Friday, September 16, 2011

Back to school

As some of you might remember, back in July during my professional assessment interview at work, my boss suggested I might like to pick a course of my choice at uni in order to work on my French. What's not to like about that suggestion? I get to learn for free and I get to do it in work time, win-win! So after going through the course brochure and finding something that looked interesting but not too much hard work (yes, learning is fun, but let's not push it) I settled on a 3rd year undergrad paper in comparative literature entitled "Novels of Transgression", emailed the professors to ask if I could sit in, and had my first class on Thursday.

First off, in case, like one of my colleagues, you're about to get all excited at the idea that we're going to be studying the Marquis de Sade and The Story of O or something, calm down, it's not that exciting. We're doing Crime and Punishment, The Picture of Dorian Grey and The Confusions of Young Törless. That last one was new to me, but I've read the other two and so I thought it would be a good start tackling books I was mostly familiar with.

I only just started reading Crime and Punishment in French the other day. It's slow going, I will admit, but actually not all that difficult to understand. I even think it forces me to pay closer attention to the text and thus I may even be getting more out of it in a way than reading in English. I have been underlining words I don't understand, since after all the goal is to improve my French, but haven't yet gotten around to looking any of them up. Thus the only word I think I've learnt so far is désarrois – the 'confusions' plaguing young Törless (presumably the same root as 'disarray'). I'm also getting practice on the passé simple tense, a tense that is now used virtually only in literary writing, with the result that I never bothered to learn it (but I do know it when I see it, which is pretty much all you need where that's concerned).

As for my first course, it was pretty interesting. I have an MA in English Literature, but I never did any Comp Lit, so it was something new for me in that sense. The first lecture was mostly taken up with discussion of translation issues and what place these novels had in French intellectual history, which for some reason we usually neglected to discuss back in New Zealand. I think I managed to follow most of it, despite the very loud susurration of the willows outside (and yes, I wrote that sentence just to throw in the word susurration, but they were unusually noisy, sounded like someone was sweeping the pavement outside except we were on the 4th floor). Next time I might have to do the classic "mature student" thing and sit in the front row. I've heard stories from people who teach in uni that French students are particularly immature and talkative, but this crowd seemed okay, perhaps because they're third years or perhaps because we were in more of a large classroom than a lecture hall.

I was also at the uni this week to go to a conference work was sponsoring. When we turned up, for some reason the entire entrance hall was full of cardboard boxes which the students were flinging about with gay abandon (they were particularly delighted when someone broke a light fixture). One of my colleagues described this as 'a happening' (or, to be precise, 'un 'appening') which made me laugh. Has anyone called anything 'a happening' since 1975? I later discovered that this particular 'appening involved transporting 5000 cardboard boxes on a tour of the city by manpower alone. Apparently they came from Nancy, but I'm not sure if people carried them all that way, because that seems very far! I did my bit by carrying one box inside anyway.

Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to make a pun in French! There was a professional-looking photographer there and I said that if they wrote about it in the local paper the headline would definitely be "ça cartonne!" If you're not laughing already, I should explain that "ça cartonne" means something is really great or successful, and that "carton" is obviously a cardboard box. I think I mostly got sympathy laughs out of my workmates, but I think that was a pretty decent effort!


  1. I have a ''free module'' in my Masters, eg I have 2 hours a week that my core classes don't fill so have to choose a random module to do, and was looking through the Lit modules...bloody DORIAN GRAY makes an appearance at every uni it seems...yours, the old one where I was teaching, and now again in Stras. What is it about that book? I mean, I enjoyed it a lot, but why are they fixated on it?

  2. Ah, the prof actually discussed this - apparently the French really took him to their collective bosom because he spoke excellent French and he came here after his trial and I think they enjoyed all the notoreity associated and the chance to stick it to the English that they were so repressed and the French were so cosmopolitan, and then they just stuck with it for the next 100+ years.
    I'd like an explanation of why they're so wild for Paul Auster here...

  3. PS Awesome, I took your address down just so it's not floating around amongst the spambots, but I will indeed email you :)

  4. Isn't the expression very loud sussuration an oxymoron, i.e. can sussutaion be more than a whisper (in the onamatapoeic sense of course).
    In addition does the fact that all your student box carrying colleagues come from Nancy make them Nancy boys?

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