August 07, 2007


One of the great, unforeseen advantages of my scribal shrine is that it's a great place to hang Post-It Notes. I have a dispenser on the desk; the notes come out in fanfold. Very handy. But I never knew what to do with the notes once I'd written them.

Usually, the notes constitute a horizontal to-do list. Do this, call that. Today, there is only one Post-It in view. On it, I have written the French word affût. I don't know what this word means. Its denotation, "carriage, mount," is clearly not the sense in which it's ordinarily used. A l'affût seems to mean "in hiding." The phrase être à l'affût de means "to be lying in wait for" or "to be on the lookout for."

That's all very well, but when the word pops up in French texts, none of the foregoing makes complete sense.

May 31, 2007

Mr Chatterbox - en français!

I spent last evening in a warm, Francophone hum. First, I watched Arsène Lupin. Then I read Le Prix de l'Argent, the latest installation - and a half-installation at that, to be continued, if you please! - of Largo Winch's adventures. (Well, it's not the latest, I see. It was,  though, when I put it in my shopping basket!) The two pastimes went together very well.

Jean-Paul Salomé's 2004 adaptation of the Arsène Lupin stories was never released in the United States, and therefore no DVD was produced for the North American Region. Having finally purchased a DVD player that reads discs from all regions, however, I can now order DVDs directly from France - or from anywhere! - as long as I want to watch them in the bedroom, which is where the special player is installed. Even before I hooked up the new machine, I had a few DVDs that wouldn't play on a regular American player. Le chat, for instance. I have no idea why this classic study of marital discord, starring Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret, has not been reissued by the Criterion Collection, much less overlooked entirely. I bought a copy of Keeping Mum while it was still in the American theatres - what a moron. Had I but waited... And there's a Spanish film in the new-disc basket that I don't even remember ordering. You know how that is.

But Arsène Lupin justifies the new DVD machine as no other movie could. I can understand why it was not released here, even though it stars Romain Duris, Kristen Scott Thomas, and Eva Green. It is a very good film, of its type, but that's the problem. The type that it belongs to could best/most misleadingly be described as "Gallic Indiana Jones." You're right: at the end of the day, "Gallic Indiana Jones" just does not compute. It will take me weeks to be more articulate, but for the moment I'll just say that Arsène Lupin is, from an American marketing perspective, toxically melodramatic. (You'll find something about Arsène Lupin here.)

And then there are the subtitles.

There are subtitles.

But they are in French. In French only. Thank heaven! Because I would never have been able to follow the story without French subtitles. I'm not entirely sure that, even with their help, I did follow the story. But I think I did. Let me tell you: it was GREAT FUN to watch Kristen Scott Thomas underplay a semi-supernatural villainess out of Edward Gorey. If nothing else, Arsène Lupin taught me that Ms Scott Thomas was put on this earth to enact all the great Gorey roles, even if, being for women, they are rather brief. But La chauve-souris dorée - how magnificent she'd be! And the original Gorey title is already in French! (It means - and, really, the humor of the thing totally hangs from the difference between the music of the French title and the brutal English - "The Gilded Bat." There's something about that "Bat" that's like an insect smashed on a windshield.)

And yes, I did say "underplay." The lady is exquisite.

Monsieur Duris, on the other hand, rivals Johnny Depp for swashbuckling, although he is not the least little bit camp. This movie was made before his "breakthrough" (I'm not sure that it was), De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, but it's an enormous vote of confidence, and he tackles the part with the self-assurance of Cary Grant. Eva Green, who stole my eyes, if not my heart, in Casino Royale, gets to play the innocent girl, and, being Eva Green, that means that she makes innocence interesting.

A costume historian would have a field day attacking the outfits. The gowns are almost willfully anachronistic. Ms Scott Thomas's character appears to favor 1910 for daytime wear and 1885 for the evenings. Major hoot. You think the French don't know what they're doing? About couture?

As for Largo Winch - the wonderful thing is that I can really read Largo Winch now. Only rarely do I have to look anything up, and even then I don't, really; I've caught the sense. This evening, I had to look up "comparaître" and "surenchérir," among a very few other words. For those of you who've never heard of this series of bandes dessinées - comic books for grownups - Largo Winch is a hunky blond who inherits a vast conglomerate, which he thereupon tries to run on idealistic lines, while treating décolletée ladies with the most thoroughgoing chivalry. On one level, it's Playboy fantasy. That is, not only are the babes stacked, but the "article" is worth reading! On another level, the series idealizes a certain fantasy of American life. Creators Jean van Hamme (writer) and Philippe Francg (drawings)* have clearly expensed a lot of quality time on this side of the pond, looking and listening, and the Largo Winch series almost reads like an American cartoon that has been translated into French. In that sense, the series is the complete opposite of Arsène Lupin. In the end, though, only a French (all right, Belgian) writer would come up with the hero's totally super name. Largo Winch! Is that studly or what? The one invention that I can find in these books is the headquarters of Group W, a tower on Central Park West, next to the Dakota. Everything else is scrupulous. Le Prix de l'Argent, for example, will tell you what the Waldorf-Astoria looks like, and how far it is from the Helmsley Building at the bottom of Park Avenue. Better than a photograph, I assure you!

In Le Prix de l'Argent - the story is completed in La Loi du Dollar - Largo is upset to find out that a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a subsidiary in his vast holdings has fired all its employees and moved its operations to the Czech Republic. How could this happen? Cooked books and stock options, of course! I expect that many Continental readers will pick up the ABCs of executive enrichment from this book's very plausible plot. There's lots of action along the way, because - did I forget to say this? - Largo Winch went to the James Bond School of Management. He is forever being shot at and handcuffed. I know; I said "Playboy fantasy." I meant - and what's probably the selfsame thing - "B School fantasy." If only quarterly meetings were like this!

* I probably have these accreditations completely backward. Pardon!


May 02, 2007

My own private idiocy suffering

Les cérises sont très beau, non?

Les cérises sont très beaux, oui?

Les cérises sont très belles, oui?

Je ne suis pas Énarque, non?

March 28, 2007

Out of Bed

The title of Elaine Sciolino's story, "Typical French Town Is Split Over Elections," is misleading. Ms Sciolino's report is all about voters who can't make up their minds about "Sarko, Ségo," or the self-styled Third Way, François Bayrou.

The indecision cuts across class and ethnic lines, uniting workers, merchants, union leaders, students, bureaucrats, the children of immigrants and the unemployed. Even voters who have chosen a candidate confess that their support is shallow at best.

Everyone Ms Sciolino talks to appears to have surrendered to a certain realistic cynicism: none of the candidates, if elected, will fulfill campaign promises.

Has Jacques Chirac's careerism been so corrosive as to undermine the French electorate's faith in representative government? Or does a Yoplait worker, Jean-Pierre Bertin, put his finger on the problem when he says, "France is always complaining. We always complain. But we never take action."

France today is like a guy who's sleeping in. He's very comfortable - oh! so comfortable. He would like to stay where he is forever. Trouble is, he has to pee. Five more minutes, he says. And keeps saying. Until finally he sweeps the bedclothes away and lurches to his feet. He knows that there's no point in going back to bed; that delicious comfort has been lost forever. Life goes on.

France has been dawdling in a bed of bloated public-sector employment and stringent job-protection regulation. It would seem that everyone in France must have a family member who works for the government, or who holds a job thanks only to laws that make it difficult to fire employees. Why, in other words, would anyone outside the functionally excluded pool of magrebin children want to change the system? But the system must be changed - who knows how.

Charles DeGaulle was the last man truly to lead the French, and even the slightest glance at his character and competence makes it painfully clear that there is no one like him on the scene today. French voters are probably going to have to learn to make do without magisterial authorities. They - the voters - are supposed to be the ultimate authorities. They're the ones who will have to decide to get out of bed - who ought to be making that decision now. Democracy goes on.

March 15, 2007


Our moment of spring here in New York is coming to an end as I write, with temperatures dropping and rain predicted to turn into snow. Happily, there's the extra daylight.

When I stopped in at McNally Robinson last Friday, to buy novels by Turgenev on a whim, I picked up a schedule of the bookshop's coming events. My heart sank when I saw that they'd be presenting their first francophone event ever on Tuesday (two nights ago), an evening for which I had grand tickets to hear the Russian National Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall. Even though I didn't know the first thing about any of the Quebecois writers who would be reading from their work, I thought I really ought to go, and so did Kathleen and Fossil Darling and Ms NOLA.* Getting rid of the tickets was a pain; I ended up handing them over to a young German couple on the 6 train. I hope that they realized that, if they were going to use them - the woman seemed very eager, the man not so much - they'd have to find a train heading in the opposite direction.

McNally Robinson was fairly overflowing with people interested in participating in a francophone event.** I would find out afterwards that lots of those one hand were francophone only to the degree that I am - very roughly, in other words. I will write about the readers and their books as I get to them - the books, that is. For the moment, I can say that I'd had a lubricating Manhattan before heading downtown, and my comparable disinhibition meant that I jumped right in speaking French, however badly. I also joined in a conversation that several guests were having with the extremely affable Quebecois cultural attaché, M Jean-Pierre Dion.

Did the evening mark a change in my life? Since Ms NOLA began supplying me, about two years ago, with interesting dates around town, I've been to more book events, mostly by myself, than in all the prior years of my existence. But this time, I gave up a very good concert in order to do so. I was very torn about the decision, and still regret not hearing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto the Prokofiev Fifth - not to mention my favorite Stravinsky, the Scherzo Fantasque. Next to that familiar, beloved music, the reading at McNally Robinson was new and different, and far more demanding. But that's just it. It didn't have to be more demanding. I could have just sat there. But I was determined to interact. This determination to interact isn't exactly new anymore. But it didn't trump a concert until Tuesday.

* NB: Had Kathleen been able to go to the concert - and we knew by the weekend that she wouldn't be - the dilemma would never have arisen.

** All three books were promoted in English translation; only one was also available in the original.

January 10, 2007


The author of A Flickering Light has decided to take a break - and possibly permanent leave - from blogging. That's to be regretted, because few if any bloggers have his range of interests or can write so intensely about them. Sometimes, life takes big turns, and new people are involved. Or it may just be a new place - and W- is soon to be moving from Geneva to Singapore. Wasn't it about this time last year that the author of Journal d'un Vrai Parisien retired? He was quite open about his reason: he had fallen in love. Kids can fall in love in public. With older folks it's likely to be awkward, and you can take it from me that the new loved one is probably not going to be keen on the new crowd of virtual friends, all of whom know how you liked last night's dinner.

I often regret having started the Daily Blague at such an advanced age. But reflection and experience suggest that I may be just old enough.

September 13, 2006


J'allais lire un chapitre de La télé - euh, I was going to read a chapter of La télévision when I discovered that JR has undertaken a new blogue, Mnémoglyphes. I like the playfulness of the name itself, and I refuse to translate it other than as Mnemoglyphes, dropping only the accent aigu. "Nemogliffs" - Greek for "marks of memory," or somesuch. Oh, crikey, there I've gone and translated the new blog's name into something that sounds out of a cemetery. Alors, that's why there's Greek!

Near the start, JR talks of the sentimental journey that he's taking, back to his first Blogger blog.

Mais c'est solide, autant que ça l'était quand j'ai débuté avec eux en 2001 et j'ai la nostalgie de ces premiers temps (un peu).

[But it's sturdy, just as it was when I began using it in 2001 - and I'm feeling nostalgic for those early days (a bit).]

It's yet another reminder that the world in which I spend my days did not exist ten years ago. There were rudimentary precursors of blogs, but even HTML was still in flux.

Although it is not taught anymore, "Reading French" - or "German" or "Chinese" - used to be a respectable academic course. It was designed to equip scholars to read literature written in a language that they would never speak. This was particularly useful to Americans, so many of whom never leave the country. It still would be. Learning to read a language fluently is infinitely easier than learning how to speak it - just as it's much easier to learn to read than it is to learn to write (how soon we forget). Let this entry be a small encouragement to anyone who regrets having let her high-school French fade away. With the help of a nice, fat dico - one that lays out a lot of idioms and prepositional phrases - immense and satisfying progress can be made.

Does anyone know of any good Italian blogs? Mnemoglifi, per esempio?

March 03, 2006

In Which I Watch (French) Television

Chasing inspiration for the last of this week's contributions to the "L'Hexagoniste" archive, I spent yesterday afternoon watching TV5MONDE - as the channel has been rechristened in a recent spruce-up. TV5 is not a French television network but a confection, a "best-of" collection of programs drawn from Switzerland, Belgium and Canada as well as from France. It was from a Swiss news broadcast that I learned of the latest non-scandal, involving what the President knew about Hurricane Katrina and when he knew it - and about how he lied about all of that. "Mensonge" was a word that came up several times in the story. Needless to say, nobody at the Times is saying any such thing. That's why it's so vital to have a foreign source of news. And no, I don't hate America - although I do think that too many Americans have a very different idea of how a republic ought to be conducted than I do.

The show that was on when I tuned in was all about the gardens at Versailles. Someone from the Podalydès family of actors impersonated a guide leading a group through the parterres and among the fountains. The show had an unbelievably impromptu air, and did not appear to be photographed by a professional. Now that I think of it, the shots of the statues and jetting water were great, but the tour shots were incompetent. Never mind. The point was to explain the significance of the gardens. Why up until now I have thought that the decoration was merely decorative I have no idea. Because not only does the layout reflect the monarchy, symbolically, but it really reflects it, by making constant allusions that reverse the cardinal topography. East is west, south is north - because inversion is what you get in a mirror. I'm amazed that I understood as much of it as I did. Of course I hauled out my big French coffee-table book about the château - no inconvenience, because I've been referring to it while reading Kathryn Davis's Versailles, a novel about Marie-Antoinette that I am grappling with at the moment.

I had to switch over to something else for a while during a show called Village en vue. This is a Canadian show, and the village in question was Inverness, Québec, not a particularly French corner of Canada. The accents were - well, I've heard about French-Canadian accents, but I didn't think they got much worse than those on display in Les Invasions Barbares. They do, however. The name of the village alone is enough to wear down a French accent.

When I came back, it was time for Les coups du coeur de Bruno. Only Stephen Fry, I think, could play Bruno Clément in the BBC version. Massive in a somewhat compact way (he's French, after all!), Bruno is even more massively sure of himself. He loves to eat delicious food. He seems to have no interest whatsoever in making it, however, and when he's listening to a cook outline the steps of a recipe, you feel that Bruno is not taking internal notes. (The recipes are available from the show's Web site, but I didn't catch it. Maybe next Thursday.) This is not to deny that Bruno is a celebrated restaurateur. Alain Ducasse is a "buddy." On his show, Bruno goes here and there to sample great food, usually (on the evidence of one show) in a professional chef's home kitchen. The chefs' home kitchens in the show that I saw were all in Malta, and indeed the photography of Valletta would have been interesting enough to keep me watching even if I didn't know from All-Clad. Bruno's guide to Malta was a former knockout in her fifties who still looked great. She seemed to be a maltaise who spoke excellent French and could tell you how deep the port is. The very idea of Les coups du coeur de Bruno on American television was hilarious.

Then followed two game shows, and on this point the difference between Here and There is blinding. French game shows are hard, much harder than, say, Jeopardy. In Des Chiffres & des Lettres, contestants either unscramble strings of letters to form words (not necessarily using all the letters), or they figure out how to reach a numerical figure by manipulating given integers. Imagine: You're to arrive at 785 by adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing five or six other numbers. The host is cute in a Richard-Thomas way, the set is a quiet riot of pastels, and it's all done with lighting, but beneath the surface glitz nothing American will be found. The audience members all seemed to have their own pens and pads, for working things out.

I began to bear in mind Raymonde Carroll's thoughts about seduction, and, sure enough, everyone was séduisant. Not necessarily great-looking, and certainly not alluring in any obvious way. But everyone was presentable, with trim hair and stylish eyeglasses, and, what's more, an eagerness to engage. The French don't appear to feel that their privacy is invaded by one's interest, because they've got a whole forecourt of privacy that's designed expressly to be invaded, while the castle itself remains unassaulted.

The second show was called Télélettre, I think. This was a words-only game, but it was plenty complicated, and where Des Chiffres & des Lettres had a library-like calm while heads were scratched (as they never were), the atmosphere at Télélettre was tense, and I had the delight of answering a couple of questions ahead of time. The game was complicated, too, with many things going on at the same time (strings of letters were to be unscrambled, with the sole misfit taking its place in a question-and-answer combo. ("Ou de Vinci a-t-il peint sa 'Cène'?" "Milan.") The questions were tough, although quite a few involved American pop culture.

American game shows are all about quick responses under pressure. French game shows add genuine difficulty to the mix. The people who appear on them, obviously, were good students once upon a time, and their minds are highly disciplined. I don't suggest for a minute that the French are smarter than we are. But their smarts are more public, more prized. The French don't appear to believe that you're giving up an advantage if you let someone know how intelligent you are. Au contraire.

A children's show came on. I can't remember the title, but it had craque and cérise in it. The End of French Television For Yesterday! There was a time in my life when I was convinced that the French are capable of extraordinarily bad taste; when I would point out that even the most sublime works of Rameau and Ravel can't resist the occasional, and very discreet, fart. I now believe that if I'm right about the farts, then French taste is the best in the world. But the kiddie show that came on after the games was - diabetic. It made Mr Rogers's Neighborhood look like Sunrise Semester. It's nice to think that French children grow up warm and secure in their extended families, but if TV like this is part of the equation, I'll take the edgier American version. 

March 02, 2006


The book that I mentioned yesterday, Cultural Misunderstandings, takes its place on a lengthening shelf of titles including The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, The Philosopher's Demise, Into a Paris Quartier, Our Paris, and Almost French. These are not books about Paris, but books about Anglophones stubbing their toes on alien expectations. They're about self-discovery, in short. Stay at home, and you will never get to know yourself.

You can travel to any foreign jurisdiction to encounter yourself in cultural misunderstandings, but there's no question that, from the standpoint of literary quality, France is the premier destination. Now, why would this be? Have generations of well-brought-up Americans been brainwashed into discerning the superiority of all things French? I am certain that many people think that that's exactly what it comes down to, and I know more than one American who hates France and the French, sight unseen, out of disgust for their schoolmates' going on and on about French culture. And there is good reason to regard French as "elitist"; for centuries, it was the lingua franca of cultivated people whether they spent any time in France or not. I remember, last year in Istanbul, overhearing two evidently Turkish matrons discussing clothes in smooth if strangely-accented French. It's probably easier to talk about the kind of clothes that affluent, Westernized ladies wear in French than it is to do so in Turkish.

But France and the United States have a truly special relationship. There would be no United States without the (misguided) assistance of the French monarchy - we can start with that. Somewhat weightier is the fact that, of all European peoples, France has contributed the least to the American melting pot. Many French people emigrated to Québec, it's true, in the seventeenth century, but Canada was French at the time; the French seem disinclined to leave Francophonia. Setting aside the Québecois contribution to American civilization, are there any French neighborhoods anywhere in the United States? Have there ever been? Perhaps, but they have vanished. The links between the two countries are strongest not at some immigrant base but at the top, where good educations instill mutual familiarity and regard.

There is only one other country in the world that is as full of itself as France and the United States are, and that is the former Middle Kingdom. By "full of itself" I mean that these countries simply can't contain themselves; they need to make an impression on everybody else. (The beginning of wisdom, when contemplating the British Empire, is to see how untrue this was of the soldiers and administrators who wielded authority abroad.) In France, the need is embodied in la mission civilisatrice - the civilizing mission. Needless to say, there are few Americans (and all of us live in Manhattan) who believe that what this country needs is the civilizing aid of primates capitulards toujours en quête de fromage. Similarly, the French have developed a marvelous ectoplasm of bogus cool that they use to inoculate themselves against contamination by the shrapnel of American popular culture. As Bernard-Henri Lévy suggested in his talk at the 92nd Street Y a while back, you can't have two countries that insist, as both France and the United States tend to do, that they're "Best Country."

Toward the end of Cultural Misunderstandings, Raymonde Carroll surmises that the French equivalent of money, as a cultural solvent or common term by which almost anything can be measured, is seduction.

Like money for Americans, amorous seduction is charged with a multiplicity of contradictory meanings for the French, depending on the person to whom one is speaking and the moment one raises the topic. Nonetheless, if a (French) newspaper article defines a particular person as séduisante, the term does not refer to indisputable characteristics but to a category recognizable by all, to a common pointing of reference, to a comprehensible description shortcut.

Bearing in mind that being seductive requires at least as much work as getting rich (you can be born rich), we see what a volatile couple France and the United States are going to make, attracted and repelled à la fois.

March 01, 2006

Bonjour America

Into the funk of not feeling very well yesterday came the light of Cyrille de Lasteyrie, a French advertising man who amuses himself by filming short monologues, under the rubric Bonjour America, about popular topics in an English that is far from perfect and delivered in an accent quite unlike any that I've heard before. His imitation of Robert de Niro broke me up, even if it was the only good imitation in his repertoire (he can do Meg Ryan's twisty fingers, though). His explanation of the American conviction that the French are arrogant shows how dependent a certain type of French humor depends on highly animated facial expressions. The whole production - there are eight shorts as of this writing - is preposterous and impudent, and just what I needed.

Equally entertaining, if far more substantial, is Raymonde Carroll's Cultural Misunderstandings: The French-American Experience (Carol Volk's translation of Évidences invisibles). This slim book put me in mind of a really entertaining Vanity Fair article, only one that was also thoughtful and lasting. An anthropologist who taught for twenty years in the United States before she sat down to write her book in 1987, Mme Carroll undertook to apply professional rigor to the accumulation of exasperated stories that she had gathered up from friends and family on both sides of the Atlantic. There is an almost slapstick fun to her account of cultural pratfalls, but in the end the importance of her book for an American reader is not its explanation of the French, but rather its insight into unconscious American motivation.

I'm not sure if I'm using the word correctly, but Mme Carroll presents her findings on a series of topoi. She begins with the home: how differently Americans and the French build and occupy their habitats. It takes her no time to polish a revealing anecdote that I shall copy entire. 

An American student who spent a year living with a French family told me that an uncomfortable situation had developed toward the end of her stay, that there had been a kind of estrangement, for reasons which she did not understand. After she answered all kinds of questions from me, we reconstructed the misunderstanding as follows. At the beginning of her stay, as she did not yet know the family, she spent a good deal of time chatting with the mother and children on returning from school, before going to work in her room. Since she didn't feel quite comfortable yet, she kept the door to her room open. Much later, when she thought that she had become "a member of the family" and really felt at home, she (unconsciously) began acting exactly as she did at home. That is, on returning from school, she simply said hello and went directly to her room to work, automatically closing the door. It was at this point that the family, who must have felt she was rejecting them without understanding why, began to treat her with greater distance, "like a foreigner." Only after our discussion did she realize that what was for her a kind of compliment to the family (they made her feel at home) was on the contrary an insult (undeserved, and therefore all the more baffling) to the family, who had treated her as one of them.

The mutuality of misunderstanding is quite elegant, but more remarkable still is the amount of information that can be mined from the story. It teaches us a great deal about the greater obligation, in France, to participate actively in family life, and how quickly familiarity in America leads to autonomy. Later in the book, Mme Carroll counsels Americans with fantasies of "becoming French" that, time and time again, she has heard of expatriates who suddenly couldn't take the insistence of French personal contact anymore. The girl in this story wasn't headed down that pathway, which is usually peopled by adults, but we can infer the effort of "going native" from the unconscious ease with which she slipped the lead of her hosts' interest in her as soon as she felt comfortable in their home. And as for the family's interest - would you characterize it as generous or as nosy? They meant it generously, but it could only have been felt as an oppression.

The second topos is conversation. This was mortifying for me to read, because I know that I have a tendency to lecture at the dinner table, and this is something that the French can't abide. The other night at the dinner table I found myself conversing in both modes (at different times). In American conversation, people are allowed to present what, in their view, is the complete expression what they have to say about something. What they have to say will often take the narrative form and consist of a beginning, a middle and an end, without all of which the point of the story will be lost and the speaker might as well never have opened his mouth. The French conceive of conversation differently. If you looked at Monday's entry, "Le Sérieux," you'll have read an outsider's somewhat acid evaluation of French conversation. It is not that Mme Carroll is more indulgent, but simply that, as a Frenchwoman, she understands it from inside.

The interruption-punctuations [of French conversation], then, are proof of spontaneity, enthusiasm, and warmth, a source of unpredictability, interest and stimulation, a call for participation and pleasure. They are the ties that bind, that bring the conversants closer together. This explains why very animated conversations (at cafés for instance) are a source of pleasure and stimulation (just like a wild game of soccer at the beach). These conversations take place among people who have already established a relationship (that of being "old regulars" may be sufficient in order to "talk politics"), who meet at the café expecting such conversations. The rhythm of the exchange, the tone of the voices, and the frequency of the laughter are indications of the pleasure that the participants draw from the conversation. The faster the rhythm, the higher the voices go, and the more the exchange is punctuated with laughter, until the final explosion.

Has Mme Carroll just explained, in passing, why Americans can't seem to enjoy soccer?

Ensuing chapters discuss important human relationships - parents, children, lovers, and friends, and then turn to troublesome areas, such as the use of the telephone, the different ways of handling minor accidents (such as breaking a wine glass), seeking information. There is something very interesting on every page; Cultural Misunderstandings, despite its clunky title, is almost a guilty pleasure to read.

February 28, 2006

Lost in Translation? Not.

In the interest of improving my French without writing out all the possible variations of je ne m'en suis jamais entendu parler, I ordered a copy of Adam Gopnik's De Paris à la lune (translated by Jean Lefèvre). I already had the original, although I'd never opened it, having read the contents when they appeared in The New Yorker in the Nineties. It occurred to me, though, that the translation would be reasonably hip - I was not taught ONE useful phrase in school and I want my money back!!! - so that, if I came across a phrase that I didn't quite grasp, I could see what it was supposed to mean in sophisticated English.

Didn't have to read far. I began with a very short (but very trenchant) piece about an incident at the Tour Eiffel, "Problème à la Tour." Here's the very first sentence.

En juillet, Paris est quasiment abandonné aux touristes et à leur suite tandis que les autres filent vers le sud ou vers l'ouest, bref ailleurs.

Oh, that word, it drives me crazy: ailleurs. Don't tell me what it means, because "elsewhere" never works in the translation of any sentence that I've found it in. "bref ailleurs" stumped me completely. "Brief elsewhere?" No dictionary would ever clear up this mystery. I hoped that Mr Gopnik's original, "Trouble at the Tower," would. (Note "Problème" for "Trouble" - trouble wouldn't be correct, but the alliteration is lost.) And it did.

Paris in July is pretty much left to the tourists and the people who look after them, while everyone else goes south, or west, or, in any case, away.

There's a lot to learn from this example beyond the meaning of "bref ailleurs" - which, I also note, is not preceded by ou. "Abandonné" replaces "left to," and "filent" replaces "goes." "The people who look after them" becomes "leur suite." I'd have never figured that out, because (I think) I know what suite means, and it sort of makes sense, sort of, except that of course it doesn't. Is "quasiment" a spot-on equivalent of "pretty much"? I suppose that it is, although the fat red dictionary gives "almost, practically" and "more or less." I know that presque would be wrong, or not quite right, but until now quasiment has not taken its place in my speaking vocabulary.

And that's what this is all about: my speaking vocabulary. It is much, much smaller than my reading vocabulary. The only way to import more words into my speaking vocabulary is to use them, but you can see the problem right away. Without massive drilling, it's going to take forever. Working out sentences such as these is a powerful substitute. What's more, it translates the kind of English that I aspire to write (and hope that I sometimes do). Mr Gopnik is a hugely talented writer with a command of nuance that frightens me, because I can't gauge its shelf-life.

It's sobering for any serious writer to wonder how long the writing will be intelligible, easily read. Educated Anglophones still read Shakespeare as Shakespeare wrote it, although with copious notes. The same is not true of Montaigne, a writer not quite a generation older than Shakespeare. One reads Montaigne in "translation." It's true that modern French doesn't really take off until the latter third of the seventeenth century, but English as we speak it isn't much older than Jane Austen. (Of course, Shakespeare is Shakespeare.) Interestingly, Dante, I believe, is still largely intelligible to Italians, while Chaucer, who learned a lot from Dante, writes in Middle English, a foreign language.

It's fun to see what happens to references that French readers could be forgiven for not understanding. This

exactly the look you see on the face of an impatient commuter at the Holland Tunnel who is stuck in the exact change lane behind a woman who has entered it on a hunch


le regard assassin qu'un automobiliste respectueux des règles lance à une resquilleuse écervelée.

The "impatient driver" becomes a scrupulous one, while the French lady driver has taken on a cast of criminal intent that is sweetly at odds with being scatterbrained. And the "you" who sees the exchange, so basic to stand-up humor, disappears altogether. This is the wonderfully unfaithful fidelity of sound translation. French and English are so different, but so complementary. That's why it's great not to have to choose. 

February 27, 2006

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!

November 09, 2005

This Week's Tune (See right)

When "Mexico" was a big hit on French radio, a certain gentleman in my acquaintance had just been given his first bicycle. The only condition to his free enjoyment of this wonderful acquisition was that, for the time being, it was not be ridden outside the apartment building's courtyard. This was not an unreasonable restriction, given that the gentleman was then about eight or nine years of age, and living in Nizza la bella - Nice.

It must have been the song, blaring from a radio somewhere. Music can be very inspirational, bien sûr! As luck would have it, the boy's father came home from work a little early, one fine day, and encountered his son coasting, hands free, down the street, bellowing Luis Mariano's Mexican yodel.

"It was the only time that he ever punished me."   

October 06, 2005

To a Friend in Distress, Upon Learning that "Connoisseur" is Not a French Word

I don't know when it happened, but I believe that the transition was complete by the time of the Revolution. The old pronunciation of words such as françois - "france-sway" - dropped the "w" sound and came to be spelled français, while in those few uses that retained the old spelling, ie the name François, "sway" shifted to "swah." So the French now speak of connaisseurs, and the Swiss have a canton called Valais, formerly Valois.

There is a very elegant remnant that proves the point. It is our word "oboe." This is taken from the Italian, where it is pronounced "o-beau-way." That is a rough and ready transliteration of the Renaissance French that first named the instrument: high wood, or hautbois.

September 15, 2005

Une journée « manque de fun » (Récit hebdo)

J’en ai assez des obligations aujourd’hui, hélas. Le matin, il a fallu régler la facture. Je l’ai fait, mais d’une manière maladroite. (J’ai cacheté par exemple le cheque destiné à la société carte bancaire dans l’enveloppe de la société d’assurances.) Après le déjeuner, j’ai lu un roman à mon aise, persuadé que le rendez-vous chez la pédicure aurait lieu à quinze heures trente. En conséquence, j’ai dû téléphoner au Prof pour lui dire que la leçon ne pouvait pas commencer avant mon retour, quand ça se passe.

D’où est venu cette idée de quinze heures trente ? De mon ordinateur portable, une machine folle. Lorsque je synchronise mes rendez-vous entre le grand ordinateur et le portable, le logiciel du portable ajoute une heure précise au calendrier. Moi, je ne me souviens jamais de reconnaître cette débilité mesquine. Alors, j’ai été rappelé par le grand ordinateur du temps correct – trois minutes en avant ! J’ai volé à la clinique, j’ai fait le retour aussi vite. Et maintenant j’écris ce récit interminable.

Donc il faudra qu’on attende au lendemain pour expédier la facture !

NB: C'était hier que je redigeai tout cela, mais je n'ai aucune idée de le reviser.

July 14, 2005

Le quatorze juillet


Although I am conflicted about La révolution - something had to happen, but did that have to happen? - I am untroubled by Bastille Day itself, and I wish the Fifth Republic a thousand years. Liberté, égalité, fraternité! (Thanks, Édouard.)

July 13, 2005

Memo To Self

Memo to self: don't leave your little French pieces at the top of a page. Ahem. Please refrain from conveying the impression that this is a French-language site.

Yesterday's French lesson went well. My mind was slightly elsewhere until, in the last half hour, I had the bright idea of regaling my prof with the Paris restaurant stories that I'd struggled to convey at our first meetings eighteen months ago (when I hadn't even found out that he is a retired restaurateur). Like the one about the Lab pup at Apicius (now in the VIIIe) who got away from his mistress and made a tour of the other tables, which made everybody giggle except the oblivious owner. And the one about the little bishop, decked out in scarlet and fringe for lunch with his parents at La Grande Cascade, who was so impatient for a taxi that the management finally had a kitchen boy drive him away in a beat-up old hatchback, or the really divine bavarois au poivron that Kathleen had at the now-shuttered Vivarois. These tales were all much easier to put over yesterday, thanks to all that my prof has taught me - and to his truly remarkable patience.

Lettre à un ami (extrait)

Après que j’aie posté un commentaire au sujet de la plus récente de vos photographies, je fus saisi, sans que l’on sache pourquoi, par la crainte que le mot « photographie » est du genre masculin, pas du féminin. La force de cette certitude m’a rendu autant ridicule que mon courage s’affaiblit, et je ne pouvais pas chercher le mot dans le dico jusqu’après le déjeuner. Quoique j’eusse raison – le mot est au féminin - j’ai du mal à le croire.

Je disais autrefois, « Dieu soit loué, je suis né anglophone ; car de toutes les langues du monde, l’anglais est la plus difficile à apprendre. A cette époque, je ne connaissais que du français peu utile de la salle de classe. Je ne crois plus que le français est plus facile à apprendre que l’anglais. La différence, a mon avis, c’est que la plupart des anglophone ne parlent pas très bien leur langue, alors que la plupart des français me paraissent compétents.

Si vous voulez bien, je vais faire traduire ce courriel, en tant que ma dissertation hebdomadaire. Est-ce que je vous ai dit que mon professeur, restaurateur retraité, m’a flatté avec l’assurance que je ne commets que les erreurs fait par tout les français. Heureusement, je ne le crois pas.

Amicalement, &c

[NB: j'ai traduit tout cela sans l'aide de Babelfish]

June 29, 2005

Notre immeuble, notre appartement

Notre appartement se trouve dans un immeuble qui fut construit en 1963 – pas une bonne année ni pour l’esthétique architecturale ni pour la construction fiable. On y méprise le style de l’immeuble ; c’est d’un revêtement de la « white brick » (brique blanche). Il y a beaucoup d’appartements à l’intérieure – presque huit cent. L’immeuble s’appelle quelque chose de prétentieux, mais nous l’appelons « L’arche de Noé », car parmi les habitants il y a au moins deux exemplaires de tout genre humain.

L’appartement consiste en quatre pièces, avec une entrée et deux salles de bain. Le salon est un peu plus grand que les deux chambres, dont une nous servons comme chambre à coucher, et l’autre comme bibliothèque. On dîne au salon. J’ai environ deux à trois mille livres, dont j’ai bien lu la plupart. Nous n’avons pas de rayons suffisants pour les livres, parce que malheureusement nous avons aussi une petite collection d’art, composée de tableaux et d’estampes. On ne peut que consacrer chaque millimètre carré de mur à l’une collection ou à l’autre. La chambre à coucher a tout le temps l’air ensoleillé, grâce à la couleur jaune foncée des murs. Nos fenêtres donnent sur l’est.  

La cuisine, c’est un trou. Je ne peux pas en parler. Mais c’est moi qui fait la cuisine. En revanche, nous jouissons du large balcon, ou on peut s’asseoir des heures, en regardant les avions en train d’atterrir à l’aéroport La Guardia.

June 23, 2005

That's all very well, but does Paris love me?

Reading about Americans buying pieds-à-terre in Paris prompted this declaration to Ms NOLA: "The whole purpose of my blog is to make me so famous that the French welcome me as an honorary Parisian, tax-free." I'm working on it! Two paragraphs a week en bon français may max me out, but I'm working on it!

JR, at L'homme qui marche, feeds these longings with the news that Google Maps now covers Paris. He, however, is not having a great time in the heat, especially given la fête de la musique, an annual nocturnal carnival that, like everything, used to be better. One commenter dismissed it as little more than the occasion for badauderie saoulographique (drunken passers-by making a racket).

Speaking of famous, Jason Kottke was on TV last night. I didn't just happen on it, believe me. Mr Kottke announced it in advance. He was a guest on something called "Attack of the Show" on G4 TV. I had no idea if I even got G4 TV, but it turns out that I do. It will be a long time, however, before I tune in again to a channel devoted to video games. (They're unbelievably grim, as an hour of G4 reminded me.) Mr Kottke was mellow and self-possessed, far less amped by the studio environment than the earlier guests. He even made his host look frantic. I am watching the development of with the greatest interest. As it shifts from a technoblog to something broader and more humanistic, as Mr Kottke enters middle age and reflects more frankly and more pertinently than a young person can, the challenge of creating a reader-supported blog deepens richly. And the author happens to be one of the more gifted Web log photographers.

June 21, 2005

Mon Quartier (II)


En règle générale, les rues de Manhattan ne sont pas très commerçantes. Même les grandes rues à deux sens sont pour la plupart données aux grands immeubles de bureaux ou d’appartements. Parmi les exceptions figure la Quatre-vingt-sixième rue. Il y a pas mal de petits magasins tout le long de la rue, entre (comme j’ai dit au poste précédente) l’Avenue Lexington et la Première avenue. On y vend des vêtements, des mobiles, des chaussures, du linge de maison. Il y a une grande succursale de la libraire Barnes & Noble en face de la rue. (Il y en a une autre à deux blocs !)

Mais tout cela n’est pas pour moi très convenable. Sauf la librairie, je ne fréquente pas ces magasins. Jusqu’à la réhabilitation récente de la Cent vingt-cinquième rue, rue principale d’Harlem, le commerce de notre rue était orienté vers les gens de moyens faibles. Les marchands d’Harlem étaient arnaqueurs, et pour faire les courses on descendait jusqu’à mon quartier. Bien qu’il y ait aujourd’hui du bon marché sur la Cent vingt-cinquième rue, la qualité de la marchandise ici n’est pas du haut de gamme.  

June 14, 2005

Mon Quartier

Je voudrais vous parler un instant au sujet de mon quartier. J’habite le quartier de Manhattan qui s’appelle « Yorkville ». Cet appellation n’a rien à voir avec le nom de la ville. Jusqu’à la Première Guerre Mondiale, le quartier s’appelait « Germantown » (à cause de la population pour la plupart allemande), nom qui devint une source d’embarras. Il fût remplacé par la suite pour rendre honneur à un héros de la Guerre, Sergeant Alvin C York, soldat du Tennessee.

La rue principale de Yorkville c’est la Quatre-vingt sixième rue, ou, pour mieux le dire, les blocs de la rue entre l’Avenue Lexington et le Parc Carl Schurz. Le quartier s’étend jusqu'à la Quatre-vingt seizième rue au nord et à la Soixante-dix-neuvième rue au sud. Moi, j’y habite au beau milieu.

June 06, 2005

French Test

Between the French-English and English-French halves of my Larousse Advanced, there's a Communication Guide/Guide de Communication in which templates for letters, resumes, and other exchanges proper to the customs of each language are set forth. I don't consult it very often, although I ought to, because it has a solid page on telephone etiquette, something that never fails to stymie me when I have to call M le Prof to change or cancel a French lesson. What I won't need anytime, soon, is the pair of pages on SMS messages.

If these weren't spelled out in proper French, they'd remain mostly indecipherable to me. To be sure, I didn't do much better with the ones in English.

¶ ght le p1, rentr asap

¶ slt, rdv o 6ne GspR b1 q t dak sete D6D, a+. (If you can figure out "sete," you're French and under thirty.)

¶ j t'M kestu X G tatan tjs au resto, biz.

¶ ya 1 blem, l'ordi e KC Rstp pcq G c pas keskonfe.

¶ O k1 msg G le sa V, t oqp ta oublié kestufé???

What a luxury that oublié is. A complete word! Don't try to work out a system here; G can mean je or j'ai.

PS: When buying dictionaries, don't screw up as I did. I ordered my first copy of Larousse Advanced from Amazon in France, and, to have a handier copy at the other end of the apartment, a second copy of what I thought would be the same book at Barnes & Noble across the street. In each book, the domestic-to-foreign section is at the rear. In other words, the dico in the bedroom begins with English-French. Oy!