Reading – Français

À la recherche du temps perdu: Du côté de chez Swann
Marcel Proust (1913)

I have read this series a few times in my life, first in English and then in French. It became one of my mother's favorites as well. It's been a while, and it's time again.

Mémoires d'Hadrien
Marguerite Yourcenar (1958)

I read this around 1995, from the date of a receipt inside it. I thought highly of Yourcenar at the time, but found Hadrien a bit lofty and abstruse at that time. It is, as I recollect, about Hadrien looking back at his life, wondering about much of the dreams, empire and glory.

Twenty-some years later, my feelings about it indeed are different. It is a fascinating set of reflections of maturity, of a man conscious of his mortality, thoroughly aware of his own limitations and those of the society surrounding him. He ponders how he can truly improve the welfare of the state, rather than how to increase his own power or win military battles. – It is indeed a very lofty (in a good way) and striking book, certainly an adult one.

François-René Chateaubriand (1802)

Chateaubriand's early novellas Atala and René are counted as classics in the beginning of French Romanticism. In that sense they are like Goethe's Werther of twenty years earlier, though I'm not sure that Chateaubriand was aware of Goethe's work.

The hero is certainly passionate, heading off to America to escape from his tragic separation from his sister — who, it turns out, was enamored of him and entered a convent to remove herself from the attachment. At the end of the story, an native American chief suggests to René that he would be better off stopping his idle and pointless moping, and joining into the society and lives of his fellow-creatures. What becomes of that advice is untold.

Cahier d'un retour au pays natal
Aimé Césaire (1939)

Aimé Césaire was a francophone writer and figure, noted as one of the founders of the Négritude movement. He promoted a Pan-African identity among blacks worldwide, rather than following the ideals and traditions of France. He was from Martinique, writing the Retour when he returned from Paris to visit his homeland.

It makes sense to me that descendants of Africans could find a common identity, even when spread around the world. That is like Jewish identity, in a way, with the diaspora much more recent, but without an element of religion. It would really make sense if the identity were found in the old world, or shared in the multiple new worlds, rather than being of Martinique alone.

Ni à la impératrice Joséphine des Français rêvant très haut au-dessus de la négraille.

Je viendrais à ce pays mien et je lui dirais : «Embrassez-moi sans crainte… Et si je ne sais que parler, c'est pour vous que je parlerai.»
Neither to the Empress Josephine, dreaming high beyond Negroes.

I will come to that country of mine and I will say to it, embrace me without fear. If I don't know how to do anything but speak, it is for you that I am speaking.

I am very glad that I decided to read this work, though the questions of identity it raises are not mine.

François Rabelais (1534)

The originality of Rabelais's writing is immediately striking. He did not set out to craft a story according to the norms of those he knew, but to write outside of them, in a way that would interest and amuse his readers. In that sense, he is very modern. I don't know if James Joyce enjoyed his word play, but I would rather think so.

At his best, Rabelais is a very original and creative stylist, a clever satirist. Comparable English writers include Laurence Sterne (who indeed translated Rabelais's work) and Jonathan Swift. At his weakest, Rabelais doesn't rise far above being slapstick and episodic.

(I've been struggling a bit with the extreme length of many of the works on my to-read list, not wanting to commit myself to a year of reading something that doesn't really deserve that much of my attention. Gargantua is one part of a pentology, a manageable piece in itself. I am glad I read it but feel in no rush to set about the other four volumes.)

Honoré d'Urfé (1607-1627)

Wikipedia notes, "Possibly the single most influential work of 17th century French literature, L'Astrée has been called the "novel of novels", partly for its immense length (six parts, forty stories, sixty books in 5399 pages) but also for the success it had throughout Europe: it was translated into a great number of languages and read at every royal court."

I'm not quite ready to make a commitment to 5,399 pages, either in time or purchase, which looks like it might run to $400 or so. I'll start with Book 1 (of twelve books) of Part I (of three parts), and if that seems of interest perhaps enlarge my first installment to the rest of Part I. I generally have little use for online books, but for an initial sample I am reading a 1631 edition posted at Internet Archive. The orthography is curious but readily readable. For instance, reproduced here as faithfully as possible, En fin auec vn grand ſoupir, reuena~t de ceste pe~ſee, & recognoiſa~t ce ruba~. Making later contractions, interchanging vs and us, recognizing the older long s form ſ, knowing that modern accents most often indicate older dropped ss, seeing the tildes as marking nasal vowels, and subsituting ai for the older oi form, we have, Enfin avec un grand soupir, revenant de cette pensée, & recognaisant ce ruban, perfectly good modern French.

There is an excellent critical edition online, but that is much too elaborate and intricate for my humble present purposes.

After Part I, Book 1: It is easy to see how L'Astrée found its popularity. It is very accessible, full of simple and direct action. Beginning in medias res, the story tells of Astrée rejecting her true and faithful shepherd lover Celadon because of a slanderous report that he is a playboy. Celadon promptly decides to drown himself in a river, but is however rescued by passing nymphs, one of whom then falls in love with him. Meanwhile, friends of all these characters deliver impassioned speeches worthy of the chorus of a Greek drama.

I am not sure how far I will continue the story. For now, it is approachable and intriguing, though without any apparent redeeming literary value. Perhaps in a while it will become cloying and trivial.

After about 70 pages: well, I am just not going to pursue this. It is too aimless and disjointed.

Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience
Henri Bergson (1889)

I set out to read this long ago, in an English translation. I didn't get far. I remember it well. It had an orange cover, just as shown. I remember having a couple of valued mementos inside it, which I eventually carefully discarded because they belonged in the past. I am not sure what happened to the book. I may have included it in the broad weeding I did a few years ago, thinking I would never get around to reading it.

Things change, and we change. I'm expecting that at this point in my life, I'll find it much more revealing.

Well, this time around, he is lucid. I am not sure that he has anything very remarkable to say. « Chacun de nous a en effet le sentiment immédiate, réel ou illusoire, de sa libre spontanéité » – "Each of us actually has a direct sense of free will, real or illusory." That's rather like saying, "It sure seems like it." – Well, yes…

Our sensations are different from the things we sense, and we can know of these external things only indirectly, through our senses. The feel of fire can be decomposed into two different sensations, of warmth and of pain, that may begin to merge but are different experientially. The appearance of fire is something else. We learn only through experience that something that looks like "fire" is apt to burn. After a while, our minds conclude that the feeling of warmth, the feeling of pain (if we get too close), and the appearance of flame represent a single construct, which we call "fire." Having this word is rather a convenient way to communicate to others about this hodgepodge of sensations, uses and dangers. Philosphers have made various things out of this puzzle. Plato felt that we lived in a shadow world, a faded and uncertain reflection of the ideal one. Decartes made thought and reality a duality, with certainty beginning in thought rather than external reality. Kant remarked that our manner of perception made artifacts, such as time and space, as frameworks or containers for reality. Existentialists, such as Sartre, built systems that worked to do away with external realities that we couldn't ever know as a philosphical surety.

The mechanists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries considered the idea of free will as foolish. All was determined by atomic particles subject to the ironclad laws of Newtonian physics, so entirely determined. (Indeed, it generally leads to fallacies, or even absurdities, when we extend our belief in a valid set of principles to the belief that this set of principles is all-encompassing.) In the early twentieth century, Einstein turned our notions of time and space upside down. In a relativistic universe, even the order of events is affected by one's position. This is not a concept that our poor minds are very well set up to deal with. Einstein and Bergson argued with each other's approaches.

I would agree with Bergson that it's problematic applying the laws of physics to things beyond their scope. I am not sure that I found his discussion very enlightening beyond that. I can understand, as a social and historical phenomenon, the interest in a new vitalism in response to the currents of mechanism.

Les Confessions
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1782)

This is a classic I haven't read. It's time…

A hundred pages into it, I am finding this work quite absorbing. Like Montaigne, Rousseau looked at his own life not with the thought that it more important than others' lives, but that one person's understanding of his own life would help others to understand theirs. It is indeed a step out of the mold of hagiography, displaying a rare self-understanding and candor. I recently happened across the statement that Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson was "what many consider to be the first modern biography." I think Rousseau's work probably would deserve this description much better than Boswell's.

Rousseau describes the innocent sensuality of early childhood, where goodness and beauty and sexuality are all intertwined in some confused and vague unity. His early days with his family were ones of great love and freedom. When he was first accused of doing something wrong that he hadn't actually done, an amazingly strong feeling of inequity suddenly arose. He describes his first thefts of vegetables from a neighbor's garden, done not with any intention of evil but out of the desire for approbation of one of his peers, who put him up to the act. Having learned to love reading at home, he continued to read when he left there to go to an apprenticeship – except that what was available for him to read included much trashy, romantic content. No matter. He read it all. Receiving treatment he had never experienced at home, he turned to an internal world populated by figures much like those his reading. He did this not out of spite or contempt for other people, but because he really wanted an affection that he couldn't receive from those around him.

Those are just the first hundred pages of a much longer work, but it's easy to understand how the moral and social idealist grew out of the child.

Je n'ai pas promis d'offrir au public un grand personnage; j'ai promis de me peindre tel que je suis; et, pour me connaître dans mon âge avancé, il faut m'avoir bien connu dans ma jeunesse. Comme en general les objets font moins d'impression que leur souvenirs, et que toutes mon idées sont en images, les premier traits qui se sont gravés dans ma tête y sont demeurés, et ceux qui s'y sont empreints dans la suite se sont plutôt combinés avec eux qu'ils ne les ont effacés. Il y a une certaine succession d'affections et d'idées qui modifient celles qui les suivent, et qu'il faut connaître pour en bien juger. Je m'applique à bien developper partout les premières causes pour faire sentir l'enchaînement des effets. Je voudrais pourvoir en quelque façon rendre mon âme transparente aux yeux du lecteur, et pour cela je cherche a la lui montrer sous toutes le points de vue, à la eclairer pour tous les jours, à faire en sorte que il ne s'y pass un mouvement qu'il n'aperçoive, afin qu'il puisse juger par lui-même du principé les produit.
I have not promised to offer to the public a great person; I have promised to depict myself as I am; and, to understand me in my advanced age, it is necessary to have known me well during my youth. Since in general objects make less of an impression than their memories, the first traits that were engraved in my head have remained there, and those that have been imprinted there afterwords have more combined with them than effaced them. There is a certain sequence of emotions and ideas that modify those that follow them, that one needs to know to assess them. I am working throughout to elucidate the first causes in order to show the logic of their effects. I would like to be able in a way to make my should transparent to the reader, and to that end I look to show it to him from all points of view, to to clarify it for all times, to proceed so that there is no movement he does not perceive, so that he can judge by himself what principle led to them.

Rousseau wrote the second six books at a later date, considering them as separate though related. (The earlier writers were not immune to the temptation that leads our contemporaries to author pieces such as "The return of x" or "Y comes back" or "Son of z.")

Indeed, I found the second part much less vibrant than the first. Reading it was a bit of chore. It is full of matter-of-fact reports that form an accurate journal of Rousseau's life, but relatively seldom are of interest in themselves. By the time he wrote it, he was a celebrity. His life, like those of many other celebrities and politicians, was full of jealousies, resentments, feuds, cabals and plots. These are dirty linen being washed in public.

It was of interest noting the continuity between the child, the public figure, and the writer. In all of these roles, Rousseau was very much the individual and individualist. The needs expectations of society clearly came afterwards. So, it is not surprising that he had difficulty fitting in with the society around him, offending many and ultimately being driven into exile. – I will have to go back and read some of his writings.

La Princesse de Clèves
Madame de Lafayette

I've re-read this short gem, one of my favorites and one of my mother's top dozen books.

It is an intense internal story. The Princess of Clèves, following her marriage to a man she respects but doesn't feel passionate about, finds herself drawn to a courtly suitor.

Je suis vaincue et surmontée par un inclination qui m'entraîne malgré moi. Toutes mes résolutions sont inutiles; je pensai hier tout ce que je pense aujourd'hui et je fais aujourd'hui tout le contraire de ce que je résolus hier.
I am conquered and overcome by an attraction that draws me in spite of myself. All of my resolutions are useless; I thought yesterday everything that I think today and I do today just the opposite of what I decided yesterday.

The Princesse resists the suitor's efforts, but not before they become visible and commented upon in court. Her husband mistakenly believes that she has succumbed, takes ill, and dies, despite ultimately recognizing his wife's innocence. She is then free to marry the suitor, but does not because his character would not make him a good match.

The story initially is one of the Princess preserving her virtue, well told but hardly unusual. The twist that she does not gratify her own passion once she has a legitimate chance is off of the beaten track, a strong resolution evincing the internal strength of her character.

A la recherche de Marie
Madelaine Bourdouxhe (1943)

The main character is the most immature, self-centered flake I have run across in anything I can remember ever having read. The author's disregard, or likelier total lack of appreciation, for the craft of writing has all the capricious, oblivious individuality of her heroine.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1580)

Montaigne was one of the mysterious writers included in the Britannica Great Books of the Western World, a ponderous presence on library shelves in my grade school days. The collection is often criticized, either on the grounds that it is impossible to make any sensible selection from the countless possibilities, or that the editors made the wrong selections, or that the art and knowledge of the West are only drops in a much more meaningful bucket. Be that as it may, Montaigne is included and has had much influence on others later in the canon.

He was also heavily influenced by writers early in the canon. In a way, this is curious, because Montaigne's thought is nothing if not questioning. He himself, in the noted essay De la institution des enfants (On the Education of Children), rails against rote learning, in particular of ancient languages and lore. Yet he continually cites passages from the Greek and Latin classics to illustrate and support his own points.

At any rate, he is very good. Montaigne is an original thinker, always ready to question, not for the sake of being contentious, but for the sake of understanding. He is an adult's writer, so looking back I am not surprised that in grade school I could make nothing of him.

A sample on knowledge from current reading follows:

Et qu'il n'y point de plus notable folie au monde, que de les ramener à la mesure de notre capacité et suffisance. Si nous appelons monstres ou miracles, ce où notre raison ne peut aller, combien s'en présent-t-il continuellment à notre vue? Considérons au travers de que nuages, et comment à tâtons on nous mène à la connaisance de la plupart des choses qui nous sont entre mains: certes nous trouverons que c'est plutôt accoutumance, que science, qui nous en ôte l'étrangeté: et que ces choses-là, si elles nous étaient presentées de nouveau, nous les trouverions autant ou plus incroyables qu'aucunes autres. Celui qui n'avait jamais vu de rivière, à la première qu'il en recontra, il pensa que ce fût l'Ocean: et les choses qui sont à notre connaisance les plus grandes, nous les jugeons être les extrêmes que nature fasse en ce genre.
And there is no more remarkable folly in the world than to bring them back within the bounds of our capacity and sufficiency. If we call prodigies or miracles things that our reason can't reach, how many of them will continually be crossing our horizons? Consider through what clouds, by what groping we are brought to the knowledge of things that are in our hands. Surely we will find that it is familiarity, rather than science, that takes away their strangeness, and that if such things were presented to us newly, we would find them as unbelievable, or more so, than any others. A person who has never seen a river, at the first time he encounters one, will think that it is the ocean. And the things that are the grandest to our understanding, we will rate as the most extreme entities of the kind that nature has ever made.

I started reading the Essais two and a half years ago, when I spent hours with my mother in the last phase of her life. Montaigne certainly does rank as of one of the great figures of Western literature, in my belief. His style is deeply penetrating though wandering. He questions everything, ending up believing in our human nature and in the thinking of the early Greek and Roman philosphers.

André Malraux (1937)

I read Malraux's La condition humaine many years ago with interest. It's probably time for a rereading of that, but at the present I will read L'espoir, which will be new to me. Hope is a good topic.

I put this down after reading some 195 pages, about half of it. Each day, I found myself dreading opening it up more and more, and managing to make less and less progress before setting it aside as hopelessly tedious and vacuous.

Germinie Lacerteux
Edmond et Jules Goncourt (1864)

I came to the Goncourt brothers' work through reading about it in Van Gogh's letters; before that, I had no awareness of the brothers beyond knowing that the Prix Goncourt is a famous French literary award. They were nearly inseparable, offering one of the few examples of successful close artistic colaboration.

Le public aime les romans faux: ce roman est un roman vrai.

Il aime les livres qui font semblant d'aller dans le monde: ce livre vient de la rue.

Il aime les petities ouvres polissonnes, les mémoires de filles, les confessions d'alcôves, les saletés érotiques, le scandale qui se retrousse dans une image aux devantures des librairies: ce qu'il va lire est sévère et pur. Qu'il ne s'attende point à la photographie décolletée du plaisir: l'étude qui suit est la clinique de l'Amour…

Maintenant, que ce livre soit calomnié: peu lui importe. Aujourd'hui que le Roman s'élargit et grandit, qu'il commence à être la grand forme sériuse, passionné, vivante, de l'étude littéraire et de l'enquête sociale, qu'il devient, par l'analyse et par la recherche psychologique, l'Histoire morale contemporaine…
The public likes imaginary stories; this story is a true story.

It likes books that make a show of going out into the world; this book comes from the street.

It likes naughty little books, memoirs of girls, intimate confessions, erotic filth, a scandal rolled up into an image in a shop front; what it is going to read here is severe and pure. Let it expect no unbuttoned photographs here; the study that follows is the clinic of Love.

At present, it matters little whether this book is condemned. Today, when the Novel is expanding and maturing, let it begin to be the great serious form, passionate, alive, a literary study and a social inquiry; let it become, through analysis and psychological research, a contemporary moral History.
Preface of the First Edition

Most often, I found reading this book a bit of a chore. I recognized the originality of its approach. Still, its relentless progress from bad to worse to even worse does not ring true. It is also gratuitously wordy, with ubiquitous lists and strings of appositives. The sample above is a good example.

Mathias Sandorf,
Jules Verne (1884)

It has been intriguing to pick up Verne, who is a very good adventure writer. Wikipedia notes –

Verne is generally considered a major literary author in France and most of Europe, where he has had a wide influence on the literary avant-garde and on surrealism. His reputation is markedly different in Anglophone regions, where he has often been labeled a writer of genre fiction or children's books, not least because of the highly abridged and altered translations in which his novels are often reprinted.

Verne has been the second most-translated author in the world since 1979, ranking between the English-language writers Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare; he was probably was the most-translated during the 1960s and 1970s.
The story is very reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas pere, to whom it is dedicated. It is long quest for revenge by a wronged character living an immensely successful life under an assumed identity. Beyond the story line of Dumas, Mathias Sandorf has many gimmicks, such as an apparently dead character brought back to life, and discovery that a key character is not actually the person she appears to be, but a changeling with a close relation to the life of another's story.

Michel Strogoff
Jules Verne (1876)

I picked this up as bedtime reading. It was that, but it was also a very good adventure story. I had previously labeled Verne in my mind as a pioneer science fiction writer. He was that, but he was other things as well. I am planning to read his Mathias Sandorf, a spy story.

Jules Vallès (1878)

L'enfant is an autobiographical novel of Vallès's childhood. His father was an academic. His parents, especially his mother, treated him in a way that would be considered as unacceptable child abuse today. It is hardly surprising that formative years such as these led Vallès to join the socialist movement at the time of the Revolution of 1848 in France. I can relate to this somewhat. My father was an academic and was harsh enough on me to express regret for it in his last days, though not to the exteme and blatant extent of Vallès's treatment. For him to write such a book in that time and place was ground-breaking. In that way, he was a little like Charles Dickens.

I picked this up as a break after Book I (500 pages) of Montaigne's Essais. Much as I love him, he makes for very serious reading, and the French of 1580 is challenging for current readers. I did not realize that L'enfant is only the first part of a trilogy, which however in its totality falls far short of the extent of Montaigne's Essais.

Les Travailleurs de la Mer
Victor Hugo (1883)

Les Travailleurs de la mer is one of the grand works of Victor Hugo. Its hero, like Jean Valjean of Les Miserables is a humble person of ultimate nobility and altruism, an isolate whom the community never knows but who cares passionately and actively for those around him. It is cast on the Channel island of Guernsey, Hugo’s home in exile and the location of another (later) noteworthy novel, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page.

I have always found Hugo worth reading. His writing is extended, which is why it is often abridged. A part of me wishes that his heroes could find visible rewards of their own, but the point is exactly that they are truly selfless. And Hugo himself did not enjoy, in his lifetime, the almost universal respect and admiration he has today, so perhaps there's a bit of autobiography going on.

Leçons de sociologie: physique des moeurs et du droit
Émile Durkheim (1890 - 1900)

Durkheim is known as the Father of Sociology. These lessons are texts of his course lectures. Durkheim’s approach to sociology is something like that of Adam Smith to economics, aiming to describe how the needs and workings of societies condition the interactions and behavior of the people in them, guiding with an invisible hand.

Durkheim often has ideas that are worthy of note. For instance, he sets out to describe the ways people in societies actually behave and generalize from those observations, rather than attempting to deduce the rules of social workings from abstract principles. For another example, he remarks that organization of government by location is a holdover in the days when people and communication move freely, quite a prescient observation from the perspective of our information age a century later.

The lesson provide uneven reading. Durkheim is much less clear in carrying out his idea of describing how people actually behave than in proposing it as a method. He is often quite verbose. Sometimes he gets lost in the intricacies and abstruseness of his own reasoning, as when he finds deep religious significance in the pattern of dwellers in more remote areas often having mounded areas around the margins of their land. I doubt it’s anything mystical; I think they just moved things away from the middle, where they were in the way, and their neighbors compounded the situation by throwing unwanted debris over the fence.

Chercheur d'or
J.M.G. Leclézio (1980, 1985)

Le Clézio is a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, as well as awards from the Academie Francaise and other prestigious groups. In this age of misery-drenched writing, his work is remarkable for its fundamental optimism, its ability to find joy and love of our world and immediate neighbors, amid the recognition of sadder parts of life. His style is approachable as well. I am very glad that I opened these two works, and I expect that I will read others.