The first book is a novel called Heureux les Heureux. The title is taken after a line in a poem by the late, renowned Argentinian poet, essayist and short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges. What catches the eyes immediately is the way this roman is structured: each chapter is a monologue through which the reader gets acquainted with the characters whilst the plot unravels. Bearing in mind that the author, Yasmina Reza is also a playwright, I found myself at times wondering where the bracketed and italicised stage directions had gone. The second book is called D’Autres Vies que la Mienne and deals with the aftermath of the terrible tsunami that devastated South East Asia ten years ago in 2004. It was an interesting and intriguing interview with the author, Emmanuel Carrère, in The Observer that made me want to investigate his writing further.
It was also the fact that both books were available in French.
I don’t read in French as much as I used to years ago and this has always been a cause for regret in my case. After spending three years learning the language and becoming fluent in it, I lost many of my oral and listening skills when I relocated to the UK. That is the reason why going back to the Gallic lexicon feels usually like travelling to another country, a familiar and friendly land, if only in my mind.
|One of my two books of the year|
Those of you who speak more than language and are fluent in it/them will probably recognise this phenomenon. It has probably been a while since you dabbled in unusual grammar and syntax constructions, so you get a book in the language in which you want to regain your fluency and you dip your big toe in the water first. No headfirst plunge, mind you, just a shy re-acquaintance. If the water is too cold, you close that first page and go back to your warm comfort zone. I did it a few years ago with a novel in German and I regret it now. My advice is, plough on, and make sure that you understand the reason why the water feels cold. You see, you have not swum in this beach for a long time. So, you must wade in the water first, and then little by little, ensuring you have got a firm footing (i.e., a good dictionary) you carry on, until the water level reaches your waist. It is only then, that you dive headfirst.
That is how reading in a foreign language, especially French and German (and more the former than the latter) feels to me. Like immersing myself in the vastness of a great big ocean. Along the way I am helped by friendly winks and nudges that reassure me I’ll be supported on my journey. In the case of books written in French I feel as if there is always an ellipsis hanging over the pages. Not a clear-cut omission of items in order to avoid repetition, but rather a mark or marks along the lines of “...” that signify the sentiments and emotions left unexplained. Both Heureux les Heureux and D’Autres Vies que la Mienne are full of examples. In the former there is a character called Paola Suares, who is sleeping with a married man, Luc Condamine. Since his wife is not home, he decides to take Paola to his house. The scene that follows is full of small, descriptive details that render the situation absurd. Whilst he is taking his clothes off, ready to have sex with her, Paola is showing more interest in the house décor: “Luc a défait sa braguette. J’ai attend un peu. Il a libéré son sexe et tout à coup j’ai réalisé que le canapé était turquoise. Un turquoise chatoyant sous la lumière artificielle d’alcôve, et j’ai pensé qu’au milieu de reste était assez surprenant d’avoir choisi cette couleur de canapé. Je me suis demande qui était responsable de la décoration dans ce couple.” There is humour in the scene as well. The man unfastens his trousers but his female companion is more interested in the couch and its colour. The chapter ends on a more serious note, though, with Paola stating the obvious: you will never leave all this, will you? Luc’s elliptical response indicates that there is a suppression of thoughts. Thoughts that will come out in his monologue, pages later, but which, for the time being, will remain under wraps.
Those of us who live in a multilingual world, even if we forsake one of the languages in which we are fluent for a while, always have the opportunity to come back and take the plunge. But do not be afraid to dip your big toe in first. Should the water be cold, plough on, please, do plough on.
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 14th December at 10am (GMT)