Archive for January, 2009

The Phenomenon of Authors Whose First Language Isn’t French Writing In French

09/01/2009 4 comments

[In Le Figaro, Françoise Dargent ruminates about non-native writers who chose French to express their literary talents. Loose translation follows.]


[Atiq Rahimi; photo credit: Le Figaro]

Several foreign writers have published books in French this past autumn. This phenomenon is not new. A number of authors, and not small number at all, have abandoned their mother tongues. They explain themselves.

They are foreigners but they have decided to write in French. One recalls many celebrities such as Milan Kundera who translated his own novels, Samuel Beckett, who confessed that he had been liberated by James Joyce’s imprints in choosing a foreign language for himself, or even Casanova, whose Memoirs in ten volumes were written in the language of Molière, at the time considered the most international tongue of all. Why did they decide one day to abandon their mother tongues and make French their language of writing? Most certainly, there are as many responses to this query as personalities and backgrounds of the individuals concerned, but it is clear that even as the French language lost its influence in the world, it has retained its aura for the writers. The latest Goncourt prizewinner, the Afghan Atiq Rahimi, is the latest illustration of this. When Le Figaro questioned him last November on the subject, Rahimi, whose previous three novels were written in Persian, replied simply, “To begin with, I didn’t even ask myself the question; I didn’t think about it. When I returned to my country in 2002, I rediscovered my culture… and the desire to write in French. Singué Sabour, The Stone of Patience,  flowed directly in French. In fact, it was difficult for me – I don’t know why – to address these important subjects, these taboos, in my mother tongue. French gave me the possibility to express myself with some freedom.”

… For many writers, the choice is even seen as a kind of rebirth. “When I wrote in Spanish, the influence of Lorca was very strong,” recalled Eduardo Manet. “French allowed me to be more sober.” The Cuban-born exiled writer established himself in France at the end of the 1960s. He wrote a score of stories and a baker’s dozen novels, all in French. He remembered nostalgically his Haitian nurse rocking him to sleep with Creole lullabies, and said that he was still delighted by the finesse of the French poets whose works he subsequently devoured. “When I decided to change my language, I was already fluent in English, I could have easily adopted it. I adored American music and cinema, but I hated the imperialism (of the United States). French appeared to me to be the language of writing. The foreigners who were living in Paris, such as Beckett, Arrabal or Ionesco, had all chosen it. For us Latin Americans it was an obvious choice, and that’s all there is to say.”

In the 1960s, during a period when English was all-powerful, the adoption of French appeared as a paradoxical choice, dictated by shifting necessities. Thus, Jonathan Littell caused widespread astonishment when his novel, Les Bienveillantes appeared in French, and not in English. The American author, resident in Barcelona, generated considerable national pride, and was venerated further when he won the Prix Goncourt in 2006. Today, translations of his book are closely monitored by a very punctilious Littell – he sent a letter of precise recommendations to the translators – and there was much surprise that he  himself did not want to translate his novel from French to English.

One doesn’t choose a language other than one’s own without being particularly picky. The example of Milan Kundera, who wrote in French to signal his rift with his country of origin, is particularly instructive. In 2003, he spoke (in another interview with Le Figaro) of the books he had previously written in Czech. “It is in France that my publishing house publishes my books first, in their authorised versions. I say ‘authorised versions’ because I performed the translation into French of all my old novels, sentence by sentence, word by word. Since then, I have considered the French text as my own, and I allow the translation of my books from the Czech as well as from the French, with a slight preference for the latter solution”

The Slovene author Brina Svit says she writes a book twice: firstly in French, and then in Slovenian. “Objectively speaking, I had no reason to change the language: I had a very good translator and an excellent editor,” she explains. “Then came a sense of emancipation, of writing against oneself, of owing nothing to anyone. French gave me a freedom, a frankness, a sensation of being a young author : I am all the time in the process of learning, of asserting something.”

And if Eduardo Manet plans today to take up pen in Spanish for a book of tribute to his mother, it is not a given at all that everybody else wants to return to their original languages. That applies to the Dane Pia Petersen who has just published her fifth novel, Iouri,  in French with Actes Sud. She says it is the specificity of the French language that has attracted her. “I have never given in to the spirit of the North. I love debating, I like to discuss. I felt immediately at ease with French. Even before I could speak it, I had this idea of a language with which one could develop one’s ideas. One could always fold a word into one meaning or another. “

“French gave me a clarity and precision quite opposite to the Japanese mentality, ” said Aki Shimazaki, who has been writing in French since fifteen years ago, and whose next book, Zakuro, appears in February, published by Actes Sud. For her, the trigger was the book by the Hungarian author Agota Kristof, who wrote Le Grand Cahier in French. “I was fascinated by his simple style and profound story. At the time, I already had ideas for my novel Tsubaki. So I decided to write it directly in French. It took me three years to complete.”

Rarely does one adopt French entirely by chance. Most of those who chose it have a link with France and its culture. Upon retiring, the American scholar David I. Grossvogel set himself a double challenge: to write his first novel on Proust and do so in French. (Le Journal de Charles Swann, published by Buchet-Chastel.) This professor of literature who introduced Jacques Derrida and other French thinkers to the United States knew that he was walking on a minefield. “My attachment to the French language is like the love of those who do not fully possess that which they like,” he says. “Of course, I also wrote this book in French for a practical reason. Find me an American editor who can speak knowledgeably of Proust! But it wasn’t easy in France either. One doesn’t walk in Proust footsteps with impunity. It is a small point of pride for me. Imagine! A Yank writing in French who is going to be published by a French publishing house…”

Think about it: in the past few years, the Goncourt Academy has crowned the likes of Tahar Ben Jelloun, Amin Maalouf, Andrei Makine, Jonathan Littell, and last November, Atiq Rahimi! The French writers have to stand and be counted if they don’t want to be aced in their own language by the competition coming from abroad.

Categories: books, france