I really enjoyed studying French literature at university, and the year in France that was part of my course enabled me to begin to understand the country, its culture and literature, as well as firming up my knowledge of and fluency in the language. Because I was studying two literatures (three, if I count American separately) I began to see links between the histories, cultures and literatures of nations and their influences on each other, and this has stood me in good stead all through my reading life, as I’ve branched out further.
French Renaissance literature, apart from the joys of Rabelais (in the original, I might add), was unremittingly tedious, and after the free-flow of Elizabethan and Jacobean blank verse, the rhymed alexandrine of French drama palled very quickly. Moliere I really liked, and I began to be clearer about how coded messages and criticism might be concealed in an author’s work when open criticism was more than frowned on, but actually punishable, and I rate my introduction to Voltaire as a major life-changing moment: French literature seemed more challenging, more revolutionary, at a time when this teenage student was susceptible to, if not yearning for, such influences.
Their nineteenth century novels spoke more to me that the English ones: Stendhal, Flaubert and above all Zola were real discoveries; the freshness of the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud was welcome. And the twentieth century had even more to offer: the political novels of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism, surrealism, so much more. I think my major discoveries during my year abroad were firstly, their school philosophy textbooks (why couldn’t we do this in England? I asked myself. Answer came there none.) and secondly the surreal writings of Boris Vian, which I still love today. Surrealism and the absurd…turning the world upside down. I’d met one of Ionesco‘s plays at A level, and found myself reading most of the rest. Here were writers I could see playing with, and doing experimental things with their language; I admired them in the same ways as I admired English writers who did such things.
Some of the magic of French literature is obviously the being able to read it in the original. This was an absolute eye-opener; it sounds like a statement of the obvious, but there was something special about realising I could speak the language, be taken for a local in the country, I could read its newspapers and books as if it were my own language. And in a sense it was, because I had mastered it, and if you, dear reader, have reached this stage in your knowledge of another tongue than your native one, you will understand the epiphany, perhaps. Then you realise at the same time, just how different France is, with its own history, regions, Paris-centredness, wars, conquests and revolutions, and also how the language gives you access to a wider world of literature from the entire Francophone world…