Book Review: French Lessons by Alice Kaplan

 “I have been willing to overlook in French culture what I would not accept in my own for the privilege of living in translation”.

French Lessons by Alice Kaplan is an interesting book. The author elaborates on such themes as living life through an acquired language and its impact on one’s course of life; the reasons as to why people want to adopt a different culture, the question of acceptance by so-called ‘native speakers’ but also there is a question as to who defines who is a ‘real’ native [speaker]. The book also discusses the reasons related to French intellectuals being attracted by fascism during the 1930s and 1940s and it explores the idea of freedom of speech and ethics related to it.

The topic of privilege and social class is also being explored and treated in a subtle and nuanced manner. The difference between learning a new language for the privileged American student and the immigrant who needs the language to function, to survive, to get a job, not to be hungry, to get a paper confirming his or her status is striking. It also affects the kind of French the privileged and the less privileged ones have exposure to and how it affects their life opportunities.

The reflections included in the book on the literature are very emotive:

“Literature is essential to survival and impossible to understand. Writing is the opposite of making something present”.

There are interesting literary references to The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald and the comparable feelings of isolation and loneliness are explored. The quotation below is particularly compelling:

“I could not explain it in my paper – it seemed unfair to me that a book could make me feel so much pain and loss, the sharp pain of Gatsby’s loneliness and ambition, the dull pain of the storyteller. (…) I identified with Gatsby because I had spent the whole year inventing a myth about my own rebirth and isolation. I could not say the obvious about my own life: I was afraid to go home (…) I had learned a whole new language at boarding school, but it was a language for covering pain, not expressing it. (…) when I came to the end of the Great Gatsby (…) I looked up toward the window and let the sunshine right in my eyes. The sunshine made me realize I was crying (…).”

Also, the reference to Patrick Modiano and the connection between memory, place and time is worth mentioning. There are truths about the past but no authority to pin them down. The way the connection to the place, France, is described by Kaplan resembles the topics covered by Modiano in many of his books:

 “I went because I needed to make sure the places were still there, to make sure I really once lived there, and I was really attached to this foreign place”.

The descriptions of bilingualism and having two different personalities along with the description of learning a foreign language is something that has resonated with me a lot, and I am sure, it would with many who live in “translation” – in their second language.

Also, the remark by Kaplan when the American English sounds start becoming foreign or when her English becomes rusty from reading too much French is another emotion that I am very fond of as they reflect the reality of functioning in different culture.

French Lessons show the quest by the foreigner for the acceptance among so called ‘native speakers’ and how this quest can be used by racists and xenophobes against any person who is trying to find a new home in a new country. The book refers to the example of Maurice Bardeche, a fascist intellectual, whom Kaplan interviewed for her research work in the 1970s.  Bardeche tried to use that notion of ‘acceptance’ against Alice Kaplan in his letter to her following their meetings, just to de-humanise her.

There is also a subtle reference to the issue of one’s personal background and its impact on one’s professional work.

The large part of French Lessons evolves around the question why some French intellectuals and writers have been attracted to fascism, among them Louis Ferdinand Celine, Robert Brasillach, Maurice Bardeche just to name a few. It is important to mention that Alice Kaplan’s father was one of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazis. For Kaplan being a Jewish academic, it was very conflicting to feel this fascination with Celine’s writing. The question of ethics and freedom of speech is also explored here.

There is a mention of an American Jewish academic called Milton Hindus who did a research work on Celine following the WWII. He conducted lengthy correspondence with Celine, and he went to visit him in Denmark. After the WWII, Hindus was one of the signatories of the petition stating that Celine was guilty merely of unpopular opinions and not of political collaborations. These sentiments can be quite uneasy for some people but it is definitely worth discussing these emotions. Years later, another Jewish American writer, Philip Roth, once referred to Celine as his Proust. There are those questions of ethics, judgement, guilt that are posed but the answers are not there. Kaplan asks herself at some point what it means for a Jewish intellectual to conduct work on the ones who were considered anti-Semites.

There is also a question about the art and its artist. Can we separate both? Can the art be an alibi for an artist who is an anti-Semite racist and xenophobe?

There are very compelling statements made by Claude Mouchard about left- and right-wing France: France of Marianne and France of Joan d’Arc where Marianne symbolises openness, unity, tolerance and diversity and Joan d’Arc stands for nationalism, rage, a lack of multiplicity.  At some point, Mouchard asks Alice if she has thought about what it means to agree to talk to this man [Bardeche]. He reminds her that there has to be an ethics for her interview with Bardeche.

Kaplan spent three days interviewing Bardeche and his family in the 1970s. She concludes that Bardeche offered ‘the Holocaust without guilt’ and she referred to her experience with him in the following words:

“Bardeche was a museum piece and I was a curator”.

There is a line in the book where Kaplan makes the comparison between the families of Bardeche and Mouchard – both families lost someone during the WWII – although for very different reasons. Bardeche’s family lost a family member because of his support of fascism and Mouchard’s family lost a family member because of being Jewish.  It is applaudable that Kaplan tried to find a common denominator during the darkest period of history.

There is this constant struggle between the ethics represented in the person of Claude Mouchard and a freedom of speech defined by a more American approach. Should freedom of speech have any boundaries when it comes to racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia? Should the responsibility and a sheer human decency have more weight than anyone’s freedom to speak? Who defines all these notions?

French Lessons is a very interesting book which poses many questions of ethical nature, to which one will not find the answers in this book. One has to read more and explore those topics by further reading and self-reflection.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: French Lessons by Alice Kaplan

  1. Oh thank you! That’s very kind… It is just a compilation of random thoughts.. I wish I had more time to write it properly. The book itself is quite interesting. I would definitely recommend it. There is also a small book called Zero Degree Empathy by Simon Cohen which can be quite a good addition to Kaplan s book. Cohen explores the subject of empathy and the relation between empathy and people being attracted to genocidal ideologies.


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