Synopses & Reviews
Brilliantly uniting the personal and the critical, French Lessons
is a powerful autobiographical experiment. It tells the story of an American woman escaping into the French language and of a scholar and teacher coming to grips with her history of learning. Kaplan begins with a distinctly American quest for an imaginary France of the intelligence. But soon her infatuation with all things French comes up against the dark, unimagined recesses of French political and cultural life.
The daughter of a Jewish lawyer who prosecuted Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg, Kaplan grew up in the 1960s in the Midwest. After her father's death when she was seven, French became her way of "leaving home" and finding herself in another language and culture. In spare, midwestern prose, by turns intimate and wry, Kaplan describes how, as a student in a Swiss boarding school and later in a junior year abroad in Bordeaux, she passionately sought the French "r," attentively honed her accent, and learned the idioms of her French lover.
When, as a graduate student, her passion for French culture turned to the elegance and sophistication of its intellectual life, she found herself drawn to the language and style of the novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine. At the same time she was repulsed by his anti-Semitism. At Yale in the late 70s, during the heyday of deconstruction she chose to transgress its apolitical purity and work on a subject "that made history impossible to ignore:" French fascist intellectuals. Kaplan's discussion of the "de Man affair" — the discovery that her brilliant and charismatic Yale professor had written compromising articles for the pro-Nazi Belgian press—and her personal account of the paradoxes of deconstruction are among the most compelling available on this subject.
French Lessons belongs in the company of Sartre's Words and the memoirs of Nathalie Sarraute, Annie Ernaux, and Eva Hoffman. No book so engrossingly conveys both the excitement of learning and the moral dilemmas of the intellectual life.
"'Personal criticism,' or criticism as personal memoir is the latest bend in the relativistic road of post-modern literary study. According to PC (analogy intended), there are many truths (lower-case t also
intended)—every one of which is understood and justified by the particular reader's nature and nurture. The underlying incoherence of this position—its absolute certainty about the absence of absolute certainty—is (like its atomization of serious discourse) 'bracketed.' If this makes PC problematic as a source of testable knowledge, it can be interesting, even fascinating, as high-brow journalism or impressionism, in its original sense ('the mind's adventures among the classics'). Everything depends, of course, on the personality and talents of the critic. In Alice Kaplan's case, all requirements are met, even exceeded. Indeed, nothing could be more poignant, deliciously ironic, or apparently artless than her amalgam of family history, personal growth, passage through elite cultural institutions, and contact with the French in all their stubborn 'otherness.' Most arresting, however, is Kaplan's lucid and pitiless exploration of her obsession with pro-Fascist writers, past and present, notably her research subjects Online and Bardèche and her teacher at Yale, the notorious Paul de Man. This, in short, is an engaging, revealing and puzzling book not to be emulated by writers whose intelligence, psychological finesse, literacy, wit, and eloquence do not equal Alice Kaplan's." Reviewed by Daniel Weiss, Virginia Quarterly Review (Copyright 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review)
A professor of French Literature at Duke University, Kaplan offers a passionate memoir of her life and its intricate involvement with the French language. "A rare and moving evocation of what it feels like--and what it means--to fall in love with a language not one's own".--New York Review of Books.
About the Author
Alice Kaplan is the author of French Lessons: A Memoir, The Collaborator, The Interpreter, and Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, and the translator of OK, Joe, The Difficulty of Being a Dog, A Box of Photographs, and Palace of Books. Her books have been twice nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Awards, once for the National Book Award, and she is a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She holds the John M. Musser chair in French literature at Yale. She lives in Guilford, Connecticut.
Table of Contents
Part One. Before I Knew French
The Last Summer at Wildhurst Road
Part Two. Getting It
Boarding School in Switzerland
Spring Break in France
Part Three. Getting It Right
Part Four. Revisions
In Search of the French "R"
Guy, de Man, and Me
The Trouble with Edna
Note on the Text