French Lessons

“French Lessons” by Alice Kaplan

She carves out such beautiful writing from words I know and experiences I’ve had. She expresses these so sparingly, elegantly, sometimes even so crudely that I can’t imagine what I could add.

She writes a memoir, and her memories of childhood are so precise. Detailed. Vivid, worth retelling. Her writing is compelling, true and pulls out of the readers their own experience. Read the reviews from the link above, proof if there ever was that a book is good: what it can elicit from readers about the book that has become a mirror where they see the reflection of something they share.

Kaplan’s fusional and painstaking relationship to a foreign language she is trying to absorb is fascinating if you’ve ever tried to learn another tongue. Reprogramming your thought process, speaking differently, forming alien sounds with previously unused parts of your mouth-tongue-throat-vocal chords.

I don’t know if you will find this passage as interesting as I did, but it is a small example of what I like about the book…maybe not the best, but it is compact:

“I spent a lot of time reading, and sitting in cafés with “l’équipe,” my team of girlfriends, and writing in my diary about André and what he meant. He wanted me to be natural, and I wanted him to make me French. When I thought back on the way the right side of me had swelled up, my neck and my ear, and my eye, it was as if half of my face had been at war with that project, Half of me, at least, was allergic to André.”

The way she ties in language acquisition, cultural experience, her longing to become one with French, with a skin eruption is brilliant because she elevates a crass physical symptom to a higher meaning, and she wraps all the facets of her life experience into the language.

And that’s what language is. It’s everything, skin eruptions, cafés, difficult sounds, grammar, vocabulary, Céline, controlling new sounds, meeting people and being alone. That’s why it’s so hard to learn well, because it requires you to let go of what you already know and embrace a completely different way of saying even the most elementary of things.

It doesn’t happen too often for me to read writers who erase the desire for me to write. That’s my criteria for a good book. 1) I can’t put it down 2) It makes me feel there’s no reason for me to write because they’ve said it all and better than I can!

Writers so good they make me feel like I’m a blank slate, like there is no other book but theirs, and like they’ve spoken all the words, and there are none left for me.

The last time I felt this way was with the Poisonwood Bible….


One thought on “French Lessons

  1. Why I don’t write is just on the road to Why I write, a much more interesting intersection in one’s life. I used to go into libraries in 1980 and think “How dare I write,” and then I read Toni Morrison, and a plethora of wonderful writers, and this added further to my “How dare I have a voice,” but then I got over it, and I just wrote, bit by bit, sometimes regularly, sometimes sporadically. And you know what, i have a voice, and we all do, and everyone has something unique to say and to do. The world expands, it’s big, and I think it can add one more little writer. Most of it is just hard work!

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