Bastille Day and Some Reading Recommendations

Bastille Day has dawned nice and sunny, but clouds are on their way in, thunderstorms are predicted, so the fireworks this evening may be a trifle muffled and damp.

For this last 14th July that I am spending in France, I thought I would bring together all of my favourite early French writers and poets in a long, long list. Hopefully, at least a few of them might be new suggestions for you.

  • Young Rabelais, from france-pittoresque.com
    Young Rabelais, from france-pittoresque.com

    Rabelais is like Chaucer: bawdy, entertaining, and yet with a lot of depth. In the rollicking adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel he demonstrates his optimistic belief in the innate good nature of humans and the value of education:

‘parce que les gens libres, bien n√©s, bien √©duqu√©s, vivant en bonne soci√©t√©, ont naturellement un instinct, un aiguillon qu’ils appellent honneur qui les pousse toujours √† agir vertueusement et les √©loigne du vice’

Translation: ‘men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour.’

  • Only known picture of Villon, from alchetron.com
    Only known picture of Villon, from alchetron.com

    François Villon is the original bad boy of French literature: a tear-away, a vagabond, convicted of assault and robbery, frequently banished, yet writing assiduously through all this. Reminds me a little of Christopher Marlowe.

Je connois bien mouches en lait,
Je connois √† la robe l’homme,
Je connois le beau temps du laid,
Je connois au pommier la pomme,
Je connois l’arbre √† voir la gomme,
Je connois quand tout est de mêmes,
Je connois qui besogne ou chomme,
Je connois tout, fors que moi-mêmes.

Translation: I know flies in milk
I know the man by his clothes
I know fair weather from foul
I know the apple by the tree
I know the tree when I see the sap
I know when all is one
I know who labors and who loafs
I know everything but myself.

Incidentally, there is a rather brilliant novella ‘Villon’s Wife’ by Dazai Osamu, about a ne’er-do-well Japanese novelist and his long-suffering wife, which seems to illustrate the nature of ‘genius’ and its self-justifications really well.

  • The young Marquise.
    The young Marquise.

    Mme de Sévigné is perhaps to blame for the cult of motherhood: left a widow at an early age, she devoted herself entirely to her children and wrote them the most loving, concerned, nagging yet also witty, vivacious and observant letters. She reminds me of Moominmamma, always calm, unflappable, generous and imaginative, but with a dry sense of humour.

Ideal beauty is a fugitive which is never located.

I dislike clocks with second-hands; they cut up life into too small pieces.

We like so much to talk of ourselves that we are never weary of those private interviews with a lover during the course of whole years, and for the same reason the devout like to spend much time with their confessor; it is the pleasure of talking of themselves, even though it be to talk ill.

  • louiselabeLouise Lab√© was that rarity: a 16th century female poet of non-aristocratic origin (her father was a ropemaker in Lyon), well-educated, multilingual, equally talented in sports and in literature. She ran a literary salon in Lyon and there are rumours that she was a courtesan. I suspect that means she slept with whoever she pleased when she pleased. Her poetry is frank, unashamedly feminine and deceptively simple, avoiding the flamboyant artificial flourishes of her period. She reminds me of Emily Dickinson or Emily Bront√ę.

Je vis, je meurs¬†; je me br√Ľle et me noie¬†;
J’ai chaud extr√™me en endurant froidure¬†:
La vie m’est et trop molle et trop dure.
J’ai grands ennuis entrem√™l√©s de joie.

Tout à un coup je ris et je larmoie,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j’endure¬†;
Mon bien s’en va, et √† jamais il dure¬†;
Tout en un coup je sèche et je verdoie.

Ainsi Amour inconstamment me mène ;
Et, quand je pense avoir plus de douleur,
Sans y penser je me trouve hors de peine.

Puis, quand je crois ma joie être certaine,
Et être au haut de mon désiré heur,
Il me remet en mon premier malheur.

Translation: I live, I die, I burn, I drown
I endure at once chill and cold
Life is at once too soft and too hard
I have sore troubles mingled with joys

Suddenly I laugh and at the same time cry
And in pleasure many a grief endure
My happiness wanes and yet it lasts unchanged
All at once I dry up and grow green

Thus I suffer love’s inconstancies
And when I think the pain is most intense
Without thinking, it is gone again.

Then when I feel my joys certain
And my hour of greatest delight arrived
I find my pain beginning all over once again.

  • Voltaire.¬†How could I avoid the patriarch of the neighbouring village? He was at times an insufferable know-it-all, a born meddler, who could not sit still. But his intentions were honourable and he was so progressive for his time. His world-weary, sometimes cynical pronouncements about human weaknesses and the opium of religion have shaped so much of subsequent French writing.

Zadig dirigeait sa route sur les √©toiles… Il admirait ces vastes globes de lumi√®re qui ne paraissent que de faibles √©tincelles √† nos yeux, tandis que la terre, qui n’est en effet qu’un point imperceptible dans la nature, para√ģt √† notre cupidit√© quelque chose de si grand et de si noble. Il se figurait alors les hommes tels qu’ils sont en effet, des insectes se d√©vorant les uns les autres sur un petit atome de boue.

Translation: Zadig made his way amongst the stars… He admired those vast globes of light which to our eyes seemed to be mere feeble sparks, while Earth, which is indeed an insignificant blob in nature, seems to our covetous gaze to be so big and so important. And that’s how he saw humans themselves: insects devouring each other on a lump of clay.

Voltaire and Mme du Chatelet, probably an apocryphal painting, from weblogs.senecacollege.ca
Voltaire and Mme du Chatelet, probably an apocryphal painting, from weblogs.senecacollege.ca

Besides, I adore Voltaire’s ‘marriage of true minds’ with Mme du¬†Chatelet. At her death (giving birth to another man’s child), he wrote:¬†“It is not a mistress I have lost but half of myself, a soul for which my soul seems to have been made.”

 

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16 thoughts on “Bastille Day and Some Reading Recommendations”

  1. Happy Bastille Day, Marina, and thanks for this interesting selection. I hadn’t heard of L Lab√© – she does indeed sound a little like ED. In England I suppose Villon is best known for his ballades: the ‘pendus’ and ‘dames du temps jades’, with its famous, haunting refrain, ‘Maia o√Ļ sont les neiges d’antan’…Hope it doesn’t rain on the fireworks.

  2. I LOVED Louise Lab√© when we studied her in my French lit class at school – a woman writing erotic love poetry, how unusual, our teacher told us. She’s a bit of a heroine for me.

  3. My dear friend Marina, you should be down here in the Corbi√®res where the sun is shining… it is a bit windy though. I just couldn’t bear to think of this being anyones last F√™te Nationale in La Belle France. It just is too horrible to contemplate. Bonne f√™te!

    1. I’ll be back (I’m tempted to say). Meanwhile, la belle France, take good care of yourselves, and don’t head down the same silly/self-destructive path of the UK!

  4. Happy Marseille Day! I celebrate every year because it’s my second birthday (i.e., the day I got my degree). I do remember reading Villon at school – it was a bit too hard for us, but rewarding. I had never heard of Lab√©, what an interesting figure! I know Mme de Chatelet from books on the history of science but I had no clue her relationship with Voltaire was so close.
    PS Wouldn’t it be better to translate “gens” with “people” instead of “men”? We already live in a male-dominated world…

    1. Ha, ha, great observation! I took existing translations into English for all but the very last quote from Voltaire (where I did make an effort to translate hommes with humans). Just shows you, right?

  5. What a lovely post, Marina Sofia, both in sharing some authors you’ve loved, and to commemorate Bastille Day. And what a great analogy: Moominmama! I can just imagine it…

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