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Summer 2004

French Without Tears

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Luc Sante

My parents and I emigrated to the United States from the French-speaking part of Belgium when I was a child. The move was made for pressing economic reasons and was lamented by my parents from the start; only intermittently did they have the leisure and lightheartedness to plunge into the adventure of their new surroundings. My mother spoke no English at first; my father relied on a weak memory of the language from his secondary studies, and he tended to mix it up with the more vigorous strain of German in him, acquired from growing up in a town scant miles from the linguistic frontier. In America my parents had few French-speaking acquaintances. The isolation was hardest on my mother, who was uneducated (both my parents left school in their middle teens), came from a particularly restricted and provincial background, and stayed at home, while my father, more cosmopolitan by nature, at least had the opportunity to mix with Americans and immigrants from other countries during his working hours. My mother therefore seized upon any and all instances of French in American life. A French-derived surname spotted on a signboard could cheer her up for an hour; a drive with my parents would be punctuated by my mother happily reading aloud from the roadside: Chez Pierre! Maison de Beauté! When I watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, the whole family would gather for Pepe le Pew, the Gallic skunk forever making romantic advances to horrified black-and-white cats: L'amour, toujours l'amour...

During my first year of school in America, my mother drilled me in French for an hour every day when I got home. That was shrewd of her; at first I was so discombobulated by the shift in languages between home and school that for an hour or so on either side I was effectively unlanguaged, nearly aphasic. The drills were as effective at getting me back to French as schoolyard peer pressure was in forcing English upon me in the morning. After a while I could slide between languages with relative ease, and when my mother and I returned to Belgium for sojourns lengthy enough that I was sent to school there, I engaged the curriculum as if I had never been away at all. Those trips, made when I was not quite eight and not quite nine, respectively, marked a significant shift in our lives. Previously, my parents had maintained the hope that our stay in America was to be temporary, but when my maternal grandparents sickened and died, which made those trips necessary, an important link was severed. My father's parents were already long dead, and there was not much immediate family left. We were on our own, and might as well stay where opportunities grew densest. This decision did not improve the morale of the household. Thereafter my parents would try to maintain a semblance of Belgium in our home, but the enthusiasm was gone, and the simulacrum shifted, steadily if invisibly, away from its model. In the same way, the family language was progressively mongrelized. While keeping the pronunciation and syntax of French it became franglais.

For me the French language very nearly became detached from its base, like so many of our household customs, which had lost their connection to any wider world and hovered in a vacuum, fetishes that might as well have been invented by my parents to keep me alienated from my peers. But I had a fortuitous link to the world of franco-phone children: my father's sister and her husband, small-town newsagents, subscribed me to my favorite Belgian comic magazine. I read Spirou every week for ten years, and through it subcutaneously absorbed not just the living language but also a sense of daily life in a Belgium that was then changing much more rapidly than my parents realized. The comic weeklies (the others were Tintin and Pilote, the latter published in France) had no American equivalent; they combined about a dozen serial comic strips, on double-page spreads, with a handful of single-page gags, along with games, contests, educational tidbits, and some prose fiction I never so much as glanced at. I didn't care much about stories; I cared passionately about graphic style, and this affected my reading-I disdained the ostensibly serious yarns, with their conventionally realist draftsmanship, in favor of the wildest and funniest drawings. The funny strips also happened to be the most unbridled in their use of language, reveling in the singular ability of French to generate wordplay, puns in particular.

French-speaking children are schooled in puns from the start. Of course, this could be said of speakers of English and maybe every other language as well-that's what riddles are for. For example, I date my true immersion in English from the moment I understood the humor of Q: When is a boy not a boy? A: When he turns into a store. But puns lie much thicker on the ground in French, in large part because the language is so much more rigorous and willfully delimited than the sprawling mass of English, an elegantly efficient two-stroke engine to the latter's uncontainable Rube Goldberg mechanism. French does not necessarily have fewer sounds than English, but the protocols governing their order and frequency make their appearances predictable-hence the profusion of sound-alike phrases and sentences, which fueled Surrealism and ensure the ongoing appeal of Freudian and post-Freudian ideas in the French-speaking world: Les dents, la bouche. Laid dans la bouche. Les dents la bouchent. L'aidant la bouche. Etc. These phrases, which sound exactly alike, respectively mean "the teeth, the mouth;" "ugly in the mouth;" "the teeth choke her;" "helping her chokes her." You don't need to have been psychoanalyzed by Jacques Lacan to see from these examples how language can assist thought in swiftly tunneling from the mundane to the taboo. Children are instinctively aware of this, even and perhaps especially if they are being raised Catholic and are thus trained in the finer points of repression.

The most internationally famous characters in Spirou were Les Schtroumpfs, known in the English-speaking world as the Smurfs, small blue elfin creatures who lived in a toadstool village. In their English-language animated appearances they could be cloyingly cute, but in French they were spared this fate by their language, marked by an incessant use of the (invented) word schtroumpf, employed as noun, verb, adverb, adjective, and interjection. Every reader, no matter how young, understood this usage without a gloss, because it parodied the French conversational trope of substituting catch-alls such as truc, chose, and machin for words that cannot immediately be called to mind, in any grammatical position. What schtroumpf highlighted was the ability of such dummy words to suggest words prohibited from writing or speech, regardless of the fact that the actual words schtroumpf was substituting for were always clear from context. Truc or chose became neutral from exposure, but schtroumpf subliminally spoke to the unconscious; its surface strangeness could make it mean things that the child's mind does not yet know but can imagine with tantalizing vagueness.

Not all the wordplay was so freighted, of course. In the Astérix series (tales of a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of winged-helmeted first-century Gauls, serialized in Pilote), the characters' names were always elaborate puns that turned on their suffixes, -ix for the Gauls and -us for the enemy Romans (to pick two that don't require lengthy glosses, one of the former was Madamboevarix, one of the latter Volfgangamadéus). Deciphering such names-and puns of that sort were rife in all the funny strips-provided an agreeable gymnastic exercise, especially if it took a week or two of rolling the name around before it clicked open like a combination lock. Meanwhile, the adventures of Tintin, the boy reporter, a Belgian (and eventually international) institution since the 1920s, featured as a recurring character Captain Haddock, an alcoholic and irascible but good-hearted old sea-dog. He was noted for his pratfalls, and even more for the streams of insults he would launch at villains, thieving wildlife, cars that splashed puddle water at him on the street, or small boys who had hit him in the head with a ball: Accapareurs! Coloquintes! Ophicléides! Patapoufs! Cloportes! Anthropophages! Catachrèses! Moujiks! Rhizomes! Ectoplasmes! Anthropopithèques! Analphabètes! Cornichons! Va-nu-pieds! Saltim-banques! Moules à gaufres! Protozoaires! (Monopolists, bitter apples, serpents [the musical instrument], fatsos, woodlice, cannibals, catachreses, muzhiks, rhizomes, ectoplasms, Anthropopitheci Erecti, illiterates, gherkins, ragamuffins, mountebanks, waffle irons, protozoa.) It was an explosion in the dictionary, Finnegans Wake on a matchbook cover, a fantastically liberating surge of pure unshackled language. The comics provided an important lesson: language could be a medium of fun, and not just safe, approved fun, either, but wild, anarchic, disruptive fun. There was nothing lazy or slapdash about the comics' employment of words, though; that much was clear even to an eight-year-old. Therefore, the appendix to the lesson was that fun could best be achieved through a thorough grounding in ballistics and a heightened sense of precision.

The value of precision was something I had been learning all my life, perhaps subliminally, from my father. He had quit school at fourteen to go to work; his father had done likewise; his grandfather had been illiterate. Nevertheless, both my father and his father were great readers. There was always at least one crowded bookcase in our home, much of its contents having been brought with us across the ocean-he was not only a great reader, but a great rereader. The books were diverse, to my eye, ranging from somber hardbound volumes in slipcases to lurid paperbacks I imagined as containing all the secret lore of the tribe of adults. Looking at them today (I made a point of saving the library's core after my parents sold their house and, almost immediately thereafter, died), I realize that the great majority of the books were bestsellers, items prominently displayed in Belgian bookstores between the late 1940s and the late 1950s. The lurid paperbacks, in fact, were nearly all published by the pioneering firm Marabout, a French-language phenomenon equivalent to a downmarket Penguin, that happened to be headquartered in our otherwise not very literary home town.

My father's books, then, could have been found in many other middle-class Belgian households of the period, and today they profusely line the shelves of secondhand bookshops. Not only are there no rarities among them, but scarcely any would have been seen among the effects of Parisian tastemakers. Few of them would be considered literary; not many date from before the period in which they were acquired. They were, nevertheless, the result of discriminating selection, and what they all had in common was style. There was not just one style among them, since they included popular novels, popular history, travel narratives, war memoirs, and humorous vignettes, but all of them answered my father's requirements. He was a stickler for le mot juste, that very French, very positivistic idea that there is one, and only one, exact word capable of expressing a particular idea in a particular circumstance. Style for him was a matter of both precision and elegance, which were entwined in any case. His classics included La Fontaine's fables, Molière's comedies, Victor Hugo's poems, and the late-nineteenth-century plays of Edmond Rostand, especially Cyrano de Bergerac. All these he cited continually, sometimes because they fit the occasion, sometimes because he merely wanted to savor their music.

At some early point in my life he inculcated in me the very model of elegance, the end of Cyrano. The dying hero tells his friends that quelque chose que sans un pli, sans une tache / J'emporte malgré vous (something spotless and unwrinkled, that despite you I'm taking with me). He lifts high his sword, proclaims et c'est (and it is); the sword drops from his hand and he falls into the arms of his companions. Roxane kisses his forehead, asks C'est? Cyrano opens his eyes, recognizes her and says, smiling, Mon panache. Curtain. Panache literally means the plume of a hat, as worn by a seventeenth-century gentleman, but it also means what it does in English, only more so. Thus we have the pun in the last breath of life, the expression of wit as an exemplary act of heroism, the manifestation of a principle in the very utterance of its name. I was reminded of this years later when I learned that apprentice toreros call themselves "students of elegance," but if the Spaniards are equally capable of deeming elegance to reach its summit when it brushes against death, only the French could conceive of the matter as intrinsically verbal.

Elegance and precision are necessary allies; together they indicate the presence of truth. Nowhere is this axiom more clearly illustrated than in the fables of Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695). Nearly every francophone can recite, at least, tout flatteur vit aux dépens de celui qui l'écoute (every flatterer lives at the expense of whoever listens to him), from the fable of the Crow and the Fox. I knew the tune before I knew the words, as it were-the phrase was burned into my mind before I could define the word dépens (expense), and although I had a fair idea of what the phrase meant, it was as much a mantra as a moral. By the time I was of age to understand all the implications of the phrase, I knew its music to be a further guarantee of its wisdom. So it was with a sense of deep familiarity that, when I was in my twenties and by then a working writer, I first read Flaubert's famous letter to George Sand:

When I come upon a bad assonance or a repetition in my sentences, I'm sure I'm floundering in the false. By searching I find the proper expression, which was always the only one, and which is also harmonious. The word is never lacking when one possesses the idea. Is there not, in this precise fitting of parts, something eternal, like a principle? If not, why should there be a relation between the right word and the musical word? Or why should the greatest compression of thought always result in a line of poetry?

My father never read Flaubert, and yet he had transmitted to me something of his essence—in part because some of Flaubert's ideas had existed in French literature long before he articulated them, and in part because some had been broadly disseminated since his time. By the time I read the letter, its message was already for me an article of faith.

Nevertheless I avoided my father's books, and to this day I've read very few. The obvious Freudian interpretation is probably not irrelevant, although more pedestrian reasons seem just as valid now as they did then. I was bored by the very idea of most of them: the mountaineering sagas of Frison-Roche, the broad peasant comedies of Arthur Masson, the orotund Catholic and patrician moral tales of Jean de la Varende. The only books I plucked from his shelves were the crime novels, by Simenon and others, which he hated and never read, but which his sister and her husband, who were wonderful people as well as newsagents but who regarded all books as indiscriminate product, sometimes threw into the parcels they sent our way. These and the comic magazines constituted the bulk of what was available for me to read in French in my youth. In English, though, I was trying as well as I could to cultivate precociously advanced tastes-I wanted to find literature as hip as the music I enjoyed. Another sort of gap between the languages was forming.

Then, when I was just the right age, we traveled to Montreal to take in Expo 67. It was the first time any of us had been in a French-speaking country in more than four years, and I was at least as excited by the prospect of visiting bookstores as by the fair itself. In my recollection, possibly telescoped by time, a center-city librairie was our very first stop. I don't know whether I had anything particular in mind before going in, but I came away with two books. One of them was André Bre-ton's Anthologie de l'humour noir, an excellent choice if one made by happenstance—"black humor," a literary genre spawned by Lenny Bruce as much as anybody, was all the rage in the United States then, and that's what I thought I was getting. The other was a fat paperback anthology of French poetry, published by Marabout. I wasn't very much interested in poetry, except maybe stray bits of Beat stuff I'd seen here and there, but in flipping through the volume I noticed that many of the poems looked different from what I'd generally been exposed to: some had very long lines, some were studded with proper nouns, some were even in prose, if such a thing was possible. That night I lay on my bed in the motel room in Longueil and opened the book to

A la fin tu est las de ce monde ancien

"In the end you are tired of this old world." Thus began "Zone," by Guillaume Apollinaire.

Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin "Shepherdess o Eiffel Tower the flock of bridges is bleating this morning." The poem was speaking directly to me, to me alone, as proven on the second page: Voilà la jeune rue et tu n'es encore qu'un petit enfant / Ta mère ne t'habille que de bleu et de blanc. "Here is the young street and you are but a little child / Your mother only dresses you in blue and white," which was exactly true of my early childhood; that tu clinched it. Tu regardes les yeux pleins de larmes ces pauvres émigrants / Ils croient en Dieu ils prient les femmes allaitent des enfants / Ils emplissent de leur odeure le hall de la gare Saint-Lazare. "You look with your eyes filled with tears at the poor immigrants / They believe in God they pray the women suckle infants / They fill with their odor the hall of the Saint-Lazare station"—I had been there and seen that! Furthermore, the poem seemed to be about a yearning for modernity in the face of confusion as to the truth of religion, a clairvoyant depiction of my own central inner drama of the time. But there was more: the poem was fluid, rhyming but in an elastic meter like an improvised song, with phrases strung together without punctuation but always clear in their meaning, with an unlabored syntax close to conversational, with capitalized names like cherries in a box of chocolates, with sudden movements in time and space executed with a casual legerdemain, with a flash and whirl and continual surprise that was just what I wanted from the modern world but with a palpable kindness that reassured me as the poem flung me about.

At that moment I became a French modernist, and I suppose I've never stopped being one, despite appearances. French was capable of astounding feats unavailable to most languages, it seemed to me. In his poem "L'union libre," one of the most erotic works in all literature, André Breton wrote: Ma femme à la bouche de cocarde et de bouquet d'étoiles de dernière grandeur / Aux dents d'empreintes de souris blanche sur la terre blanche / À la langue d'ambre et de verre frottés / Ma femme à la langue d'hostie poignardée. What does it give in English? "My woman with her cockade mouth, the mouth of a bouquet of stars of the greatest magnitude / With teeth of the footprints of a white mouse on the white earth / With her tongue of polished amber and glass / My woman with her tongue of a stabbed host." It's not terrible, maybe, but it has none of the music or the magic, in part because of the tendency of English to condensation and bluntness, away from the silken chains of prepositional phrases that give French its incantatory power. Of course, languages are never equivalent, can never be measured on the same scale, but when French lyricism is translated into English, the English version always sounds lead-footed, boorish, resolutely unsexy. Take the phrase hostie poignardée—the profanation of the transubstantiated body of Christ in the form of a white disk of bread. The French phrase enacts the violence onomatopoeically, following the serene hostie with the triple puncture of poignardée, and you even see the dagger, the poignard. In English, "stabbed host," pretty much the only way of expressing the thought in less than a sentence, suggests a murder-robbery in a highway diner as reported over a police radio, while musically it is a coarse cluster of dentals, and it is over in a second and leaves no echo.

The French language opened poetry to me, and I wrote as well as read it throughout my teens, albeit in English since I did not trust my command of the nuances of French. Eventually I came to love English-language poetry as well, but never quite in the same way. Had I been stopped on the street and ordered to recite a line of poetry, I would automatically have said: J'ai tendu des cordes de clocher à clocher; des guirlandes de fenêtre à fenêtre; des chaînes d'or d'étoile à étoile, et je danse ("I stretched ropes from spire to spire, garlands from window to window, gold chains from star to star, and I dance"—Rimbaud).

Midway through college, I stopped writing poetry altogether. I doubted my talent, but I also had found what I thought was the authentic music of the American language, in the prose of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain. "They threw me off the hay truck about noon," the opening sentence of The Postman Always Rings Twice, seemed to exemplify in nine words all the highest virtues of American prose. It was plain, unadorned demotic speech, resolutely laconic and flat, containing a whole landscape of gas stations and bus depots and bars, of dollar bills and cigarette butts and spit, stuff I had encountered in daily life that seemed to stare down literature and dare it to cross the line in the dirt. It defied all the verities and aesthetics of the university in which I was a half-reluctant conscript, of course, but no less significant was the fact that it embodied the inverse of everything I thought I knew about French.

The importance of both causes was emphasized by the fact that my epiphany occurred in Paris, where I was attending a summer program sponsored by my college that was devoted to the very latest manifestations of French critical thought. What was I doing there? The previous year I had signed up for a course given in the French department on Surrealism, a subject of enduring interest to me. Not ten minutes into the first class I was at sea. The instructor, a recent Parisian transplant, drew cryptic diagrams on the blackboard while issuing a rapid-fire stream of references, quotes, unfamiliar Greek-derived words, and puns. The latter, at least, I could appreciate, although they were unfunny and often ponderous (an English-language one, "French Freud," was to reappear continually as a catch-phrase), and were redolent of forced play; it was like watching academics dance at a disco in order to make a point. As a chronic shirker of math requirements, I was dismayed by the diagrams and the scientific or pseudo-scientific tone of the propositions; I had never heard of Lacan or Derrida; and what did any of it have to do with Surrealism? It seemed to me the equivalent of getting to know someone by administering chloroform and then dissecting her or him on a slab. Somehow I completed the year, and achieved a grade that did not disgrace me. I can only imagine that I signed up for the summer program because it would get me to Paris with an educational alibi. Somehow I even managed to obtain financial aid for the adventure.

The courses were a mixed lot. The art historian was genuinely riveting, although I remember more vividly the specialist in modern fiction, who seemed to devote the entirety of his analysis of Madame Bovary to rolling names and phrases around in his mouth until they became puns by force of will, for instance mangling "Charles Bovary" until it yielded up charivari. Finally I was sick of puns, sick of the alleged jouissance of language, very nearly sick of French itself, and I hiked up to Galignani, the venerable English bookshop on the Rue de Rivoli, and picked up American books primarily composed of words of one syllable. But when I look at my notebooks from that time I am forced to acknowledge that every choice I made was saturated by the French spirit, the version prevailing at the time in particular. My approach to American crime fiction was that of an outsider, was informed by the Série Noire collection, by the ideas on American movies held by the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma, by Sartre's enthusiasm for the work of Faulkner, which he said resembled the view out the back window of a moving car. Despite myself I was in love with the chic that imbued all manifestations of the French intellect. I was seduced by the French tendency to wrench words and phrases and even entire narratives from all context the better to prize them as artifacts, the way oily rags become art when framed with a broad white mat. I was enthralled and frustrated in equal measure by the French literature of the time that seemed intended for admiration rather than actual reading, dependent for its effect on a title, or an allusion to something classical and recondite, or a typographical decision, such as a thin scatter of fragments around the page like so many notes on a refrigerator door, or a block of unparagraphed and perhaps unpunctuated prose running on for the entirety of a slim volume.

Not long after my return I lost contact with the French-speaking world once again. This was to prove a pattern, with French waxing and waning in my life at long intervals, like the moon of a large planet. I did not set foot in my native land for another fifteen years, and then for a decade I went there annually, ostensibly to do research for a book. I made friends; I acquired a neighborhood and a set of site-specific habits; I got so that I could regain my fluency in the language within twenty-four hours of deplaning. It was then that I discovered several other kinds of French. The language that appeared in the media, in advertisements, and in the mouths of the more urban and well-connected people I met was quite different both from the tongue I had learned as a child and that which appeared in the books I read. It was bright and cold and hard-edged, implied technology and market research and modern accounting practices. I knew that it had its American parallel, which I generally avoided and often mocked, but I took this kind of French personally, like a slap. When some of its words leaked into my conversation because I had no friendly synonyms at hand in which to express a particular thought, it felt like an unhealthy imposture, as if I had caught myself putting on a gold tie-I suppose I felt like a class traitor, antiquated notion though that may be. Even unarguable statements made using those words felt like lies, since the language had so clearly been produced in a laboratory.

But I also immersed myself in argot, la langue verte (the green tongue). I had encountered it before, notably in my mid-twenties, when I hung out on both continents with a group of radical offspring of French academic families who affected verlan (backslang, then just on the cusp of becoming chic) and conducted entire conversations in prison slang without glossing anything for my benefit, making me feel excluded and desperately unhip. But by a decade or two later the lingo had penetrated more deeply into the everyday speech of ordinary folk, and I absorbed a good deal of it from reading, in particular from crime novels of the 1950s and 1960s. American slang, whatever its origin, tends to fill particular lexical slots, usually pertaining to highly charged categories of meaning-sex and drugs and crime in particular. French slang is even more rooted in crime, but it is defiant rather than furtive. It is an entire language, a parallel verbal world that mocks the formal protocols of the master language. Unlike the American variety, it contains words for every sort of thing, for "door" and "table" and "cup." Some of it is ancient, dating back to the time of François Villon and beyond; some of it actually derives from Romany, and it continues to loot other languages, in pointed contrast to official French, which proscribes loan-words. It is a highly metaphorical language, as slang tends to be, with an insolent, blaring music and a staccato beat: Quand le bruit se répand que la poule tape aux fafs dans un coin, vous voyez les tapis se vider de tous les tricards. Literally, this would more or less mean: "When the noise spreads that the hen is tapping for papers in a corner, you see the carpets emptying themselves of all the tricksters." What it signifies is: "When word gets around that the cops are checking IDs in the neighborhood, all the parolees instantly vanish from the bars." I derive deep satisfaction and sensual pleasure from argot, as little as I use it in the course of things. It is almost as if French and American had mated in the night and produced another tongue with all of the advantages of both, and none of the pomposities.

French was once the international language of diplomacy but is no more. It barely hangs on to its association with the courtly arts. It has been forced into retreat, in one domain after another, before the Anglo-Saxon juggernaut. This diminished status has occasioned both a resentful provincialism and the unfortunate tongue of technocrats and biznessmen. Its literature is rarely and haphazardly translated into English these days. The romance of French among poetically inclined American youths has waned considerably, in part because of the very success of French theory and its particular brand of double dutch, the nuances of which sometimes require a profound knowledge of classic literature, although this is not always apparent to English speakers. Where I live, in rural America, it is an obscure joke. It is my mother tongue, although I will probably seldom encounter again the specific variety of it I heard while growing up, since it was the instrument of a class that has changed drastically and to which I have lost most of my connections. I don't even employ it every week, let alone every day, and yet one way or another it informs every decision I make in the screen language I employ in order to pass unmolested in the land where I have lived for most of my life without ever shedding my internal foreignness. French is my secret identity, inaccessible to my friends. Sometimes I feel as though I have it all to myself.

Luc Sante is the general editor of the Library of Larceny and the author of Low Life and The Factory of Facts, among other books. This essay was commissioned for The Genius of Language, an anthology edited by Wendy Lesser and published by Pantheon Books.

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