Reading Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop earlier this month got me thinking about my relationship with French literature. Which is perhaps best summarized as, “It’s complicated.”
Nothing distills complex, at times ambivalent, at times frustrating, at times enchanting emotional responses quite like a GIF. Am I right?
The Story of Babar: The Little Elephant by Jean De Brunhoff
This isn’t really a spoiler because it happens at the beginning of the book: What is with killing off mothers? Can someone please enlighten me? Though, truth be told, it doesn’t seem to have traumatized me as a child: When I bought the book to share with my son, I’d forgotten the story begins with Babar’s mother being killed by a hunter. I was probably inured to it owing to the pervasive matricide in children’s books/cartoons. I have, however, harbored a lifelong revulsion towards hunting for sport – maybe it all started here?
Reading the story as an adult made me see distressing allegorical elements. As a child, though, Babar’s story, and his iconic bespoke green suit, enchanted me, and I carried this impression of the book into adulthood (maybe it was the illustrations?):
The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery
The Little Prince and I first met when I was in elementary school. I was jealous he had a whole planet to himself, even if it was an itty-bitty, teeny tiny planet. (I’m an introvert – can you tell?) Something about the way he tended his single (high-maintenance) rose moved me. This sounds weird to say, but here it is: The book inspired me to appreciate the act of nurture, even if the thing being nurtured can be kind of imperious and ungrateful at times. So basically, the book prepared me for motherhood … oh, I’m only joking … for the most part.
Anyway, there was a bit of this involved, but in a good way:
Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert, Les Jeux Sont Faits (French Edition) by Jean-Paul Sartre, The Stranger by Albert Camus
These books are the French literature I read in high school (Sartre, in French hence the original title), college (Camus in translation), and graduate school (Flaubert in translation). They did a bang-up job of dismantling the positive associations of French literature cultivated in my youth. What with being frustrating (Flaubert), depressing (Sartre), and soul-crushing (Camus). At the same time as I was reading these walking nightmares, I was reading Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, and Vanity Fair. And that’s the story of how I joined Team British Literature.
Anyway … my feelings about the aforementioned French books – and, to be fair, much of post-Civil War American literature – combine both of these reactions:
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Oh, this [expletive deleted] book. It took me three attempts before I finally got into it. There I was, humming merrily along, enjoying the beautiful language of the translation. And then a very bad and unacceptable thing happened that I will not tell you because it’s a major spoiler. I’ve gotten pushback on this, but I stand by my response.
Of which this is a reasonable approximation, minus literally throwing the book through a window (I already spent money buying the book – no way was I going to spend money getting my window repaired):
The Ingredients of Love by Nicolas Barreau
Now we shall fast forward to a few years (of assiduously avoiding French literature) later. I saw this title at a bookstore and loved the concept (bookstore, food, Paris, love). Seeing it was written by a French author, I hollered, I will not be fooled again! Not out loud or anything. Just in my head. But then, I read the first line anyway: “Last year in November a book saved my life.” I cannot be expected to resist a book with that opening line. And the novel delivered: It was a funny, wacky delight.
Me reading The Ingredients of Love looked quite a bit like this:
The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
And that brings us to the book that initiated this discussion. Several trusted friends recommended The Little Paris Bookshop to me. It definitely has its crushing moments. It also has humor and beauty and light. (I wrote more about it here, if you’re wondering.)
I’m giving the novel the best compliment in my compliment arsenal by comparing its overall effect to this moment from Harry Potter:
So that’s my journey with French literature. Have you read any of these books? Thoughts?
7 Replies to “French Literature and me, in GIFs”
Ah, but what about Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan? I remember moodily reading that on the beach as a teenager, and hoping the dark glasses made me look mysterious and French.
Haha, that’s excellent. As a teenager, I recall aspiring to be Elizabeth Bennet. Pretty sure I coveted her wardrobe, as depicted in the BBC miniseries. 🙂
Loved this. I now want to go out and read some French lit. Maybe “Madeline.”
Warning: There’s a “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” movie. They didn’t change the spoilage.
Oh, how could I have forgotten Madeline! I’m sure she’s my favorite of all.
Thank you for the warning – I will skip the film!
Haha! I love this article – especially the GIF of Bradley Cooper saying “WTF” and throwing the book out the window (Is that from “Silver Linings Playbook”?).
It’s interesting how you say that depressing French books firmly put you on “Team British Literature” – I never really considered the difference of mood, just culture, when comparing the two. But it is true that the French often have sadder undertones in their work. Although not always – I mean, “The Three Musketeers” is comparable to an Anglophone book of the same time period, right?
And even today, there are some books that are cheerful romantic comedies, mysteries, etc. One of the best of these, for me, is “Et si c’était vrai…” by Marc Levy. The book is terribly written, and I’m saying that as a non-native French speaker. You can just tell the writer is a plot man, but not a poetic, eloquent wordsmith. But the idea is absolutely delightful. It was even made into a bona fide Hollywood rom com starring Reese Witherspoon and (adoring sigh) Mark Ruffalo, called “Just Like Heaven”.
The book I finally finished (thanks to you!), “Hunting and Gathering” by Ana Gavalda is also just cheesy and mostly cheerful, so there are French books out there that aren’t doom and gloom, I promise!
Sorry about all that – I just felt compelled to defend my adopted home’s culture. But yeah, there are some dark spots even in some of the most potentially heartwarming/fun reads. I felt exactly the same way you did about “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” – including slogging through it. I found it so slow and pretentious and when it finally started getting interesting – ugh. Yeah, that gif perfectly sums up the experience. Thanks again for that!
Good eye, Alysa! The Bradley Cooper one is from Silver Linings Playbook. The image came into my mind when I got to this one really sad part of The Little Paris Bookshop, and that gave me the idea to write this piece.
You are so right, of course. The Ingredients of Love was so fun to read (and I have one of Barreau’s other ones too), nothing dark and gloomy about it. It’s too bad I never read The Three Musketeers in school (or, erm, ever – will have to add that to my TBR) because that might have given me a better impression earlier. I was so appalled by the Sartre I read in high school. I didn’t even touch (in this post) on the French theory I had to read in grad school – Lacan, Foucault, etc. – though it has definitely influenced my perception of French literature. (I sometimes wonder if maybe we take them more seriously here in the States than they even took themselves.)
It’s also true there’s suffering in Dickens (and lots of suffering in my favorite Russian novels too!). I think you nailed it when you said “mood.” There’s something hopeless about the mood of the classics I mentioned here (Camus, Sartre, even Flaubert to a perhaps lesser degree) that I find depleting, somehow. That’s what differentiates it, in my experience, from the classic British and Russian literature I’ve read, where there can be terrible suffering but also often a sense of hope through beauty and connection, and faith that they make life worth living, not just a meaningless exercise, if that makes sense.
And I want to add that what I loved about The Little Paris Bookshop is that the characters fight for their happiness and for meaning in their lives. That was dope, as the kids say. 😉
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