Thursday, June 21, 2012

French literature I have not read

It occurred to me while reading Tom's excellent and entertaining posts about Victor Hugo that I've read very little in the way of French literature. It's a whole world of books and poetry that remains outside of my experience, and I should do something to rectify that.

Of course I've read some of the French literature that stereotypical broody American self-styled "artists" all read: Camus, Sartre, Beckett (translated into English by Beckett; does Beckett count as "French" literature? No? Damn), a smattering of Montaigne, Voltaire of course, some Jules Verne, the first volume of Proust's "Lost Time" books, a bit of Verlaine, a bit of Rimbaud, a bit of Baudelaire, some Ionesco and Genet. Does Pascal count? What about Rousseau, or Diderot, or Barthes or Foucault? Oh, I read a Houellebecq novel, Atomised, last year or the year before that. Anyway, that tidy list pretty much covers my slim exposure to French writing. Not so impressive.

Where to begin if I want to get serious about this literary culture? Hugo? Stendhal? Flaubert? Zola? JMG Le Clezio? Should I finish Proust first? I have more Camus and two by Gide on my TBR stack already. God only knows what Mighty Reader has on the shelves waiting for me. So I guess I'll look around.

Why am I suddenly picking on the French? Why not?


  1. Total humblebrag, dude.

    Or should I say "bro" now instead of "dude"? I have never said "bro" in my life.

    I think Beckett counts. A twofer.

    I think I'm doing Madame Bovary next week. If the posts work like I want them to, you will see that you more or less have read Flaubert. He was picked clean by later fiction writers to the bare, bleached skeleton stage, and then they divvied up the bones.

  2. It's my use of "smattering" that makes it a humblebrag, isn't it? Anyway, a dozen books and a couple of dozen poems over a lifetime is nothing.

    I look forward to your Bovary posts. I hope your write them, that is. Is it James Wood who says that "modern" fiction is all based on Flaubert's invention of free-indirect style? An I gnawing on French bones and don't even know it?

    You're on your own with the bro/dude thing. I always say "sir" or "madam," sir.

  3. While learning French, I read a bunch of them and found them dreary yet melodramatic, even more so than 19th Century English authors, who are pretty melodramatic if you think about it. (I was shocked when I read A Tale of Two Cities and realized the climax revolved around a coincidence and cliche that Hollywood would have blushed at. It made me like Dickens.)

    My fave French author was Colette. I found a translation of her stories in my grandmother's secret library--apparently my grandmother considered her work "racy" even though they made a musical about it (Gigi)--complete with an utterly condescending Introduction by another French author, who basically said that for a woman, she wasn't too bad a writer. Though in his opinion she was best when using feminine metaphors like "curlers" and incapable of truly deep philosophy in her writing.

    (If for some reason, this comment takes, and if for some reason Davin reads it, I want to let him know that I had to leave my comment for his blog post on my own blog, since I couldn't comment there. Still don't know why Google won't let me comment.)

  4. "dreary yet melodramatic" sounds like Dostoyevski. I like Dostoyevski. I also think that the 19th century was a dreary time for a lot of folks, with all the coal smoke and dying monarchies.

    I read some Colette while in college. I can remember nothing at all of her stories except that the hats were important. One might say the same thing about Henry James, and I love Henry James, so maybe I'll see if Mighty Reader has any Colette around the house. Maybe after reading so much Russian lit this year, I'll spend next year plundering France. Who is the French Chekhov? The master of the French short story, with 800 stories to her name? That's who I want to read.

    A Tale of Two Cities is just "The Parent Trap" with guillotines, you know.

  5. Yes, but the guillotines improve the whole thing tremendously. Note to self: add guillotines to more stories.

    Yes, Dostoyevski is also dreary and melodramatic. And throws in devices that I think would be cliche if used by anyone else but he makes them seem deep and profound, probably because he keeps you so confused about all the characters and their fifty names that you give up and say, "Ok, that's too profound for me."

    If you like Russian stuff, you'd probably like French literature.

    I'm not really sure the 19th Century was so dreary. Lots of writers act as though the 20th Century were dreary too, but except for the occasional world war and mass genocide and decimation of huge amounts of biodiversity and exploitations of Man by Man here and about, I think it's a pretty jolly century. It's just that the people who are enjoying it have no incentive to advertise the fact and make the rest of us that much more jealous. The 19th Century was probably the same way.

  6. Dostoyevski felt no need to clarify, to focus his stories. I get the feeling that Victor Hugo and Flaubert are the same way, that all the odds and ends of their imaginations were as important to them as the central story, that all the additional ideas seemed to matter while they were telling their stories, even if what mattered was that they contradicted (maybe) whatever they thought they were saying. Dostoyevski is the anti-Chekhov, who was all about grouping and focus and getting his hands dirty but not trying to prove anything. Gosh, I love Chekhov.

    There's a generally-accepted idea about WWI that the soldiers were all irretrievably broken by the experience, that it was a hell heretofore unknown to man which caused such cognitive dissonance that Europe was forever changed. A lot of recent scholarship challenges that idea. So I don't know. Maybe it's always the best of times and the worst of times.

  7. Tara Maya, yes, I saw your comment. Thanks!

    Scott, I'm making my way through Madame Bovary now after having read it the first time in high school. We should all read it together.

  8. Funny you should mention WWI, for my Master's I worked on a paper about the trashy literature (for want of a more refined title) of WWI. These were the bestsellers of the day, so it's arguable that they reflected what people thought better than the high brow works. The pulp fiction was all about how men emasculated by modernity reconnected with their true, authentic selves (i.e. Man the Hunter, Man the Warrior) through the brutal baptism of war. (This story is still with us: see The Hurt Locker...) Exactly everything the high brow writers despised and mocked.

    So who told the real story, which reflected the authentic experience of soldiers during the war? Maybe this is a cop-out but I honestly think both did.

  9. Yes, did the English soldier-poets write what they felt, or did they put what they saw into what they thought poetry was supposed to say? What impulse was driving the writing?

    I have no idea. "Both" is a good answer. It's not a cop-out, and I think it reflects the real complexity of and multiplicity of experiences in life. Send me your thesis paper! I'd love to read it.

  10. Davin, I like that idea! I can set Doctor Chekhov aside for a week or so. Surely Mighty Reader owns a copy of MB. Who translated your edition?

  11. ooh goody- Madame Bovary is on my list too - I got a beautiful copy from a used bookstore in San Francisco (Green Apple) translated by Lydia Davis. I can't wait to finish my defense (next month) so I can sink my teeth into some good fiction!

  12. I picked up a copy at lunch (the hardback Barnes & Noble edition, based on some out-of-copyright translation that was uncredited in the original so who knows who did the work)! This is exciting. I'll have to finish Volume 7 of the Chekhov stories this weekend so I can start Bovary on Monday. Work, work, work.

    Also, another 600 words on Chapter 14 written at lunch today. I am nearly done with that chapter. It's turned out to be pretty good, I think. Some stuff I'll likely want to rephrase later, but that's nothing unusual. A big reveal that will ratchet up the conflict for Chapter 15 is just about to happen!

  13. I have the Lydia Davis version too! (That statement probably didn't need the exclamation point.)

  14. All right, Malasarn, you're on! I expect daily reports next week. I will be disappointed, but that's what I'll expect. We need to get Michelle in on this, too.

    O Lydia, O Lydia, that encyclopedia! O Lydia the translating lady!

  15. I had a copy of Madame Bovary and got rid of it in my huge frenzy to get rid of stuff in my house. :( But this is why I have a kindle and a library around the corner...

  16. French has no Chekhov, but - because? - it has a Maupassant.

    Colette's short fiction is supposed to be quite good, actually.

  17. Maupassant, oh yes. I know "The Necklace" (who doesn't, right? It's every story O. Henry ever wrote). I should look at more of his stories and see what I think.

  18. A useful and entertaining four-part series on Maupassant's short fiction begins here!

    Useful and entertaining for me to write, at least. I make no promises to readers.

  19. I just read Part I! It was useful and entertaining, but now I am distressed about what edition of the stories to buy. I'll just see what's on the shelves at my local shops and purchase the volume with the most pages. But not today. Maybe in July, though July is for Pnin and Guy Mannering and August is for Brothers Karamazov and September is for, I think, Shakespeare and more Chekhov. Though I could probably work some Maupassant into September. But when will I read Sebald and those Hawkes novels I picked up in May? You see: I don't want to read everything, I want to have already read everything. Then I could start to re-read the good stuff. That would be paradise.