Foreign Matter

Ever get tired of reading in English? There's something limiting -- imprisoning almost -- in being stuck with your native tongue all the time. For one thing, especially with mediocre writers, you find yourself mentally finishing sentences before you reach their ends (this makes you appreciate all the more those relatively rare stylists who can put together words in original and striking ways); you might as well be writing the damn things yourself. If you can read in another language, doing so gives you a break from the idioms and constructions that swirl through your head all day long.

For me, that relief is spelled F-R-E-N-C-H. I'm half-French myself, on my mother's side (although my surname looks French, it's actually English), and I took two years of the language in college. Unfortunately, I've never lived in a Francophone country long enough to be able to converse very well in French, but I try to maintain my reading skills by tackling a couple of novels a year. I pick and choose. Since it takes me about twice as long to read a page of French prose as of English, I try to find something zippy to carry me along: a Simenon thriller, say, rather than a volume of Proust.

Recently, I've been working my way through the chef d'oeuvre of a writer who can tell great stories in un-fussy prose: Jules Romains's 27-volume "Les hommes de bonne volonté." Like Proust's "Recapture of Lost Time," it's an example of the roman fleuve, the novel as river, the best-known example of which in English is Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time." Romains's series cuts a wide swathe through French society from 1908 to the early 1930s, and the crucial novel is "Verdun," about the exhaustive World War I battle. Right now I am in the middle of volume six, where I am following an episode that I will never come close to experiencing in real life: An aristocratic woman who has committed adultery is seeking help to end the resulting pregnancy.

Every once in a while I run into a phrase or a custom I can't figure out. If I get desperate, I can always call my friend Laurent for help, but usually I just keep going. Strangely enough, not being familiar with everything in a book can be a good thing. For me, French mores and diction still retain some of their mysterious otherness in a way they might not if I had actually fulfilled my dream of living in Paris and strolling along the Champs Elysées with a baguette under my arm and a beret on my head.

-- Dennis Drabelle

By Denny Drabelle |  March 17, 2009; 6:00 AM ET Dennis Drabelle
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I like reading--OK, struggling through--the stories of "Le petit Nicolas," by René Goscinny. They're kids stories, but they're about funny little wisecrackers, so there is some slang worth knowing. Little Nick is like Madeleine for boys, with more pranks and less sweetness.

Posted by: deweyd | March 18, 2009 1:12 PM

I'm suddenly thankful I'm natively bilingual and have a third language in the archives (still working on my literature, but I can actually read simple articles now).

Posted by: Biblibio | March 18, 2009 2:53 PM

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