After three decades, the adventure of a young Midwesterner learning French, entering with passion into centuries of borrowed habits and rituals, seems like ancient history–so radically has the place of French in the world changed, along with the place of France. Professors are lecturing in English in the best French schools to prepare their students for a global economy. Every imaginable American product or food, including Oreos, is available on French grocery shelves. You can even sit in a movie theater in Paris and smell popcorn. Yet despite the impression that English has “won,” statistics tell another story. French is now spoken by more than 150 million people around the world, give or take a half million. By some predictions it will soon be spoken by more people worldwide than any other language. The salient fact is that the French speakers of the metropolis are a minority of those French speakers. The French language belongs to the planet, to the fifty-four francophone nations but also to that small but vital tribe to which I belong–foreigners who have chosen French out of love or necessity.
Yes, France is full of gluten-free cafés and Brooklyn decor. Imitation, like everything else, is faster today. There may soon come a time when you can put on earbuds and translation goggles anywhere in the world and read street signs and hear conversations in your native tongue.
But in the meantime, as long as it lasts, the miraculous process of stepping into another person’s language persists. And for that purpose, technology is a friend, not a foe, of learning. The same apps that keep students constantly in touch with home, that map Starbucks and Bagelstein for them, also allow them to “friend” their French friends on Facebook, to write in French on informal blogs, without the pressure of an academic assignment, and to send text messages in French. The Petit Robert French dictionary includes “LOL,” but there is a French equivalent, “EDR,” which means éclats de rire–bursts of laughter. Once students return home from studying abroad, there are a hundred new ways to stay in touch, day by day, with foreign friends. My students are messaging friends in Senegal, Korea, and Peru every day. Email, that ancient technology, is for the old.
New language teaching methods mean that you can learn French, or any other language, faster than ever before, with a better accent. For years Europeans learned colloquial English from Hollywood cinema and TV shows, and now we have the same possibility with French radio and television, which anyone can stream on their laptops. Gritty crime shows, international espionage full of slang and whispers, leave the old methods far behind. However economically motivated, French eagerness to learn English has generated new empathy for Americans learning French. The protagonist of French Lessons who wanted to die over a French mistake wouldn’t worry so much today. And she has come to understand that there are many more accents, many more varieties of the language than she ever dreamed of. Yet I am certain that the sacred sense I had, of trying new words and watching them work, is as vivid for students far from home as it was when I pointed to my bags at the Geneva airport and muttered “là-bas.”
Sartre, in The Words, observes that writers like to think that their most recent book is their best, and the worst insult you can give them is to praise as their finest a work from ten, twenty, thirty years earlier. I would have been just as happy to keep a foggy memory of French Lessons and cast my sights on new projects. Rereading the book has overwhelmed me with a sense of loss, not only for the childhood evoked in its pages but for the life of the young professor who went out on a limb to write it.
Yet I also have the fondest memories of writing French Lessons, of stepping away from academic prose. I wrote and rewrote much of it in a writing group with three colleagues in the English department at Duke University: Cathy Davidson, Marianna Torgovnick, and Jane Tompkins. They were, and are, intellectually courageous women, variously involved in rewriting the history of American literature and challenging received ideas about literary education. It was important that they weren’t inside a French department. The experiences and rituals that seemed so natural to me as a student and teacher of French were obscure to them. I had been taught from my fifth-grade French lessons on never to translate but rather to throw myself into the foreign language without looking back. Under their watchful and beneficent eyes, I learned to explain what I was talking about. They taught me to translate, to bring my other self back home. We spent many good hours responding to each other’s manuscript pages, drinking out of special teacups I had found in a restaurant supply store, gray on the outside, pink on the inside. Those teacups promised revelations. We used phrases like “wheel and turn” to describe a particularly adventuresome transition, or “unexploded bomb” for a passing remark that opened a Pandora’s box and shut it with no explanation. Go deeper! they told me. They saw structures and patterns where I couldn’t. I learned from their responses that a throwaway line that had cost me no effort might be worth saving and the contrived paragraph I had worked on for hours might not be. Alan Thomas, my editor at Chicago, then and now, wanted a sentence or two about the style of my book, so removed from academic prose. “My mother still corrects my English grammar, in speech and in writing … ,” I wrote, “She is against waste in language. Her sentences are short and blunt, yet ripe with innuendo and the promise that more is being said than meets the ear. Now I write in the staccato Midwestern style she taught me.”
The stripped-down style, inspired on the one hand by my mother, and on the other by Meursault, the alienated narrator of Camus’s The Stranger, was the best way I knew to access my feelings. In a penultimate draft, the novelist Laurel Goldman, a trusted reader, circled the superfluous words that were still dulling my prose, most of them at the beginnings of sentences–“That day,” “Somehow,” “Sometime,” “Anyway,” “Even.” These were my first writing lessons.
I wanted to create a character–a me–who needed to escape into another language. It would be a book about second-language acquisition, personal, not technical. The project involved not only the excavation of feeling but literary research. Language is central to all of French literature, part of the story being told. I immersed myself in the French autobiographies I was teaching and developed a sense of a genre I called “language memoir.” In those books, growing up means first and foremost coming into speaking and writing. I loved Sartre’s stories in The Words about becoming a writer by copying adventure stories and passing them off as his own. In Nathalie Sarraute’s Childhood, I resonated with a Russian child’s pleasure at getting every detail right in a French dictation exercise. I read the French autobiographers but also American immigrants and the children of immigrants, the generation of my own parents, writers who had a poetic distance from American English, a melancholy sense of other languages lost: Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. I read the Americans: Russell Baker in the 1930s, in Growing Up; Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, with its familiar scenes of my native Minnesota. I was interested in their sense of place, since mine was split down the middle. Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood taught me to look for the past in the landscapes I grew up with.
French Lessons was a blueprint for nearly all the books I’ve written since: the idea to explore the trial and execution of the fascist writer Robert Brasillach (The Collaborator, 2000) came out of my encounter with Maurice Bardèche; “Jacqueline,” my adopted French name in fifth grade, and the memory of de Gaulle marching down Pennsylvania Avenue at Kennedy’s funeral were seeds for Dreaming in French (2012); Looking for “The Stranger” (2016) was inspired by reading L’Étranger at French camp in Bar Harbor, Maine, and by teaching the tenses through that novel. I had no idea that these early memories were promissory notes for books still unwritten.
If my first response to rereading French Lessons was dread, my second response was excitement: wasn’t it high time for me to learn a new language? I longed to put myself back in that vulnerable place of knowing nothing, of being at the mercy of unfamiliar sounds and patterns of speech. So I came to Algiers, where I did much of the research on Camus’s The Stranger. I’m about to begin an intensive course in Darja, dialectical Arabic. It’s a language unique to Algeria, so distinctive that students of standard modern Arabic have trouble understanding it. This Algerian Arabic exists only as a spoken language, with traces of Berber, Turkish, and Spanish, as well as French. Darja speakers constantly code switch, breaking into French then back into Arabic, and so far it’s impossible for me to figure out, however long I listen to them speaking on the telephone or conversing in the street, why they switch. I already know there are two sounds in Darja that leave the French “r” in the dust–one high in the throat, the other so low I can only imitate it by growling.
The rules and constraints of standard French were reassuring to my chaotic adolescent brain, though I feared the ironclad sense of “good usage”–what the historian Laure Murat calls the “grammatical superego”–that makes not only professors and writers and intellectuals but also French people in general so proud and protective of their language. But French was always more fractured and multiple than we were led to believe, and if you read histories like Bernard Cerquiglini’s Une langue orpheline, you start to understand the political forces that wiped its diversity off the official map. Everyday French has changed enormously in thirty years; it’s much quicker, with a dizzying accumulation of new abbreviations, inverted slang, and words and expressions from Arabic, on the one hand, from American English on the other. At Yale, we still use French in Action, now so out of touch with contemporary France and so firmly grounded in the France of the 1970s and 1980s that it has acquired a midcentury, retro patina. Language methods, like translations, age quickly. A new French in Action would leave the Left Bank for the Canal Saint-Martin, and the main characters would express the diversity of the city. Tomorrow I begin an intensive course in Darja based on the “Kamal Method,” a “global-structural” approach to spoken Arabic developed by Father Pierre Georgin and a team of linguists at the Diocesan Study Center in Algiers. Kamal is a teacher, his wife, Fadila, is a nurse. They live in a utopian socialist Algiers of the glorious 1970s, an Algiers on the verge of modernization. In the first lesson, Kamal’s brother Yusef returns from France like Rip Van Winkle, to find his country strong and free. With a fellow passenger, Yusef looks out at the city from the deck of his ship: “Hello Algiers!” “It’s a big city. Are you from here?”
What experience could be truer? Stripped of expertise, starting with the first fledgling words and phrases, hovering on the brink of communication, and caught, once again, between the mechanical grunt of the vocal chords and the poetry of cognition.
Roger Grenier says in his novel Another November that we spend half our lives figuring out what we’re going to do with ourselves and the other half trying to fathom what we’ve done. French Lessons was written in 1993 on the cusp of anticipation and retrospection–I was no longer a student and still becoming a teacher. Writing the book in the first place was a crazy professional move: my department chair told me that if it was well received it wouldn’t hurt me, but if it was a flop, it would have dire consequences for my career. I’m glad I barged ahead, for it gave me a footing in another world, outside school but still wanting to share what school had given me.
I visited Bordeaux this summer for a colloquium on American women writers. The great eighteenth-century city my friends and I knew as an elegant yet foreboding place has become light and playful, one of the most successful tourist destinations in France. There are lights on the quai des Chartrons, beautiful boardwalks line the river, and the city’s ancient squares now include vast café terraces. The famously withholding Bordeaux bourgeoisie seem to have been transformed by a new cityscape into friendly, sunny hosts. Two of Micheline’s children still live there, a pharmacist and a doctor; a third sibling is in Saint-Cloud outside of Paris. I’ll spend Christmas with them. Next year is the forty-fourth anniversary of my study-abroad group; we’re looking for an Airbnb in Bordeaux near our old stomping grounds at the place Gambetta.
As for the Paul de Man affair that provoked outsized reactions from so many readers–the discovery that one of Yale’s most prominent professors had lied about both his former Nazi sympathies and his academic credentials–our incoming graduate students at Yale have never heard of it, though they are up to date on the latest twists in queer and postcolonial theories. Literary criticism in American French departments has turned away from the formal analysis of texts toward history and sociology and the Francophone world. The beautiful acts of rhetorical analysis and deconstruction that marked my education have faded, but even though deconstruction is no longer central to the mission of my department, the study of literature itself is still revered, and the energy for reading is contagious.
It’s a banality to say that age mellows. The child who saw bats swooping down from the eaves is not as fearful. My early fascination with fascism and evil in unexpected forms has given way to books and articles and translations connected to writers I admire: Camus and Louis Guilloux rather than Céline, Patrick Modiano and Jean Grenier rather than Brasillach. Promoting translations, writing in order to explain the French to Americans or the Americans to the French, traveling back and forth between Paris and Guilford, Connecticut, now with a third stop in Algeria, has rounded out a life between languages I had only just embarked upon in the 1990s. I’m moved by the passions of my students, their sense of injustice, personal and political, and their desire for repair. I can feel, even as I write, the smoother edges of a pen that was once far more nervous and combative, and the memory of that past self helps me understand them.