Saturday, November 14, 2009

Diving in

French literature of the nineteenth century grabbed me early and never let go. At 14 or 15, I stumbled upon Dumas père and devoured book after book, from the obvious (The Three Musketeers and Monte-Cristo) to the off-the-beaten track (Agénor de Mauléon and Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge). I even owned and leafed through an abridged paperback translation of his Dictionary of Cooking, mostly for the anecdotes.

I read the plays and novels of Hugo, devoured the few plays of Rostand, and then started reading Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Huysmans, and Zola – all of them in English (which I will get to later). Each author was a revelation, and there were so many titles on the shelf!

In college, an English and drama major, I took courses in French Renaissance and 18th century literature. I wrote an undergraduate thesis about the much-maligned and obscenely prolific 19th century playwright Eugène Scribe, master of the so-called "Well-Made Play". I translated and directed one of his plays: La Cameraderie (translated as The Inner Circle).

As a graduate student, I wrote about sex, money, and objects in comedy, and devoured all kinds of plays, including those of 19th century Frenchmen like Sardou, Labiche, and Feydeau. I've had a career outside academia since I got my Ph.D., but I have continued to read a lot, and certainly have read French literature of all kinds.

Now I had a very good high school French program, and I speak the language not too terribly, I hope, and read it with ease. In high school, I plunged into Molière and Voltaire without too much difficulty, read diverse poems and plays. But in my self-satisfaction after cracking open s 19th century novel in the original was a real slap in the face.

In the first sentence of Balzac's Eugénie Grandet, two words immediately sent me to the dictionary – I know then and have remembered evert since — they were "lande" (moor) and "terne" (drab), words that a neoclassicist would choke before putting on paper. That was just a start. I spent more time buried in the dictionary than in the novella, with its loving descriptions of upholstery, grotesque characters and what they were wearing, the naming of dozens of flowers and birds, and the tools of the trade and architectural details — then I gave up I had learned the difference between knowing a language and knowing a language.

So here I am, many years later, and I have decided that now I really want to read this great corpus in the original with comprehension. It's a steep climb, I know well.

This blog will track my reading of this vast corpus of literature.The prose fiction primarily, but also the plays, poetry, and discursive writing (almost every famous author seems to have written at least one travel book or five). The project will be anchored by the two prolific giants in each half of the century of the century – Balzac and Zola, whose great novel cycles are the landmarks.

I know this is a ridiculous task. The number of titles written by Balzac number almost 100. Zola wrote over 30 long novels. Flaubert and Stendhal's works are a little more finite, true, nut then there are the others: endless works by Dumas (père) and his collaborators. Eugène Sue's giant novel cycles, scads of stories from Maupassant, hundreds of plays by Scribe and Sardou and their competitors, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, George Sand, Dumas fils, the Goncourts, Musset, Mérimée, Gautier, and on and on.

However Quixotic, that's my plan — and this blog is my report from the Front. Note also that there is a companion blog, which is dedicated to the problem of getting advanced vocabulary to stick.

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