Reading in French
.A few years ago, while visiting Paris, I bought a rumpled French book from a bouquiniste (second hand bookseller) by the Seine. It’s Baudelaire’s ‘Les Fleurs Du Mal‘.
I suspect I had an mental image of myself, looking terribly intellectual, turning its brownish pages, while sitting at a cafe.
It looks well-thumbed, like it had an owner who loved it properly, reading it many times. I hope so, because, while it looks good on my bookshelf, I haven’t managed to get beyond page three. And over the years it’s been joined by other French books I’ve collected, all with good intentions, all unread. My French language skills just weren’t good enough. Being able to order a hot chocolate, while useful, is a distant cry from being able to read a novel.
Lately, I’ve decided I’d like to finally learn to read these lovely books.
But where to start?
More classes, certainly. Conversation exchanges. Reading, of course. But it has to be something simple.
So I went searching for simple French books, in Melbourne, where I live.
Hidden beneath one of the city’s eclectic laneways is a wonderful shop – The Foreign Language Bookshop. They have books in more than 125 languages. Their collection of French books and DVDs is huge, with more than 2,000 titles. In fact, according to the staff, they carry the largest collection of French novels in the Southern Hemisphere.
On seemingly endless shelves, there are novels in French for children and adults, ranging from Asterix to Proust. They also have the ‘Street French’ books, humorous guides to French idioms and slang.
I bought ‘Le Petit Nicholas‘ there, written by René Goscinny (creator of Asterix) and illustrated by Jean-Jacques Sempé. My French teacher recommended it. I was filled with misgiving as I left the shop, though – would this just join the unread pile?
Well, I’m pleased to say I’m already half-way through Nicholas. Each story about this small schoolboy is a manageable few pages, the vocabulary simple. His escapades are so charming and hilarious that it’s hard to put the book down. And the drawings by Sempé are fabulous, there’s so much expression on the characters’ faces. I loved Le chouette bouquet where Nicholas buys a huge bunch of flowers to take home to his mother. The flowers suffer badly on their way to Maman, as Nicholas runs into his copains and the bouquet becomes a weapon…
While the stories are from a child’s point of view, the humour often targets the adults in the book.
I liked how the photographer is portrayed in Un souvenir qu’on va chérir. He advises the boys’ long suffering teacher that he ‘knows how to handle children’. You just know he’s not going to cope with Nicholas and his class from hell.
Melbourne is well-equipped with French language bookshops – there are three others I know of: The Language International Bookshop in Hawthorn, Continental bookshop in Glen Iris and Top Titles in Brighton.
But I’ve been wondering about The Foreign Language Bookshop’s claim of having the largest collection of French novels in the Southern Hemisphere. There are lots of countries where French is widely spoken and where, I’m sure, there must be large bookshops.
In this hemisphere, there’s New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Vanuatu, Madagascar, Seychelles, Democratic Republic of Congo, Comoros and Rwanda. And Argentina and Brazil have substantial populations with French ancestry – around seven million in Argentina and up to one million in Brazil.
This may need research. What a perfect excuse for a tour of French-speaking countries…
Do you have a favourite French book? Or a favourite bookshop?Image credit: Un stand de bouquiniste by Benh Lieu Song