Goodness me. Dommage in fact. A level French in England and Wales includes no literature. It also seems to be possible – incroyable – to obtain a degree in French at British universities without reading any fiction. Je suis desolé: in fact, je suis flabbergasted. Here are the NorthernReader suggestions for a starter pack. We might call it, ‘How to Have a Glimpse of What It’s Like to Be French’.
Before we start, let’s get the tricky bit out of the way. I’m not suggesting you should read all, or even any, of these in French, really I’m not: but, even if you don’t have a word of the language, please try a sentence or two, just to get the sounds and rhythms swirling around in your mouth. Humour me.
Right. Which books shall we put on our shelf this week? We already have one: Le Petit Prince by the extraordinary, romantic and really rather heroic Antoine de Saint Exupéry (see Week 5): and in Week 23 we added Terre Des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) and Vol de Nuit (Night Flight). Saint Exupéry scatters Gallic je ne sais quoi through every page. You may need to take up smoking Gitanes.
But, even more essential to our Instant-Being-French kitbag, we need Madame Bovary (and read Julian Barnes’ acute observations in the London Reveniew of Books on choosing an English translation). You have to read Madame Bovary. It’s as simple as that. It’s up there with Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet and Nineteen Eighty-Four as stories you must have under your belt. But – if you happen not to have got round to reading it yet – prepare to have your heart broken. While we’re about it, can we have Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir please? It does perhaps demand some quick swotting-up on Bourbon post-Napoleonic France (and what could be more fun?), but really its power lies in its psychology. If you have ever wiled away an hour or two pondering the nature of sincerity, this is the book for you.
We could do this thing thoroughly and read Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (known, not terrifically politically-correctly, as The Hunchback of N.D. in English and as Le Hunchback in the NorthernReader household). Les Misérables – or The Glums, as some of us like to think of it – is apparently one of the world’s most-read books. Well, I bet it isn’t. I think we have a statistic there that is muddling ‘books I ought to pretend to have read’ with ‘books I have actually read’. I did, many years ago, get inveigled into taking KatePonders and my mother to the musical. The book is one of the longest ever written. So is the musical. Take a picnic (and perhaps an i-Pod so that you drown out the noise coming from the stage as the long hours drag by).
Much more riveting to read Émile Zola, a courageous and clear-sighted man who put everything on the line with the publication in L’Aurore of his article, ‘J’accuse’, his forthright denunciation of the mess that was the Dreyfus Affair. He achieved what he had set out to do, which was to be prosecuted for criminal libel, which meant that the whole tawdry tale of wicked connivance and conspiracy at the very highest levels of the French Establishment was aired in open court. Zola was stripped of his Légion d’Honneur, and avoided jail only by hopping nimbly onto the first boat-train to London, arriving with only the clothes he stood up in. It is still thought that his death, by carbon-monoxide poisoning, was arranged by his government enemies, who, in France as elsewhere, have so often shown themselves to be poor losers. For this alone we can elect him to the Hero shelf, but his novels – perhaps especially Thérèse Raquin – earn their place on their own merits as ripping yarns. Talking of which, why ever do we not have
Alexandre Dumas’s Trois Mousquetaires? It is pacy, gripping and funny: and as the years go by I have very nearly got over my childhood disappointment that it is not, despite my slight misunderstanding of the title in French, about mice.
What of the twentieth century? I’m not sure that anyone, either side of La Manche, reads Colette these days, but both Chéri and Gigi have been huge best-sellers in their time. Let us have Le Grand Meaulnes instead: and we could do a lot worse than pop a copy of Proust on our shelf, even if it is with intention rather than determination (why do long books, or series of books, so make us quail?). And we must have some Simenon: we will get nowhere on our great project of Trying to Be French if we only read classics – although, of course, Simenon’s Maigret is a classic. And so, quite rightly, is Franҫoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. It has something of the same affecting ability to capture the world through adolescent eyes that I love in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding: but in plot, if not in atmosphere, it is darker.
And we could have a very French evening in, with a bottle of wine, some fabulously garlicky sausage, and a film. My choice? A tough call, because j’aime French films: but the best celebration of Paris that I know isn’t French, but Hollywood: Woody Allan’s Midnight in Paris. It’s beautiful, it’s romantic, and it’s quietly thought-provoking. But you can’t not see Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule, so if you haven’t, that’s your evening sorted. Santé.