As you may know, English is not my first language. Even if I am a proud bilingual, my first language and language of choice is French. Yes, I am a French Canadian.
Because of this, I always feel a little bit guilty when I only write English blog posts about my English reads. I have to say that I read and write in both languages, almost equally. I did write a French blog post last year just to see if I had readers who could enjoy such posts (read it here). It was a book review of Le matou by Yves Beauchemin.
All this to say that I have decided to write a blog post in English about French books. I’m not talking about English books translated into French, no – I’m talking about French Canadian and French European authors that I love.
I present to you the latest French books that I read, and a short review of each.
The latest book I’ve read in French is Germinal (1885) by Émile Zola a couple of weeks ago.
The book is an extremely well-written classic about human suffering during the times of the coal mines in Europe and concentrates on the miseries of the poor, hardworking families and the contrast between them and the rich families who own the mines. It is also a novel that explores the generational gap existing between the older mine workers – like the Maheu parents – and the younger mine workers, like Catherine and Etienne. It is a revolution novel, a novel that made me angry, sad and depressed. To be honest, it wasn’t my favorite book, but not because of the depressing factor. I actually like depressing books, dealing with miséricorde like we would say in French, because they give me an idea of reality in another society, in another realm of life. I like a style similar to Bonheur d’occasion, the classic novel by Gabrielle Roy for example. Germinal, though, I found to be quite long and at times exhausting to read. Maybe it was because I’m not particularly interested in life in the coal mines, even though I know that it’s an important part of Europe’s history of hierarchy and human suffering. I had a lot of trouble finishing the book and that surprised me, because like I said, I usually love these types of novels. I recommend it, though, because of its historical and cultural importance.
Before that, I read Métis Beach (2014) by Claudine Bourbonnais.
That was what we call a sweeping novel. It covered the whole life of a fascinating but flawed man, Romain Carrier, and explored a multitude of themes such as the freedom of choice and speech, religion, love, oppression, war and control, especially in a familial setting. It explored the range of family relationships, all of which were dysfunctional and toxic. It presented the whole of the Canadian and American scenes and the perceptions that each country has of the other. Immigration and nationalism, socialism and diverse political views were presented with each character introduced to the story. Mental health was also a big part of the equation, but Métis Beach was the kind of book that I could never sum up in a short paragraph like the one that I am writing. That being said, I will divulge my two favorite things about the novel:
1- The characters were immensely developed and incredibly detailed. After I finished the book, I felt a very strong connection to each and every one of the characters, even those who made a brief appearance or that were made to be disliked. I disliked many characters, but still felt that connection to each.
2- I loved the whole Dana Feldman perspective and the connection she and Romain shared. I tremendously enjoyed reading about the courage and perseverance that was necessary for her to write her feminist novels while still holding her head high and attempting to change society’s views on women. in the twentieth century. I love a feminist aspect in the books I read, and this one was satisfying and fantastic!
I have to cut this review short, so I’ll just say that I absolutely loved this beautiful book. Reading it in English would be very different though, because of the whole French Canadian context that would be hard to understand and to convey through the English language. I don’t even know if it’s translated yet.
Lastly, I want to cover the books that tackled existentialism in the twentieth century, especially during World War II. I read this year for the first time two classic novels in which existentialism was the biggest theme.
The first one was L’Étranger (1942) by Albert Camus.
I know a lot of people have read this novel translated in English – The Stranger. I really, really liked this novel and the weirdness of it. It was a book about the justice system, religion and human suffering. It was centered on what society thought was normal and how it expected people to act – it expected Meursault to act a certain way after his mother died, for example, despite the fact that everybody reacts differently to death and traumatic experiences. The judge who condemned Meursault to death even thought that his lack of displayed emotion after his mother’s death was enough to prove that he was a cold-blooded killer. (Sorry for the slight spoiler.) Camus’s novel made me think quite a lot and I reflected on the meaning of life itself. Why do we act the way we do? Are we most influenced in our decisions by human nature, our environment or simply the temperament we were born with? This novel was bizarre and different – I had never read anything quite like it before.
The second existentialist book I read so far this year was Le Petit Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
A seemingly simple piece of work, Le Petit Prince is actually a classic book dealing with very real, deep problems in society. The themes that are the most explored in it are existentialism, war and peace, childhood, the loss of innocence and adulthood. Every planet that le Petit Prince (the Little Prince) visits inhabits a character representative of a vice that Saint-Exupéry believed in being very present in the adult world and the Little Prince describes what he sees through the eyes of a child. He often repeats this in the novel: “Les grandes personnes ne comprennent jamais rien toutes seules, et c’est fatiguant, pour les enfants, de toujours et toujours leur donner des explications.” It means that the adults, or the “big people”, never understand anything themselves and that is it annoying for children to always explain everything to them. Written during the second world war, the author uses this book to convey a message about how war is not a means of reconciliation and that peace is more important. Many beautiful sayings and sentences are written in the book, which also has pictures of the Little Prince and his discoveries. I loved this book and its different take on how to convey a message to its readers.
There you go – I didn’t want this post to be as long as it turned out to be, but I think it sums up the latest French books I read quite well. Reading in two languages is actually quite fun, as it opens up more possibilities of books to read!
Do you read in more than one language?