« Book Review | Main | "As well as could be expected" »

Le sérieux

When we were in Paris last, at Thanksgiving time in 2003, Kathleen picked up a book at the Brentano's on the Avenue de l'Opéra. It was Sarah Turnbull's Almost French: A New Life in Paris (Nicholas Brealey, 2003) Ms Turnbull is an Australian journalist who surrendered to a whirlwind romance with a French lawyer, whom she married along with the project of making her own home in a distinctly un-Antipodean society. Almost French is a delightful read. The author presents herself as somewhat more naive and incredulous than I can quite believe; she certainly knows what stories will get a rise out of Anglophone readers. The toughest nut that she has to crack is the reserve with which her future husband's friends close themselves off from her. She winds up, I think, believing that if the nut could be cracked, it wouldn't be French. Revelation comes in the form of a film, Patrice Leconte's Ridicule (1996). After recounting the movie's tale of a rustic aristocrat's unsuccessful attempt to get state aid for a marsh-draining project on the eve of the Revolution - he fails because he is not witty enough - Ms Turnbull applies the lesson to her own life.

These days in France no-one gets expelled from the dinner table for being dim-witted. But in educated circles conversation can still be played like a game, dominated by those possessing an elegant command of the language and an awesome general knowledge, or grande culture. The French all adore wordplay. People still fear being made to look stupid ('appearing ridiculous kills you,' goes the French saying) which is why the less confident say nothing at all.

To me Ridicule was a revelation. I finally understood French dinner party conversation. It isn't about getting to know anyone better or trying to include everyone in the discussion. No-one really cares about guests establishing a rapport with each other, not even the host. Quite simply, it's about being brilliant. Everyone wants to shine, to impress. The film forced me to face facts - my style of communicating doesn't work in France. It had to change.

If there's a French equivalent of "It's the thought that counts," I have yet to hear it. The inadequately-executed thought not only doesn't count, it counts less than a thought never acted upon. If you are going to do something in France, you had better do it well.

And, really, why not? What is so precious about our amateurism? What is useful about our dishonest self-deprecation? What makes the mediocre good enough?

I realized that it was time to stop wearing shorts in the winter, even in the apartment, unless some sort of exertion was involved. I also completely clammed up in the speaking-French department. My first lesson in two months went nicely enough as lessons have gone, but my clunky hesitations, my susceptibility to dead-end constructions drove me wild. I must practice, and practice seriously. Reading French is fine, but it is not a substitute for self-expression. At the moment, however, I'm stuck at the stage of scolding myself in public, and apologizing to Francophone readers (over three percent of my visitors are in France) for not having filled out the L'Hexagoniste corner of the Daily Blague.

I have learned one thing about French that I didn't get before: it is not common practice in French to preface thoughts with "I think" or "I wonder" or "It seems to me" as a matter of course. Such phrases are a touchstone of American modesty, and I would feel very brassy without them, but I see that in French they merely convey weakness of intellect. If you think something, it's enough to say it outright. Weaseling with qualifiers isn't going to make a bad idea any more palatable. Allez, courage!


TrackBack URL for this entry:


That's it! The French are all Harvard students!

I am a kottke.org micropatron

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2