840 French books in my life

I only keep books if I think I’m reasonably likely to read them again one day; so a lot of the evidence of my past reading has disappeared. Sometimes I think I’ve read a book but can’t remember anything about it; which makes it pretty irrelevant whether I ever read the book in the first place.

And some books just vanish. I know I’ve read Madame Bovary and I would certainly want to read it again, yet I don’t seem to have a copy. On the other hand, I do have two other books by Flaubert, a collection simply called Trois contes, which means nothing to me, and the novel Salammbo. I can remember not enjoying Salammbo at all, but not the reason why. But I kept it, meaning to have another try, thinking that if I do like the author and I didn’t enjoy the book, then I may have missed the point somewhere.

Quite a few other French books are in a box somewhere waiting for me to read them again. I know for a fact that there is the complete Proust À la recherche du temps perdu, and also a complete set of Rabelais. Not that I ever finished reading Proust the first time; I got about halfway while at University and then the Dark Ages (see Books in my life part 3) stopped me from getting any further. But I shall get back to it even though after all this time it will mean starting again from the beginning.

French was the first language I learned , so most of my reading of French literature was early on, up to the age of about 21. Maybe this inclined me towards coarse humour, as in Rabelais (for that matter, what has become of my copy of Clochemerle ?) , over-wrought emotion (Hugo) and grim realism as in Germinal (Zola). But forty years on I still like all of these; but this does not account for Flaubert, Proust, and the like. Of course there is humour (rather gentler) in both of these. And there is a masterly use of language which probably went over my head while I was still learning the language. Rabelais also has a way with words, of course…

So what will I read next? I don’t know. I’m completely out of touch with contemporary French writing (to be frank I was never in touch with it); but there are still many 20th-century books that I want to read. More Sartre in particular. La Nausée and Huis-Clos were a good start but I read them 40 years ago; I must press on.

There’s certainly a trend in all of this; Rabelais, Flaubert, Proust, Zola, Sartre; it seems to be ideas presented as fiction, or perhaps fiction as a pretext for ideas. Mostly these authors are less concerned to present their characters as convincingly believable people; more often they are the embodiment of some idea or attitude. This is not a failing. Look at it the other way round; would you prefer an author to put over his/her ideas as unadulterated philosophy, or would you rather have it dressed up as a story?

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