Week 39: Reading the French

franceGoodness 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).

d08_aurore_janv_981Much 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

merci, the person who drew this

merci, the person who drew this

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.midnight-in-paris5

Week 27: Books for a Marriage

sonnet 116The daughter of our dear friends got married yesterday.  To Louise and James, therefore, we NorthernReaders send every possible ounce of love and congratulations and welcome to the wonderful and slightly strange world of being married.  What books should we give you?

1 snowdropsThe truth is that poets, playwrights and novelists get more inspiration from the unmarried state which you have just left.  As everyone will point out to you, Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding in the air and his tragedies begin shortly afterwards.  Don’t be put off: think of Lord and Lady Macbeth and General and Mrs Othello as helpful what-not-to-do guides and you’ll be fine.  And stick like glue to every wise word of Shakespeare’s sonnet.  If you minds are as one, and open to each other, yours will be the best and happiest of marriages.

Asta_in_Shadow_of_The_Thin_Man_trailerThe problem with happy marriages is that they do not provide useful material for fiction, because stories, unlike people, thrive on conflict.  Good marriages can be found in books, but – just as in what we laughingly call real life – you may need to pick and choose to select the aspects you would like to copy.  Nick and Nora Charles, for example – the couple at the heart of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man:  happy, certainly; devoted, even – but I’m not sure that all that alcohol is a very helpful ingredient in our recipe for a long and contented marriage (Asta, on the other hand, is a good reminder that dogs and marriages go together very well indeed).  But detective fiction, strangely, does provide us with some well-matched couples.  Not Poirot, obviously, nor Miss Marple, although Agatha Christie did have a married pair of detectives, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.  But Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey embody Shakespeare’s invaluable advice to be a marriage of true minds.  We shall give our newly-married couple, not only Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon,.but also the sequels developed by Jill Paton Walsh. We can add Ngaio Marsh’s really rather nice Roderick Alleyn and his splendid wife Troy.  Best of all are Commissario Guido Brunetti and his clever academic wife, Paola, in Donna Leon’s absorbing series of detective novels set in Venice.  It is true that Paola is a fabulous cook, but, if you are not, do not despair that a great marriage will elude you: the Brunetti household is forged by love, patience, understanding, a shared sense of humour and – hurray – books.  The couple that reads together, stays together.

Sticking together through the tough bits might be a useful role model, so hats off to Mother in The Railway Children who quite properly never doubts her husband’s innocence for a second.  Married couples in children’s books almost inevitably – and appropriately – appear as parents rather than lovers, but there are some that stand out as couples  Sadly, Mr and Mrs Bear, parents of  Rupert, make it very clear where he gets his outstanding dullness from.  Much more enjoyably, Mr and Mrs Pig of Evening Out fame, although a bit slapdash in their choice of baby-sitter (and which cabin-fevered parent wouldn’t joyfully accept any offer of child-care?), are clearly fond of each other and can still face the idea of an evening in each other’s company with equanimity.  Richmal Crompton’s Mr and Mrs Brown stoically present a united front in the face of the adversity which is their youngest child, William.  There is, incidentally, an emerging trend for weddings to include readings from children’s books – the more toe-curlingly and vapidly sugary the better.  I suspect that the reason for this is straightforward and two-fold: first, because, consciously or not, the happy couple are thinking about children, and secondly because under the strain of arranging a wedding, which nowadays has to be of a pomp and splendour formerly restricted to the court at Versailles, the bride has lost her marbles and the groom is too afraid to put his foot down.  I may, of course, be wrong

Snowdrops-bouquet-wallpaper_7017Let us turn to the poets for help and guidance.  Once again, we hit the problem that it is far more fun to write about the awful agonies of unrequited love and broken romance than the glorious mundanities of lasting happiness, but here are two who step up to the mark.  Although Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion is, strictly speaking, ineligible for our bookshelf of marriage guidance because it speaks only of the wedding day itself, it is definitely having a place for its very clear standard-setting on how to praise your wife.  Read it, chaps, and take notes.  You will never fall far out of favour with your wife as the years roll by if you can keep up this level of admiration.  Pay special attention to his celebration of her intelligence, charm, kindness and wit.  Practise in the car on the way home if necessary.

Our second teacher is of course the utterly wonderful John Donne.   Read ‘The Anniversary’. If you don’t feel like that, don’t marry.  There we are.  Simple really.

Now is not the time to indulge the NorthernReader’s sense of humour by presenting our happy couple with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Julian Barnes’ Before She Met Me.  We could give them Wodehouse, though.  Not Bingo Little’s marriage to the popular novelist Rosie M Banks, perhaps, and the fireplace with ‘Two Lovebirds Built This Nest’ – although there is something rather marvellous about such squirm-making horror – but Aunt Dahlia and Uncle Tom rub along together pretty well through umpteen years of marriage and despite the depradations of her nephew Bertie.  Best of all, let’s make sure that all newly-married couples embark upon their life together with the complete works of Jane Austen tucked into their trousseaux.  Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth, Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley, Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars: they are all highly unusual romantic couples, because we can imagine them settling into long contented marriages (for contrast, try picturing Romeo and Juliet’s silver wedding anniversary.  You see? It was never going to work).  And Jane Bennett, of course – like our own dear Louise – has the great good sense to marry a man from the North of England.  Good on you, petheavenfield

Week 22: Books in Translation

Right.  A promise is a promise, and, while I am lousy at keeping New Year resolutions, I am, if you will only give me world enough, and time, very good at (eventually) fulfilling babelpromises.  And I said we’d talk about books in translation.

Let’s start with Dorothy L Sayers (and the L, if you’re wondering and can’t be bothered to Google it for yourself, stands for Leigh, and, no, I don’t know why she felt that it lifted her name from the mundane to the inscrutable, but she clearly did, because she insisted on it).  Miss Sayers (oh, alright: she wanted her surname to be pronounced as a more-or-less monosyllable, like stairs without the T.  But I do pronounce it like that anyway – I am also guilty of referring to the author of Blithe Spirit as a monosyllable to rhyme with bard – and I don’t find myself thinking, ‘well, thank heavens that L is there, otherwise I would have fallen into the terrible trap of calling her Say-ers, and social death would inexorably have followed.  But I digress) – where was I? – Miss Sayers shunned few opportunities to air her erudition: which is to say, show off.  So, in Clouds of Witness, much of the plot, and your chance of keeping up with it, faint but pursuing, depends upon your ability to translate the conversations and correspondence that appear in French.  Now, I accuse Miss Sayers of showing off more because the evidence stacks up against her, book by book (needing to know about painting in order to twig to Five Red Herrings; being braced and able to follow the decoding of the Playfair Cipher in Have His Carcase, and so on): but is her assumption that we understand French misplaced or not?  Well, her pretty-much-exact contemporary, Thomas Stearns Eliot (and while we’re on the parallel topic of names and middle initials, you can quite see why Tom went for TS given the hand the font had dealt him), freights The Waste Land with French, German, Latin and Greek – among others – precisely in order to make his point: which is that these languages and cultures are where we come from and we jolly well should be familiar with them.  Which is, of course, a bit of a moot point.  It depends rather on who we, and of course TS Eliot, mean by ‘we’.  He’s clearly no paid-up Romantic and has no truck with the idea that the English-speaking world might flaunt its Saxon, Celtic and Norse antecedents and might not, in truth, have an awful lot in common with the-glory-that-was-Greece and the-splendour-that-was-Rome.  He is also, of course, being deliberately – call it playfully if you will – difficult.  Don’t forget Eliot is the great champion of the metaphysical poets of the early seventeenth century: in many ways, his own poems demand the same depth of concentration and commitment as Donne and Herbert.  We are forced to use our brains to translate from difficult into understandable.

But when we translate from one language into another, what do we translate?  The exact words?  Dodgy enough in prose, but when you come to wrestling with the extra demands of rhyme and rhythm that poetry can impose, you might want to sit on the stairs and cry.  Usually, translators concentrate on letting us know what is going on in the unknown language.  That’s why we can find many different versions of the same text.  Take Homer’s Iliad, for example (trust me).  The collection-of-aural-transmission-known-as-Homer produced the thing in verse –in dactylic hexameters, no less.  The great George Chapman trojan_war– yes, that one, the one whose translation bowled over Keats a couple of hundred years after it first appeared – used a range of mostly iambic forms of differing line lengths.  Alexander Pope popped up a hundred years after Chapman and rendered the whole thing into very splendid rhyming couplets.  And then (I’m skipping and being picky: there are lots and lots of translations), there is Christopher Logue’s fabulous, free-wheeling War Music.  Is it a translation or a response?  Well, obviously, you know I’m going to say, read it and make your own decision.

But, supposing for one pleasing moment that you and Ancient Greek are old chums and you can read your Loeb edition unfalteringly over your breakfast egg, I still ask, what is it you are hearing in your mind?  If you are such a linguist that you think in Ancient Greek, I have to break it to you that you are nonetheless not one.  You have different experiences, a different cultural background, a different view of the world.  You know about antibiotics (all that fighting). You know about agnosticism and atheism (all those gods).  You react differently (I hope) to all that really rather casual female-prisoner swapping.  You may even take a dim view of the Trojan Horse (not very Geneva Convention, which also doesn’t cover the dragging of Hector round the walls of Troy, which certainly isn’t cricket).  In other words, you are not having the same reader-experience, even if you learned Ancient Greek as an academic discipline at school or university, as your Bronze Age predecessors (this is of course also true when approaching, say, Shakespeare, and we will undoubtedly discuss reading the past as a foreign country one of these days).

So is there any point in reading in translation?  Well, yes, of course there is, because some taste of Chekhov, Pushkin and Tolstoy is better than none, some sense of what fired Dante, Calvino and Eco enriches our English-speaking lives; some contact with Zola, Flaubert and Stendhal makes us long to know France better.  And the translated text can be glorious in its own right.  I am in no position to pronounce on the original Biblical testaments, Old or New, but I know that when I get the phone call from Kirsty for Desert Island Discs (it can only be a matter of time, surely), when she says, ‘we give you the Bible’, I will make it clear that I’m only playing if I can have the King James version.  And that, dear readers, was produced by a committee.

Week 2: a new term starts here

Ah, back to school. Strange what time does.  As a child, probably the most revolting words in the English language are, ‘Well, off to school bright and early tomorrow morning’.  For a parent, the unarguable awfulness of a return to getting up in the dark, finding socks and gym kit (which, it is a well-known fact, has its own private alternative universe where it is much happier than in your house) while simultaneously making a packed lunch out of the three things your child will eat and listening to a stumbling rendition of  Biff Chip and Kipper (Oxford Reading Tree and highly recommended, by the way, on the scale of learning-to-read series that won’t make the parents cry with boredom), is more than made up for by the wonderful realisation that the little poppets are going to be out of the house for five days a week between now and Christmas. And even more oddly, when adults look back on their own childhoods, it is often through a fog of sentiment out of which phrases such as ‘best days of our lives’ loom.

Well, I loathed school on the whole. But I did enjoy reading about people who didn’t, especially in the really rather splendid Malory Towers series by (whisper her name) Enid Blyton.  Actually, no, let’s not whisper her name: let’s shout it from the rooftops.  Enid Blyton gets a lot of children reading.  I think it’s the heady mixture of simple and repetitive text and the delicious aura of disapproval with which she is shrouded in the middle-class home.  Aah, forbidden fruits.  Anyway, Malory Towers made me (briefly and spasmodically) yearn to go to boarding-school.  It also, equally briefly, led me to believe that Darrell was a cool name.  Which, of course, if that is your name, it is.  But for the rest of us ….

School tends to get a cheeringly bad press in fiction.  Dotheboys Hall, anyone?  Or, indeed, any of the refreshingly unsentimental establishments whose alumni include David Copperfield, Jane Eyre or Billy Bunter.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned H. Potter.  This is partly because I suspect you may have heard of the saga already, but mostly because the Northern Reader household lost the will to live somewhere in the middle of volume 2.  Much more fun, and – crucially in this part of the forest – much shorter, are Jill Murphy’s splendid Worst Witch books.  Mildred Hubble is a considerably more down to earth (apart from the broomstick, obviously) character than Harry, and a lot less given to going everywhere with an implied soundtrack of dah-dah DAAH.  This seems as good a place as any to come out as allergic to Tolkien while I’m at it.  No, come back ….

After school, university.  Dear first-year undergraduate, here is your reading list.  You will learn – or you will if you are on a humanities course of any description and if it is any good – that reading lists are neither prescriptive nor proscriptive.  But try some of these on for size:

Malcolm Bradbury The History Man.  It really was like this, then.  Exactly like this.

David Lodge  Changing Places.  The scene in which academics play ‘Humiliation’ by trading lists of books they haven’t read is painfully funny (especially if it could – so easily –   be you).

BridesheadEvelyn Waugh Brideshead Revisited.  It probably wasn’t much like this, even then.  But it is wonderful.  And, unusually, the TV adaptation is every bit as fabulous.  Do not, under any circumstances, watch the film.  You have better things to do.  Knitting, for example.  Or cleaning someone else’s oven.

The fictional university that sounds the most fun is in Ankh-Morpork.  Unseen University has featured in some thirteen Discworld novels in Terry Pratchett’s startlingly long oeuvre.  A splendid mix of anarchy and bureaucracy, it features the best university librarian you will ever encounter.  Eat your heart out, Umberto Eco: this knocks spots off The Name of the Rose as a seat of learning (but read The Name of the Rose as well: and anything you can get your hands on by Umberto Eco.  We’ll talk about reading books in translation another day.  Try and stop me).

You’ll have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Zuleika Dobson.  That’s because I haven’t read it.  We’d better talk about books we haven’t read another day too. Anyway, ZD may be wonderful – do drop me a line and let me know – although I have to confess to a suspicion that she, and it, may be a trifle tiresome.

For an education of a different sort, read Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale (yes I can, so I do, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t read it in English, in which case it is, of course, Sentimental Education).  I offer you two reasons for reading this: one is that Henry James thought it a bore, and the other is that Woody Allen doesn’t. You decide.