During our Teachers’ Conference at the end of September, Professor Simon Kemp delivered a wonderful presentation about a common French A-level text, Joseph Joffo’s 1973 novel, Un sac de billes.
As well as looking at the symbolic imagery that the marbles provide in within the first few pages, and touching on themes of brotherly love and the cyclical nature of history, Simon highlighted a series of old blog posts about French A-level texts which we thought we would resurface and draw your attention to this week.
The series of articles all address a pertinent but perhaps unexpected question about common texts on the French A-level curricula.
If you have just started or are part way through your French A-level course, or if you just enjoy dabbling in French literature, then these articles will be perfect for you!
If you’re hoping to apply to study French at university, reading these kinds of articles is a perfect way to kick-start your super-curricular exploration of the French language and culture! Why not read more about the themes addressed in the blog posts, or dip into one of the other texts that sound intriguing to you…
The Oxford application process can look very complicated at first. Unlike other universities, we collect a lot of different information about applicants so that our admissions tutors can make informed decisions about who will be best suited to our courses. We recommend that prospective applicants familiarise themselves with the Oxford admissions timeline and what each step entails – the earlier the better!
As our degrees are so competitive, one of the things that we get asked most often is how can I stand out against other applicants? The simple and honest answer is that in your personal statement and during your interview, our modern languages admissions tutors are most interested in reading/hearing about:
why prospective students love the subject(s) for which they are applying;
what it is that they find particularly engaging and exciting about the subject(s); and,
how they have furthered these interests through super-curricular activities.
What does ‘super-curricular’ mean?
‘Super-curricular’ activities are educational activities which go above and beyond the school curriculum to expand your knowledge and understanding of the subjects you are studying. This can be anything from podcasts, documentaries, trips to a museum, books, magazines, online programmes and more.
If you’re not sure where to start, don’t panic! We recommend talking to your teachers or your school librarian about finding additional reading, but we’ve also included some resources below that might also be useful for furthering your interest in language and cultural studies.
Linguamania podcast Produced by researchers from Oxford University-led Creative Multilingualism, the series explores some fascinating perspectives on languages and language learning, asking: Do we really need human translators? Why do we use metaphors and what do they teach us about other languages and cultures? Can languages help protect the natural environment? And so much more… So stop what you’re doing and start exploring the wonderful world of multilingualism!
Les Liaisons dangereuses podcast Choderlos de Laclos’s eighteenth-century epistolary novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses, has been intriguing audiences since 1782, and has been adapted into different media many times. It is also one of the core texts studied by students of French in their first year of an Oxford degree. In this podcast series, Prof. Catriona Seth, Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at All Souls College, and Catriona Oliphant, founder of Chrome Radio, delve into the text, covering a variety of topics.
Oxford Spanish Literature Podcast Listen in on our conversations with Spanish tutors at Oxford to find out what’s so fascinating about the literature they teach, why they love teaching it, and why they think you might love it too.
In Our Time Radio 4’s flagship series, In Our Time, hosted since the beginning by author, TV presenter and critic Melvyn Bragg, has become the BBC’s most downloaded weekly podcast globally, as well as one of the most popular for people under the age of 35.
The winning formula is a recorded conversation, over 45 minutes, in which Bragg quizzes academic specialists about almost any subject of interest in human life, including history, science, philosophy, religion and the arts.
In terms of modern languages and cultures, here are some episodes (featuring our very own academics) that we would recommend (not that we’re biased!):
This episode on Olympe de Gouges, advocate for women’s rights during the French Revolution, featuring Professor Catriona Seth;
This episode on the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, featuring Professor Cláudia Pazos-Alonso;
This episode on eclectic German philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, featuring Professor Carolin Duttlinger.
Each year, the Faculty runs a Literary Masterclass for local state sixth formers studying French, Spanish and German, designed to support them with reading and critically analysing literature in the target language. During the pandemic, this event was delivered online, and the pre-recorded videos are still available to view on our YouTube channel here.
The Oxford German Network runs an annual essay prize for sixth formers on a classic work of German literature. In the past, they have often created and collected a series of videos connected to the work in question. Click here for a playlist about Goethe’s Faust, here for a playlist about Schiller’s Maria Stuart, and here for a playlist about Hoffmann’s ‘Der Sandmann’.
We hope these resources are helpful and provide a good starting point for you to develop your academic interests – don’t forget the importance of super-curricular activities for your UCAS application!
Please note: If you’re in Year 13 or equivalent, there’s still time to apply for Oxford! You need to make sure you have registered for your admissions test by 29th September (this Friday!) and have submitted your UCAS application (which includes your personal statement) by 6pm on 16th October.
If you’re in Year 12 or equivalent, the resources above will hopefully complement and develop your A-level/IB/Advanced Highers MFL studies and provide some excellent for your future personal statement.
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.
Readers familiar with the blog may be aware that the Oxford German Network normally runs a German Classic Prize for sixth formers. While the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that the prize can’t run this year, they have come up with a great alternative way to engage with another Classic piece of German literature. If you study German and are currently in Year 12/ Lower Sixth, this is an awesome opportunity to immerse yourself in a German text and get some feedback from an Oxford academic. Read on to find out more…
A German Classic: Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig
Participation Guidelines for Sixth-Formers
We are delighted to announce the launch of the 2020 edition of ‘A German Classic’. Although we are unfortunately unable to run it as a competition this year, we would still like to invite you to read with us Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (1912) – one of the most famous novellas in German literature and a masterpiece of European modernism. In his inimitably elegant and sumptuous style, Mann tells a transgressive story of Gustav von Aschenbach, an aging German writer, who falls in love with Tadzio, a teenage boy from Poland, during a holiday in Venice in the midst of a cholera epidemic. Often hailed as a break-through work for the queer community, Der Tod in Venedig might resonate differently now, in the era of the #metoo movement and the coronavirus pandemic.
You can sign up for free to receive a physical copy of the German original and an English translation of Mann’s novella, watch a specially recorded lecture that will guide you through the text, and have the opportunity to get feedback on your written commentary on a passage from Der Tod in Venedig from an Oxford academic. While logistic challenges this year mean that we are unable to compile extensive study materials and conduct our usual essay competition, we hope that you will want to join us for an exploration of ‘A German Classic’ in this adapted format.
‘A German Classic’ was launched in 2017 thanks to a generous donation by Jonathan Gaisman, QC. It is designed to celebrate a different literary classic each year and encourage in-depth study by creating a wide range of resources that open up different perspectives on the concerns at the heart of the work. The links to interviews and discussions, articles and performances remain available on our website to inspire ongoing interest in these works beyond the year of the competition. So far, we have featured Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (in 2017), Freidrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart (in 2018), and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann (in 2019).
Participants must fulfil the following requirements as of September 2020:
be beginning their final year of full-time study at a secondary school in the UK (upper-sixth form, Year 13 or S6 in Scotland);
be between the ages of 16 and 18;
hold a GCSE, IGCSE or equivalent qualification in German offered in the UK;
be resident in the United Kingdom.
Participants are not, however, expected to have prior experience of studying German literature.
All interested students should email the German Classic Coordinator, Dr Karolina Watroba (firstname.lastname@example.org), as soon as possible. We will be accepting new participants until the end of July. Students will receive free of charge:
Physical copies of the German text of Der Tod in Venedig and an English translation. Shipping will be administered by the Blackwell’s online bookshop. Students will need to provide an address in the UK to which they would like the books shipped, by which they consent to having their address passed on to Blackwell’s. Shipping may take up to a few weeks. Editions received may vary as they will depend on the availability of stock. Since we depend on the availability of stock, which is currently subject to potential disruption, we cannot unfortunately guarantee shipping: orders will be placed on a first come, first served basis.
Access to a specially recorded, hour-long, university-style online lecture. The lecture will introduce Thomas Mann’s life and work, guide students through Der Tod in Venedig, and discuss additional resources on the text that are freely available online.
A choice of three short commentary passages from Der Tod in Venedig alongside a guide on how to write a good commentary. Students will be encouraged to write and submit their commentaries (c. 1500 words) by email by 1 September 2020. All students who submit a commentary by this date will receive individual written feedback on their work by 1 October 2020. The feedback will not include any ranking or mark. It will be designed purely as informal academic comment on the piece of work submitted.
We would like to ask all students who
request access to these materials to let us know the name and type of
their school (non-selective state-maintained; selective
state-maintained; non-selective independent; selective independent;
other) so we can monitor whether we are reaching a diverse range of
schools around the country.
Oxford is one of the few British universities where Polish can be studied to degree level. For more information, see here. Application is open to beginners as well as existing speakers of Polish, including those with Polish A-levels. Polish language and literature are also available as optional subjects to students of Modern Languages other than Polish, notably Russian and Czech, as well as to undergraduates in Linguistics.
If Polish piques your curiosity, you might like to begin exploring literature written in Polish. This post originally appeared on the Taylor Institution Library’s blog, as part of a lecture series on ‘Literatures of Multilingual Europe.’ Here, Dr Kasia Szymańska gives us an insight into Polish literature in a piece written to accompany the webinar of her lecture.We are grateful to the Taylor Library and Joanne Ferrari for allowing us to reblog this post here.
You can view the webinar of Kasia’s lecture by clicking the image below or following this link.
The lecture series on Literatures of Multilingual Europe, most of which took place in the course of Michaelmas (autumn term) 2018 came at a very significant time. As we were giving our talks at the Taylorian, we could hear the almost imperceptible sound of the Brexit time-bomb ticking towards its final countdown like the calm before the storm. How ironic to introduce ‘lesser-known’ European literatures such as Scandinavian, Irish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Modern Greek, and Yiddish to -our English-speaking audience at a time when we could not even take an interest in the more mainstream ones for granted? This thought kept nagging away at the back of my mind as we discussed the rather flimsy position of translated literature in the UK and the US during our introductory panel.
2018 was a particularly successful year for Polish literature and film in the UK. The Man Booker International Prize was awarded to Polish contemporary writer (and later the 2018 Nobel Laureate in Literature) Olga Tokarczuk and her American translator Jennifer Croft for Flights (Fitzcarraldo). This happened only the year after yet another Polish author, Wioletta Greg (based in the UK), made it onto the longlist alongside her translator Eliza Marciniak for Swallowing Mercury (Portobello Books). In 2019, Tokarczuk was shortlisted again with her other translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Fitzcarraldo). Some might call it a literary hat-trick, others might see it as a positive trend for the British reception of Polish works. In other news relating to the visual arts in 2018, the UK-based and Oxford-educated Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, known for his previously Academy-awarded Ida (2014), created another black-and-white masterpiece entitled Cold War. The film earned him the Best Director prize in Cannes and three nominations for the Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film.
However, it is very difficult to bring the two divergent worlds together, when there is so little academic interest in Polish literature and culture. Whilst the study of the history, economy, and politics of the country is also crucial, elevating and re-evaluating the status of Poland’s vibrant literary and cultural activity across the centuries might be a more promising way of changing the way it is perceived ‘under Western eyes’. This was partly the intention of the introductory talk which I gave for the series. In addition to serving as a taster of a lesser-known literature and highlighting the Bodleian and Taylorian’s collection, the talk was meant to condense the long rich history of a literature which represents Britain’s ‘invisible minority’. This literature perhaps remains overshadowed by the stereotyped view of a community which is thought of as just another Eastern European country supplying the UK with skilled manual labour.
2018 was also symbolic for another reason: it marked the centenary of Poland regaining its independence after more than a century of being partitioned between three empires (those of Prussia, Austria, and Russia). These partitions took place at the end of the eighteenth century, after hundreds of years of a prosperous Kingdom of Poland and later a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and exerted a stranglehold over Polish life and culture throughout most of the nineteenth century up until 1918. It is towards the end of this tumultuous period interspersed with failed uprisings and frustration that anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski and writer Joseph Conrad (or more accurately: Józef Konrad Korzeniowski) arrived in London at the heart of the British Empire. It is also half way through this period, in 1850, that the Bodleian Library purchased a large collection of early Polish books known as Libri polonici (see Stone 2005), which would become one of the major collections of the kind in the West. This repository includes less than two thousand items such as printings of sixteenth-century literature, a unique copy of the first Polish newspaper dating back to 1557 and material related to Polish Arianism in the age of Reformation.
years later, in 1865, the Earl of Ilchester, a friend of the Polish
prince and statesman Adam Czartoryski, endowed the University of Oxford
with a substantial sum to encourage ‘the study of the Polish and other
Slavonic languages, Literature, and History’. He made it explicit in his
will that priority should be given to Polish over any other Slavonic
language. However, most likely following the advice of an amateur
philologist, Lord Strangford, Convocation breached the agreement.
Instead, the University funded the study of Russian, the language of one
of Poland’s imperial occupiers at that time (see: Stone 2005).
Taking this backstory into account, there are few places where the
celebration of Poland’s regained independence from imperial forces could
have been felt more powerfully so many years later than here in
When preparing for the talk and asking
our Library Subject Specialist Nick Hearn for books to be displayed, I
came to realize that the collections of both the Bodleian and the
Taylorian were far more diverse and rich in Polish sources than I could
ever have foreseen. As part of Libri polonici, the Weston
Library holds quite a number of early seventeenth-century printings of
the work of Polish Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski (1530–84), including
his cantos, epigrams (fraszki), threnodies (treny), and elegies, both in Polish or Latin. In my talk, I introduced his cycle of threnodies or lamentations entitled Treny
from 1580, movingly rendered into English by Seamus Heaney and
Stanisław Barańczak, among others. In particular, I briefly discussed
Kochanowski’s ‘Lament 7’:
The holdings of the Taylor Institution library were in particular a great surprise to me. As part of the series on Literatures of Multilingual Europe, we hosted Professor Bill Johnston from Indiana University. Bill returned to Oxford after decades (he read Modern Languages at University College in the early 1980s) to read from his newly released Guggenheim-funded translation of Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. Originally published in Paris in 1834, Pan Tadeusz [Master Thaddeus] comprises twelve books in verse and is sometimes considered the last great epic poem in European literature as well as the Polish national epic. How excited we were to see that the Taylorian was actually in possession of the first edition!
With their worn-out edges and dog-eared pages, library holdings like this one contain whole different universes and bygone worlds, which have sadly sunk into oblivion and remain unexplored. They could almost stand for the “empty frames” in the hall of mirrors from this passage in Bill’s translation of Pan Tadeusz (p. 52):
These memories had clearly left him pained,
He wished them gone. Upstairs they came at last
To a great room that had been in the past
A hall of mirrors; now all you could see
Were empty frames and windows. A gallery
Overlooked the gate. Gerwazy hid his eyes
In his cupped hands, head bowed in thought. His gaze,
When he looked up, showed grief and hopelessness.
Dusting off some of Bodleian and Taylorian’s impressive holdings and revisiting their stories seemed like giving them a new lease of life. To speak about them to the Oxford public was an act of filling these empty frames again with some colours and reflected images. Perhaps, some other generation of readers, students, and scholars will also come to look into all these mirrors, and hopefully, they will find and recognise themselves in their reflections, too.
Dr Kasia Szymańska
Former Junior Research Fellow in ML, Oxford; Thomas Brown Assistant Professor, School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, Trinity College Dublin.
Polish literature bibliography
Adam Mickiewicz, 1798-1855 : selected poems, editor: Clark Mills (et al.) New York: Noonday Press, 1956
Foer, Jonathan Tree of codes London: Visual editions, 2010
Gombrowicz, Witold Ferdydurke Kraków : Wydawn. Literackie, 2010
Gombrowicz, Witold Ferdydurke Translated by E. Mosbacher, London, 1965
Greg, Wioletta Swallowing mercury Translated by Eliza Marciniak London: Portobello books, 2017
Kochanowski, Jan Laments Translated by Seamus Heaney and Stanisław Barańczak,
Kochanowski, Jan Treny Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich, 1986
Krasicki, Ignacy Mikołaja Doświadczyńskiego przypadki Warszawa: Książka, 1947
Krasicki, Ignacy The adventures of Mr Nicholas Wisdom Translated by Thomas Hoisington Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992
Krasicki, Ignacy Monachomachia ; Antymonachomachia Warszawa : Książka i Wiedza, 1988
Krasicki, Ignacy Myszeidos pieśni X Wrocław : Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1986
Lem, Stanislaw Solaris Warsaw: Agora, 2008
Mickiewicz, Adam Ballady i romanse Lipsk, 1852
Mickiewicz, Adam Forefather’s Eve Translated by Count Potocki of Montalk London: Polish cultural foundation, 1968
Mickiewicz, Adam Dziady Wrocław, 1864
Mickiewicz, Adam Pan Tadeusz, or, The last foray in Lithuania: a story of the gentry from 1811 and 1812: comprising twelve books in verse Translated by Bill Johnston New York: First Archipelago Books edition, 2018
Mickiewicz, Adam Pan Tadeusz, czyli, Ostatni zajazd na Litwie : historja szlachecka z r. 1811 i 1812, we dwunastu ksiegach, wierszem Paris, 1834
Miłosz, Czesław The History of Polish Literature Berkeley : University of California Press, 1983
Peterkiewicz, Jerzy, Five centuries of Polish poetry, 1450-1950; an anthology London: Secker & Warburg, 1960
Prus, Boleslaw The doll Translated by David Welsh New York: New York Review, 2011
Prus, Boleslaw Lalka: powieść w trzech tomach Warsaw: PIW, 1972
Schulz, Bruno The street of crocodiles London: Pan books, 1980
Schulz, Bruno Sklepy cynamonowe ; Sanatorium Pod Klepsydrą Translated by Celina WieniewskaKraków : Wydawn. Literackie, 1994
Tokarczuk, Olga Flights Translated by Jennifer Croft London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018
The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) is a thriving hub of activities bringing together our community of scholars – students and tutors alike – across subjects within the humanities. One of their regular events is the ‘Book at Lunchtime’ series, which is usually a discussion of a recent publication by an academic from Oxford. On today’s blog, we’re featuring the Book at Lunchtime episode starring our very own Polly Jones, Associate Professor of Russian at University College. Prof. Jones discusses her book Revolution Rekindled. The Writers and Readers of Late Soviet Biography with Professor Ann Jefferson, Dr Katherine Lebow, and Professor Stephen Lovell.
Polly Jones offers the first ever archival and oral history study of Brezhnev-era publishing and propaganda production, highlighting the consistent pressure throughout late socialism to find new forms of propaganda and inspiring ‘revolutionary’ narratives, and challenges the widespread idea that these became ‘standardised’ and ‘stagnant’ soon after Stalin’s death. Jones reveals the vitality and popularity of late Soviet culture, especially biography and historical fiction. She emphasises that both writers and readers found in late Soviet ‘official’ publishing opportunities to reflect on complex questions of Russian and Soviet history and identity and employs extensive new archival material, and oral history interviews with some of the leading literary and cultural figures of the Brezhnev era.
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.]
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…
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.
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!
You may remember that in the past this blog has featured clips from our sixth form literary masterclass: our tools and tips for sixth formers approaching literature in a foreign language for the first time. Past episodes have included a French introduction to ‘Time and Tense’ and an introduction to ‘Theatricality’, also with a French focus. Today, we shift the focus to German and consider the theme of ‘Perspective’ in a text that is commonly studied as part of the German A Level: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame. Dr Karolina Watroba explores this topic in the video below, showing how a few key quotations can reveal the shifting points of view represented in the play.
Earlier this month, the Oxford German Network launched their third annual ‘German Classic Prize’. This is an essay competition for sixth formers (those going from Year 12 into Year 13 over the summer), which is designed to explore and celebrate a different ‘classic’ German text each year.
This year, the prize focuses on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘Der Sandmann’ (1816) – one of the most captivating short stories in German literature and a masterpiece of Gothic fiction. Hoffmann’s eerie and mysterious tale centres on a young, impressionable student called Nathanael, who becomes convinced that he is pursued by a shadowy figure called Coppelius. Filled with Doppelgänger, mechanical dolls, alchemistic experiments, inexplicable fires, uncanny optical toys, and misaddressed letters, ‘Der Sandmann’ explores the power of the imagination as it erupts into a dark obsession.
The Oxford German Network is offering free study packs to Year 12/ Lower Sixth students who wish to take part. You can find more details about this here – be sure to request a study pack by midday on 10 June 2019.
In connection with this prize, the Oxford German Network has also produced a fantastic video podcast series about the text. One of these videos forms part of a special tie-in with our Virtual Book Club.
The episode below is a discussion between doctoral student, Karolina, and three undergraduates about an extract from Hoffmann’s short story. The full story is available here, and the extract under discussion begins ‘Seltsamer und wunderlicher’ and runs until ‘nicht anzufangen.’
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 email@example.com
The next episode will be on German, and will be a special tie-in with this year’s German Classic Prize. Stay tuned…
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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