My French Books

Yesterday I tackled a job I’ve been putting off for ages – three years in fact. When I brought all my French literature books home from college, I just dumped them on the shelves with no regard for order, telling myself I’d sort them out one day. Well, that day finally came. I realised, though, why I’d been procrastinating for so long; I had no idea how to organise them. It probably sounds crazy, but when they were in college, I had them classified by chronology. The nineteenth century was on one set of shelves, the twentieth on another, and the latter were grouped in artistic movements across the century: the Surrealists came first together, then the Existentialists, the theatre of the absurd, the nouveau roman. It made perfect sense for teaching, because I could glance at my shelves and literally see what came next for a student, or which authors from a movement still needed to be studied. What messed with that classification was the 21st century, now represented in large quantities in the heaps of books around my feet. I considered sticking with the chronological approach but knew I’d come unstuck around the turn of the millennium. I considered grouping them in research topics, but there was too much crossover. In the end I caved; I separated out Francophone, poetry and theory on the bottom shelves, the nineteenth century on the next, and then simply alphabetised 20th and 21st together.

My French books

It took about five hours altogether and I was quite pleased with the result. The only problem was running out of bookshelving space in the middle of the T’s. I called my husband and son to have a look and they were rather sniffy. ‘It doesn’t look much different to how it was,’ said Mister Litlove, and I resisted the urge to thwack him with a piece of two by four.

I understood, though, why at a deeper level I had been resistant to sorting these books out. The thing is, I don’t know how to classify French literature in my life any more. For years, it was my central preoccupation. It felt almost strange to have those once so familiar books in my hands, the Colettes, the Camuses, the Sartres. They were like a group of friends with whom I used to spend all my time, but had neglected shamelessly in recent years. I was no longer sure what they all meant to me.

Dealing with the French language is the part of my job that no longer exists, and I confess that when I first abandoned it, I felt a great deal of relief. I was always far more interested in the literature than in the language elements of my job, and felt self-consciously vulnerable in the area of my language skills. As a student, I had been okay with language work but certainly not outstanding. What I needed, and what most graduate students arrange for themselves, was to spend another year or so in the country; it’s the only way to improve and it’s a guaranteed way of improving. Only, I married a week before beginning my M.Phil and had my son a month into my Ph.D. There may be women out there with the resourcefulness and courage to move themselves and a young toddler to a foreign country and somehow spend useful time there immersed in the language. I was not that woman. So I embarked on teaching feeling more than a little shaky where linguistic competences were concerned, but too busy, too tired and too unmotivated to really do anything about it.

I always dreaded the day when it would be my turn to examine language papers. When finally I was asked to be part of the team giving the oral examinations, I knew I had to bite the bullet. That year, I met up with our lovely French lectrice once a week at lunch and we’d eat and chat. When I got the passages, I spent a weekend preparing them with a French friend. I spent more time revising than the students did, and I felt sure I was every bit as nervous as they were. In the end they went off okay, but it was an exhausting experience. And what would happen if I had to mark the dreaded Use of French papers another time? In retrospect, I see that I had very good language skills, but hang around Cambridge for any length of time, and you absorb the message by osmosis that perfection is the basic attainment. Language work didn’t come easily to me, and I lacked confidence very quickly when things weren’t easy.

So putting the books in a proper order on the shelves was oddly emotional. Was I now someone who didn’t have language skills? Would I let my French fade away over the years, as it is all too easy to do? Yet I was also aware how much I loved certain authors, how important many of those books were to me, how they had shaped my thoughts, my philosophy, my understanding of both narrative and life. There were books there that I had bought in preparation for future research projects. Would I ever write seriously about French literature again? Or teach it? I felt I couldn’t bear to let the books go, but I was conflicted inside, bumping up against insecurities I hadn’t had to negotiate in a long while.

It is funny how those little disappointments we suffer over our perceived capabilities are peculiarly painful; they’re the emotional equivalent of mouth ulcers, a disproportionate infringement on our quality of life. Or, to put it simply, we are very, very tender when it comes to questions of our value. It hurts to think we can’t do things, aren’t competent, can’t master a skill. But when you look at it close up, what really hurts is having a sense of self-worth composed from external judgments alone, or a sense of competence based on (generally unfair) comparisons of ourselves with other people. In many ways I am free now to enjoy French in a way I haven’t ever been able to before. Finally, no one is judging me. And yet, the sense of insecurity lingers and feels weightier than the possibilities opening up ahead. The old external markers of value are stubborn and refuse to budge.

This is why I’ve spent my teaching life trying to persuade the students, against the odds, that the only important experience is the pleasure that arises from working with a book alone in a room, teasing out its meaning, or even in a group seminar, working together and feeling the holding, comforting power of solidarity and shared purpose. That’s learning, that’s education, and it’s an infinite, ongoing process, with good days and bad days, mistakes and revelations. I’m keeping my French books, and on a day with a bit more defiant courage, I’ll pick one up and remember all over again that my unjust sense of ‘not being very good at this’ will melt away in the face of the genuine pleasure of reading the book in my hands.


20 thoughts on “My French Books

  1. Oh, Dr B, your beautiful shelves of Folio spines are one of the defining images of my student days. It was always so lovely sitting in your room and looking at all the titles. I definitely had – and have – book-envy!

    In my current flat, book-space is very, very limited. I have one small bookcase for my own collection of French novels; I’ve grouped them (with no regard for alphabetisation or chronology – I don’t have enough of them to bother with that!) by ‘literary’/fun (I recognise the two are not mutually exclusive, but the rough categories make sense to me), policier (still addicted to Fred Vargas!), poetry, and ‘other’. 🙂

    My non-French books are crammed into one large Ikea bookcase, double rows, piled up any old how. It’s far from perfect but it will have to do. Until the day when I can have enough space to dedicate a whole room to books, that is!

  2. This is such an honest and compelling post. “We are very, very tender when it comes to questions of our value” – so true. It’s so difficult to parse these areas of our lives that are both highly rewarding and stimulating, and also productive of so much anxiety.

  3. You taught me – quite a long time ago now – and you inspired me so much. I came from a comprehensive and was struggling with first year French literature, I felt like everyone around me had been to a private school and was oh so clever and I didn’t belong in Cambridge. From you, I learnt that the most important thing was to enjoy the process of reading and interpreting and as soon as I relaxed and enjoyed it, everything was so much easier. I’m now doing a PhD (but not in French) and you are most certainly one of the reasons why. I often think of you when I’m teaching my own students.

  4. It sounds like you had a wonderful experience as a result of organizing your books. It is so nice to look forward and to know you are no longer judged but can just enjoy your French books without worrying that you aren’t meeting a certain standard. I think the students you work with are very lucky to have you and your perspective and how important it is to take pleasure not pressure in school work.

  5. Oh yes, that whole self worth thing is such a messy emotion and it is unfair to compare, but why do we keep doing it? It sounds like you are in a much better and rewarding place now–though I expect you are (and were) an exceptional teacher. I can’t imagine teaching literature in another language! I sometimes have trouble understanding it all in my own language! 🙂 It must be nice returning to those books now without all the added stresses and pressures–like visiting old friends. And they look lovely on your shelves, too!

  6. With a student’s comment like that from Clare, litlove, you’ve already gained the most valuable reward a teacher can ever hope for. How I wish to be one of your students at Cambridge 🙂 So what if your books are in disarray, you’ve apparently instilled the joy of discovery and learning in your students, and that’s the ultimate goal of your profession. Anyway, organizing those shelves is good for the psyche I know, and they look splendid. We can always get back to where we left off… as long as the books are there, and the passion is intact. You know litlove, I have a similar experience, one of a much lesser scale than yours. After I got my masters in teaching English as a second language, I found that it’s not the English language that I liked so much but literature itself. Well you are an exemplar of someone following her heart, and making life’s decisions from a responsible conscience. For this I congratulate you.

  7. Our shelves look quite similar… but mine are more crammed… I’m not as tidy, I guess.
    The way we perceive ourselves or want others to perceive us can be so limiting and takes away a lot of the joy we would otherwise have.

  8. Jo – it’s lovely to hear from you! And so funny to think you remember my books. I can still recall vividly the bookshelves of my supervisors, so it makes perfect sense – I just haven’t got used to the idea of myself as the grown-up! I do like the categories you’ve chosen for your French books and am completely addicted to Fred Vargas too. Have you read the Boileau-Narcejac thrillers? They were a big find for me a couple of years ago; just fantastic crime fiction. You may note that the bookcase featured above is from Ikea – what would we do without them?? 🙂

    Emily – and you put into words beautifully something I was groping towards – ambition makes for anxiety, whilst also offering the potentially greatest rewards. It makes so much sense put like that – the things we strain towards are both great challenges and great risks.

    Clare – that is just about the best gift you could possibly have given me. Thank you. I’ll cherish your comment. It’s so lovely to think that you are now researching and teaching too – I’m so proud of you!

    Kathleen – ah the truth is, I was lucky to have them. Teaching is such a salutory activity – it’s a branch of parenthood, I think, with all its joys and tribulations! But it was nice to reorganise my books and think about new ways of enjoying them. Thank you for your lovely comment.

    Lilian – language skills really are all practise! Dust off your petit Nicolas – you’ll remember more than you imagine!

    nicole – oh that’s so nice of you. Thank you – and you’re welcome.

    Danielle – I can warmly recommend shelf-tidying as a really good way to reacquaint yourself with your books! And teaching books is a wonderful way of learning about them. I promise you I had no idea how to do it when I started, and it was in the doing it that I learned how. As for comparing ourselves, alas, it is a powerful part of human nature. I’m trying to learn a good lesson from my cat, who seriously thinks that he really need do nothing all day in order to obtain food and love. And somehow it works! 🙂

    Arti – that is such a lovely comment, thank you. Clare’s message certainly made my day! Although I do think I was the lucky one as I always had such lovely, committed, hardworking students. It was really good for me to rearrange my shelves and I completely agree with you. Whatever you want to do, you can do it. It is essentially passion and inclination that create the perfect conditions for enjoying something. And yes, that’s exactly how I felt about my language skills – they turned out to be a means to an end, and it’s still the literature that has captured my heart. It’s funny, every day I feel grateful for the existence of books in my world. They really have been my life.

    Caroline – well, I had just spent five hours tidying mine. 🙂 And yes, you’re quite right; the more we can just be inside ourselves and acting from our interests and curiosity, the better it gets.

  9. All I have to add is my own puzzlement at the fact that one of the things I seized from the wreck of my life when I left my husband was a few volumes of French poetry. I’d like to think it was because I couldn’t bear to be parted from them, but as they’ve hardly been opened since I completed my ‘A’ Level ** years ago, I can only think it was that I like the possibility of them: I was creating a new self, and I wanted that new self to be someone who had French poety on her bookshelf.

  10. Ah, this resonates and rings and is remarkably important and poignant this entry.
    Without nearly the amassed collection you have, which is beautiful by the way and I’m CERTAIN that your shelves look far different now that they’re all arranged and aligned (sorry Mr Litlove, you just weren’t paying attention!), I hear, get, understand every bit of what you’re saying. Though i never went so far as to do the marking of the French papers at your level. I fell in love with French thanks to a babysitter I had – she knew the language and I was determined to unlock the magic of it. And majored in French and Fren lit and studied and lived in France etc etc etc and taught for years, with my very uneven accent yet I loved it, the exchange and the gradual coming to the language my students experience.

    And I am now the farthest from it you can imagine, living in the Midwest and working in a corporate consultancy. Sigh.
    Yet we are tied to our French books, if for no reason other than to hold them (as you say) and to go there, where those words and places are, when we do hold them.

    Your shelves look fabulous; every hour you spent so worth it. I now wish I could read all the titles! And maybe I’ll just page through some Balzac…

  11. Susan – I think it’s lovely that you kept your French poetry, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a cherished part of the past or a promise for the future. It has meaning and value and that’s what’s so important isn’t it?

    Oh – we should have a pact to pick up some of our favourite French novels every once in a while. I was thinking that I should go back and reread some of the novels that made the biggest impact on me (there are so many to choose from!) and that would lift my confidence in French and put me back in touch with some truly splendid narratives. It is SO easy for life to flow away from certain skills, particularly the ones that require time and trouble to practice. I can’t bear to lose my French, and yet I can see how easy it would be. It’s so nice to find other friends who have similar relationships with French – I can see how well you understand my dilemma.

  12. Our shelves look alike, of course. A lot of French books, obviously. One exception. I alphabetise everything and mix books in French with books in English. As always, even for very simple things, Anglo-Saxons don’t do the things in the same way than the French do. (or the other way round, I don’t know). I’m talking here about the sides of books. French books: you bend you head to the left to read the title. English books: you bend your head to the right. Consequence: spend some time looking at books in my library and you feel like you’re watching a tennis match.

    About language skills. I’m doing the journey the other way round, from French to English. I’ve never lived in an English-speaking country either. I’m not a teacher but I understand how you felt exposed during those exams and how you doubted your language skills. I feel that way everytime I publish a review. Even if I try to think about the mistakes I make as “a cute written French accent”, I still feel self-conscious. What bothers me is how writing in another language limits my expression and makes my thinking appear narrower than it would be in French. And of course, reading other bloggers’ reviews reminds me everyday that I still have A LOT to learn.

    PS: I’m glad to be French: I don’t have to learn how to speak it! I admire all the foreigners who learn it and speak it well enough to read literature in the original. It’s a difficult language.

  13. Nothing like rearranging your shelves to rediscover all the treasures they hold. We are always harder on ourselves than other people ever are. We think our insecurities and faults and weaknesses are glaring neon signs and in reality they aren’t but it is so hard to believe it. The comments from your students were quite touching, and, might I say, unsurprising? 🙂

  14. I dream of bookcases like this. All my books look like they’ve been sat on – because invariably they have.

    Can you recommend a contemporary French novel that’s suitable for a novice? My parents have moved to France and I’d really like to find something interesting to read that isn’t too complex or literary. At the moment I’m trying to read Le Monde every evening, but there’s only so much I can take.

    Also, I can empathise with Emma over the bending-the-head-to-read-bookspines issue – I’m so used to inclining my head to read English spines that trawling French bookshops feels a bit like writing left handed, or mild sea-sickness.

  15. This resonates so deeply with me, as I too have felt very unsure of my own language skills (which are really quite good — with whom am I comparing myself?) and feel unprepared for nearly every class I teach. But I love my books, uneasy as they sometimes make me feel.

  16. What a great post! I was very moved by it. Foreign languages were never really a major in my various curriculum so I think the pressure to compare to others was less and I could retain the fun part. On the contrary my approach to French lit was pretty much ruined by stifling classes I’m afraid, so now I read very little of my own country’s novels. When I started learning Chinese I hoped to be able one day to read Eileen Chang in original text. Now I’m not so sure I’ll ever be able to, but in a small corner of my bookshelves despite all the drastic weeding out (Paris space constraints) I retain a collection of her short stories, for the sake of… my youthful hopes? I’m sure you’ll find much pleasure in browsing through your newly organized shelves.

  17. Emma – you know, I’ve been very stupid. I was wondering why I put my French books upside down on the shelves so often, and of course, it’s about the way the title is printed on the spine! What a revelation! I so remember that feeling of being limited in my expression when I was living in France. It came out in silly ways. One of our friends would have this huge frown on his face when I was speaking, and it flustered me every time because I was sure I was making so many mistakes he couldn’t follow. And then one day I saw him looking at a French friend with exactly the same expression and it dawned on me that that was just his ‘concentrating’ face. But I find it very reassuring that you know what I’m talking about. You really don’t need to fear about your own language skills – your reviews are beautifully written and I couldn’t possibly do that in French! It’s such an idiomatic language – it requires so much flair and such a good ear. I often wished I’d been born French too. 🙂

    Stefanie – oh bless you. Those comments quite brought tears to my eyes. Lovely students – I miss them when they are not around. And tidying up the shelves was a wonderful way of coming upon all sorts of books I still wanted to read. You’re so right about those neon signs. I must remind myself that they are not quite so glaring as I think! 🙂

    Dervish – I’ve been giving this matter some thought since your comment came in. One series of books I would recommend is by the writing team, Boileau-Narcejac. Celle qui n’était plus was made into the film Les Diaboliques, which you might have seen or heard of. And Sueurs froides became Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It really helps to have some idea of the plot before reading them, but they are very accessible, simply expressed books and excellent ones, really gripping. I think Sebastian Japrisot, another crime fiction writer, is great – Piege pour Cendrillon is perhaps my favourite. Another author who comes to mind is Patrick Modiano, whose is a bit more unusual in what he does, but quite a straightforward writer. Rue des boutiques obscures is a wonderful novel, and I also loved Voyage de noces. Otherwise, the way I began reading was to buy a book in both English and French and move back and forth between the two. Good luck – if I can be of any more help, please do say!

    Jenny – how nice to find such solidarity. I know you are in a very similar position to me, and it cheers my heart to think I’m not alone. And you’re so right, the books are always worth it.

    Smithereens – I’m always curious as to how you developed your language skills, and so impressed, too! I love reading French but I wouldn’t feel up to blogging in it at all. The only English books I disliked were the ones I studied in school, so I sympathise! And good luck for the Chinese. I have every faith in your ability to master the language, and expect all you are lacking is time and quiet head space! Hang onto the Eileen Change – she may well come in handy one day.

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