because of GDPR, teachers cannot enter on their students’ behalf: students must submit their entries themselves.

If you have any questions, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk.

Bonne chance à tous!

¡Buena suerte a todos!

Modern Languages Teachers’ Conference 2021: All Welcome!

SRTS Teachers' Conference, offline version
The SRTS Teachers’ Conference, pre-pandemic version

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

If you’d like to attend either or both events, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk, and we’ll send you the link to join.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Classics

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

Jean Cocteau 

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

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

François Truffaut 

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

Jean-Luc Godard

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

Agnès Varda 

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

Marcel Pagnol 

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

Francophone

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

Historical

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

Romance

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

Sci-fi

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

Feel-good

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

Medical dramas

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

Education

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

Bon visionnement!

by Ramani Chandramohan

Image credits Wikimedia Commons

French flash fiction results 2021

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

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