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Reading in French

.Sue Williams - 04/07/13 -

.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?

Sue Williams - 04/07/13 -

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…

Sue Williams - 04/07/13 -

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

Join the conversation


  1. billreith
    12 years ago

    I’ve only been in Melbourne once, and I wasn’t interested in learning French at the time, but still: I envy you for that bookstore. I’ve been in large US cities that didn’t have nearly the size bookstore that clearly you’ve got. I’d come back to Melbourne just to do it — oh, to see the Yarra again — but with that bookstore – well.

    If I can offer one suggestion for your practice sessions: there’s a woman, a native French-speaker currently living in the US, who runs a web site called FrenchETC. It’s aimed at people who want to learn the language based on her podcasts and PDFs, which have language and cultural material. However, she also offers Skype and phone based sessions. I’ve been working with her for about three months now, and I think she’s great- knowledgeable, patient, and willing to work with you. For language practice (not to mention, insights into French culture), I recommend her highly.

    (I didn’t get recompensed in any way for this, and she doesn’t know I’m doing it.)

  2. Bethany Untied
    12 years ago

    Great article ! People are often asking me for things to read that are simple, and you’ve given me Petit Nicholas to add to the list ! I read some of the stories awhile ago but didn’t think to add it to my suggestions list. 🙂

    Also, I’m glad to see the bookstore being appreciated- I’ve been there a few times and one could get lost in its delicious foreign books, but one could just as easily overlook it since it’s so well-hidden !

    Thanks for sharing 🙂 et bon courage !

  3. Sue Williams
    12 years ago

    Thanks Bill and Bethany for your comments!

    And many thanks Bill for the suggestion of FrenchETC – I’ll check it out!

    Bethany – another fairly simple and interesting book I’ve come across recently is “Le Petit Prince” – I’m working up to that one…

  4. Bethany Untied
    12 years ago

    Oh oui, Sue ! J’adore le petit prince 🙂 It was the first book I ever read in French, except for some contes by Voltaire. So yeah, love it !!!

  5. kyla
    12 years ago

    I am going to Melbourne next month so shall check this shop out.
    Merci Sue.

  6. Suzanne Cavanagh
    12 years ago

    Thanks Sue for reminding us all of these fabulous books.Le petit Nicolas is a definite favourite.

    Another EXCELLENT resource for learners of French are the Bien-dire magazines, booklets and CDs. I get a real buzz out of the arrival of the monthly magazine which is targeted at intermediate to advanced learners. Key French/English vocabulary is detailed on the page which makes learning fast & effective. The magazine articles generally cover gastronomy, history, practical speaking skills, French politics and travel…….and what else is there in life?
    Published in France

  7. Sue Williams
    12 years ago

    Thanks Suzanne for the tip on Bien-dire – I’ve just checked out their website and it looks excellent! And perfect timing as I’ve just finished Petit Nicolas.

    P.S. I’ve learned a lot of words about fighting and punch-ups from Nicolas – I hope I don’t get to use them! Bien-dire’s vocab will probably be more useful… 🙂

  8. kyla
    12 years ago

    Thanks for your comments about Bien-dire. I have also been checking them out on their website and Amazon. I had hoped that on Amazon I could get a look at the inside and some preview of what was inside but no such luck. So it is really nice to hear your opinion.