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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Grown up reading in French

Grown-up stories in French

So after 20 years of what I’ll call lack of motivation, I am finally reading (books) in French. I had no idea what I was missing. It makes me think that while the heavy duty literature (Rousseau, Voltaire.. ) reading assignments from my high school French class were probably extremely important as a means of exposing me to literary canons, as a way to hook teenagers onto the pleasures of reading in a foreign language it is a bit counter productive. I never had trouble putting down a chapter of Le Rouge et Le Noir (Stendhal). But Le Voisin by Tatiana de Roznay? Pas possible!

In the same way that I try to encourage Zach’s reading--in any language--by following his natural interests (robots, pirates, bulldozers) and picking stories appropriate to his level of comprehension--I have recently begun doing the same for myself. It has been fantastic for my French. I have breezed through about seven novels borrowed over the past several months from my local library (I am extremely lucky to live in Bethesda!) based on a google search of something like “best selling French authors”. A few I have found particularly addictive:

Guillaume Musso: he’s written “Que serai-je sans toi”, “Parce que je t’aime” and at least one other I can’t remember the name of right now. I literally could not put these down. After reading three of his novels, each of which deal with themes of life after death and destiny, he seems a little obsessed. But the love stories are riveting and the plots gut-wrenchingly suspenseful. Another attractive aspect of his writing is that in every instance so far there is a Franco-American storyline or the story is set in an American city, usually San Francisco. Having the French language story in a familiar setting makes it somehow less “foreign”. It also brings a French writer’s perspective on American culture which I always find interesting.

I also absolutely loved Anna Gavalda’s “Je voudrais que quelqu’un m’attende,” which is a collection of short stories from such diversity of voices and perspectives (a gay veterinarian dealing with homophobia in a country village (fyi redneck = plouc); a young law student starved for romance; a late teenage soldier living in his brother’s shadow; a middle aged man reconnecting with an old flame) that it felt like the literary equivalent of a cross country tour, like I had done a dozen mini foreign exchange home-stays.

“Le voisin” by Tatiana de Roznay was disturbing but also enthralling. Essentially a lonely and neglected housewife and part-time writer is taunted by her upstairs neighbor, wreaking havoc on her psyche but at the same time she is forced to face up to her unsatisfying existence and ridiculously selfish husband. Excellent reading, if a little depressing.

In the past, before my French reading “renaissance” I had such a hard time reading in French. I never sought out popular authors, and with the classics I was doomed since I was lucky if I understood a third of the words and was too lazy (or normal?) to sit with a dictionary as I read. Now, thanks to these easy to read authors, I would say my comprehension varies from 65-85% depending on the book which allows me to actually enjoy the story. Whether because they employ a simpler style or just use less vocabulary, I am able to read through freely.

And from reading so many different books, I am getting a much better sense of which are commonly used words so if I keep stumbling upon ones I don’t know eventually I can’t stand not knowing what they mean (example: glousser=chuckle, ricaner=giggle). At that point the task of learning the words -- sitting on the couch with laptop on lap and book in hand and as I come to them while reading, and quickly looking up the unrecognized words on wordreference.com -- feels worth the effort.

So while my volumes penned by the big “intellos” gather dust on my bookshelf, I’m off to cozy up to “Embrasse-moi” by Katherine Pancol. Bonne soiree!

1 comment :

  1. Thanks for the recommendations--I feel like my brain has been too fuzzy from lack of sleep and constant attention to my children to read anything substantive in French for four or five years. And yet I know that reading is the number one way to increase one's fluency in another language! I'll have to look for some of the books you suggest.

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