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.
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.