Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Dirty Little Secrets, Part I

I hate to admit it, but sometimes I think of my French as a chore. I've always hated reading French...the occasional newspaper article doesn't bother me; neither do poems, modern plays or children's books, but I've always hated reading classic French literature. This creates a problem, because the thing about admitting to people that you've got a degree in French is that they then expect you to have an extensive knowledge of Guy de Maupassant or Baudelaire.

I could probably name a few things each of these men have written, but I couldn't tell you much beyond that. There are a few French authors I enjoy, namely Victor Hugo, Sébastien Japrisot and Marcel Pagnol...and from the African set, Ousmane Sembène, but for the most part, I regard having to read French books as a bothersome chore. I'd much prefer to listen to a radio broadcast or converse with actual Francophones than bury my nose in a book (actually two books, since frequent trips to the dictionary keep me hopping back and forth, especially for Japrisot).

It's not that the stories are bad; on the contrary, French literature is home to some of the most engaging, exciting stories ever written. I guess I've just always had a deep suspicion and dislike of so-called "classics". My mother has an extensive library of books from her teenage years, the likes of which I don't think I'll ever pick up. I can't believe she was reading Ivanhoe at 14...voluntarily. I never understood what led one book to be labeled a "classic" and another to be cast aside. Surely this was the brainchild of some marketing dope somewhere down the line. Well, I didn't fall for it! I've never read a book simply because it was a "classic"...I have, however, read books that happened to be classics because I was curious about them, like East of Eden. And, just for the record, my curiosity has absolutely nothing to do with Oprah Winfrey and her stupid club. I've already read Night, thank you very much! (Excellent book, by the way.)

I think that what I've written above wrongly paints me as a "non-reader" of those "I don't know art, but I know what I like"-types. I'm actually quite the opposite: I love to read, and spent many hours of my childhood collecting and reading books by Beverly Cleary, Lynne Reid Banks and Roald Dahl. I sought out books by these authors based purely on the fact that I had enjoyed the book read immediately prior; there was no idiot from the New York Times writing up lists and telling me which books to read.

...but I digress. I never really had a desire to read classic English literature, let alone classic French literature. Perhaps this is why graduate school didn't really appeal to me. There is far too much emphasis in foreign language departments at American universities these days on literature, and not enough emphasis on language. Many of my classmates graduated with a French degree on paper, but they wouldn't be able to wash their socks in France. I guess what really bothers me is that studying literature alone has no basis in practicality; being able to recite Racine won't get you fed and clothed in a foreign country.


Lauren said...

It might not put clothes on your back, but the little spark of joy when you can casually show that you know more about French literature than a French person does. Well that piece of warmth can warm your soul for days. But actually I agree with you. For me, French literature was homework. (I to have a degree in French) and I have a hard time seeing it as anything else. My French Aunt gave me some French contemporary short stories that I loved. And I could read Sartre and Camus any time.

Sangroncito said...

I was a Lit Major in college (a totally useless degree, by the way), and I hate most of the classics, too. But I`m an avid reader, so I completely understand what you`re saying.

Fitèna said...

When I told my lycée principal about the subjects I'd chosen for my HSC he was surprised and found it very foolish on my part not to have chosen French lit. I told him it was a bore and I hated "Candice"! I tried reading "Les Fleurs du Mal" once, it put me to sleep! When I talk about this people, esp. my Mauritian friends find it quite peculiar since am a native french speaker. When I chose English lit. for HSC, they thought I had gone bananas, after all, I'd just been stdying english for less than 5 years then and was getting embarked on "The Tempest" "Waiting for Godot", "Hamlet" and the like.... English lit was cool!!!


PS: Try Amadou Hampaté Bah, he's real good. Amadou Kourouma too (that's an uncle of mine hehehe, he's passed away recently but wrotereal good too!)