Monday, March 31, 2014

haiku-ing 2

Lauds: Spring

All along the rue
Shutters bang, curtains fly in
Southwesterly wind.

Friday, March 28, 2014

i fought the cliché and the cliché won

vendredi, 28 mars 2014

The topic of the homework assignment was right up my alley: "What kind of reader are you?" I frenched my way through a description of my preferred reading habits: what, when, where, why. That kind of thing.

And then I waited eagerly to discover how badly I had mangled the grammar. The day our professor returned the graded essays I discovered a squiggly line under the phrase "la littérature non romanesque," along with the question "c'est à dire?"

I had carefully consulted my various dictionaries to discover the French words for "nonfiction literature," but I hadn't been certain of the result, so I wasn't completely surprised to see the squiggly line indicating what I'd written wasn't clear enough for her to offer a correction.

Class ended, and I accosted the professor, eager to solve a mystery that has real bearing on my life, given that nonfiction literature is the genre I work in, dreaming as I am of one day being a real purveyor of long-form narrative journalism, of narrative nonfiction, of creative nonfiction...pick your term, they're all used in the writing circles I run in.

But apparently not in my professor's writing circles. (though I'm not sure she has any writing circles at all)

Voicing my question was that step you take when you're happily ambling down a quaint Aixois sidewalk and suddenly find you've stepped into one of the piles of dog sh.../poo that polka-dot the narrow walkways. As much as you try to focus on all the ancient beauty that surrounds you in this lovely town, the reality is that dog poo is a true part of life here too. And it's not even a hidden reality.

My innocent vocabulary question dropped me into one of the cross-cultural clichés whose existence I try so desperately to deny. Mme. Professeur essentially told me, as we walked down one of the bland corridors of the Fac de Lettre's main building, that nonfiction and literature are mutually exclusive terms. When she asked what kind of writing I was talking about, I explained that the term encompasses things like essays and memoir, but tried to explain that it's really more than that, that it's a genre of literature. But she would have none of it. She was adamant that these things of which I speak are not literature.

My first response was a moment of internal panic. I HAD to make her understand. Surely, she just wasn't understanding my French explanation. That's all this was: a language problem.

But in slow milliseconds, during which all of France's proud literary history crashed in a haughty, foaming wave over the top of me, I realized that I had to admit defeat at the hands of cliché.

Painful as it is for me to write it, sometimes clichés are true. Sometimes some French people can be inordinately rigid about definitions and structures and all things anti-creativity and innovation and bohemian fluidity. This was one of those times.

But this morning I've just finished reading a redemptive interview with the French writer Emmanuel Carrère. I'd never heard of him before, but I've immediately claimed him as my new French soulmate. He's a journalist and writer who, get this, writes what he calls "nonfiction novels." Take that, Madame le Professeur!

In the way of, well, anyone who is out for revenge over insults real or imagined, I want to deliver my find to her covered in some sort of ironic giftwrap, maybe with a French chocolate on top and an Eiffel tower Christmas tree ornament.

Instead, I'm just writing a nonfiction blog post about my imagined vengeance. So much less clichéd, right?

Friday, March 7, 2014

okay, okay, i did like paris a little

Starbucks - Blvd Garibaldi - Paris
samedi 8 février 2014

First view of the Seine.
 "C'est une bonne maladie," said the bookseller in reply to my (in French) "I love books, so shops like this are hard for me," as he totaled up my purchases. It was a beautiful and true reply, and delivered in French, it carried an even greater ring of truth, profundity, and bonne-ness than the same comment would have if uttered in English.

I felt deep down that he, in his French-ness and his bookseller-ness, completely understood and approved of this bonne maladie, this good illness, even more than your average American bookseller does. France carries a bookishness that America can somehow only match in small pockets. In France, one sometimes senses that "livre" and "France" are nearly synonymous.

When visiting American friends and I browsed a tidy, aesthetically-pleasing rare books shop in Avignon several months ago, we discovered that books from 19th century authors weren't old enough for this shop. Basically, a book needed to be older than America to warrant a place on the shop's tidy shelves filled with deliciously old book bindings and their pages. In the thrice-a-week market in Aix, what seems to me like a very old book--you know from the 1800s--sells for practically a dime a dozen (or, well, 5 euros per book, which is not the price of rarity).

Back in yesterday's Parisian shop, I felt like the bonne maladie I shared with the proprietor suddenly erased our cultural differences. In fact, he and I, we're citizens of the same pays, the country of booklovers.
Happy to get to pass by again in
the dark. Love the lights!

When I entered that bookshop, I crossed a threshhold much grander than simply the one marking the distinction between the sidewalk and the room of books. You see, I had just completed my first interview entirely in French for my first reported-from-France article. And then I entered a shop full of books written in French, where I purchased a couple Parisian guidebooks-in-French and made small-talk in French across the bookseller's counter. More adamantly than many other good elements of this current blessed semester of French progress, the threshhold marked my long-awaited arrival onto the first steps leading deeper into the bowels of the French way of life and psyche, a place that has until now remained just out of reach, dependent on my gaining a greater command of the language.

I'm glad I didn't come to Paris any sooner. After 16 months of having a French mailing address, French doesn't make me tired anymore. My grammar is still often terrible, especially when I don't have time to rehearse the sentence in my head first, and I still feel like I've become a very silent, tongue-tied version of my real self, but I often understand spoken and written things now without thinking about understanding them. I understand them without translating into English. Thus, a guidebook-in-French is useful rather than painful now. What a difference a year makes!

Paris, where all your antique fire poker
needs will be met.
The beauty of journeying to Paris at this point in my language-learning marathon is that from the beginning, I've entered the City of Light as a place where I speak French not English. In Aix my identity is too marked by English because I entered that town as an English-speaker (and because it's a place overrun by anglophones). Whereas, French is the language Paris and I are using for our love affair.

I can't yet say, "Paris, je t'aime," but perhaps that's mostly because I'm not a fall-in-love-at-first-sight kind of person. A bientôt, Paris!

Like those in this article, I, too, only stumbled upon the Wall for Peace monument without knowing what it was: "peace" inscribed in 32 languages and 12 alphabets.