Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, July 18, 2016

Monday, July 18, 2016: Maximum Shelf: When in French: Love in a Second Language


Penguin Press: When in French by Lauren Collins

Penguin Press: When in French by Lauren Collins Penguin Press: When in French by Lauren Collins Penguin Press: When in French by Lauren Collins

When in French: Love in a Second Language

by Lauren Collins

Growing up in North Carolina, Lauren Collins never expected to fall in love with a French man, much less spend years adapting to an entirely new language and culture. But when she found herself married to Olivier and living in Geneva, she decided to get serious about learning French, so she could converse with her new husband and her new countrymen and -women in their own language. Collins muses on the challenges, frustrations and surprising delights of living and loving in le français in her memoir, When in French: Love in a Second Language.

Collins, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has hit upon the perfect structure for her subject, naming her chapters after the grammatical tenses of French: the past perfect (le plus-que-parfait), the imperfect (l'imparfait), the subjunctive (le subjonctif), even the future (le futur). Collins takes readers along on her linguistic journey, exploring George Steiner's assertion that translation "occurs both across and inside languages." (emphasis Steiner's). While "love is both the cause and the continuance" of Collins's determination to learn French, she quickly realizes that her task is more complicated than swapping one set of words for another: to take on a new language is to try on a different way of seeing the world.

Although it is (as the subtitle suggests) a love story, Collins's narrative inverts the typical starry-eyed plot of an American abroad: she begins by admitting that a life in Geneva, where she lacked the language skills even to eavesdrop on her neighbors through their open windows, was not what she had envisioned. "I felt as though I were living behind the aural equivalent of a one-way mirror," she writes.

Frustrated at her sudden, almost total lack of voice, Collins signs up for a French-language class with a handful of other expats from assorted countries. All of them, she soon realizes, are there because they harbor ambitions similar to hers: to conduct the business of daily life in fluent French. In contrast to the tourist who parrots phrases from a guidebook or delights in the exotic buzz of an incomprehensible language, Collins points out, "The fantasy of the foreigner is a life more banal." As she conjugates unfamiliar verbs and struggles to decipher the daily newspaper (and to talk to her husband in French), Collins moves toward a new version of la vie quotidienne: complicated in some ways, perhaps, but infinitely richer than before.

Following her journalistic instincts, Collins also occasionally steps back from her personal story to explore the larger web of language, culture and history: the neuroscience of language acquisition in young children, the fraught history of monolingualism and multiculturalism in the U.S., the highly structured nature of both the French language and French society (with its piles of attendant paperwork). Gradually, Collins begins to view French grammar as "a secular catechism, its recitation both comforting and sublime."

Also comforting is Collins's warmhearted exploration of the differences, linguistic and otherwise, between her family and Olivier's. The cultural gaps are thrown into hilarious relief when their parents and siblings take a vacation together. While many romantic relationships prompt the blending of two families, intercultural marriages contain a particular set of challenges, and Collins expresses them in clear-eyed prose that is by turns entertaining and poignant. "I retreated to the linguistic version of a kids' table," she writes about an early encounter with Olivier's extended family. "I felt like a fool, but a sweet one--opened, in my wordlessness, to the possibility of an uncomplicated kind of love."

Despite her newfound and growing affection for French, Collins does not abandon her native language: if anything, she becomes protective of English, groaning inwardly at the mistranslations and missteps suffered by her mother tongue abroad. "French is a secret garden, but English, somehow, is everyone's property," she says. Although she is eager to explore each twisting pathway of le français, Collins also has a deep respect for English, and it shows in her precise, elegant sentences.

Love, like language, is rarely uncomplicated, but Collins makes the complexities of both seem akin to joys. The embarrassment of having told her mother-in-law she has given birth to a coffee machine (when she simply intended to write a thank-you note), the hilarity that ensues when her father tries to teach her brother-in-law swaggering lines from American mobster films, and other incidents combine to form "a complex polyphony, which sounded like none of us and all of us," and which will become the bilingual soundtrack of Collins's new life. When her mother-in-law writes her a letter saying, "Vous êtes faits I'un pour l'autre" ("You are made for one another"), Collins decides to take it in good faith--pledging herself to both the man she loves and his langue maternelle.

Witty, informative and studded with bon mots in both French and English, When in French is a thoughtful, ultimately joyous exploration of falling in love with, and through, words. --Katie Noah Gibson

Penguin Press, $27, hardcover, 9781594206443

Penguin Press: When in French by Lauren Collins

Lauren Collins: Negotiating Differences

photo: Philip Andelman

Lauren Collins began working at the New Yorker in 2003 and became a staff writer in 2008. Her subjects have included Michelle Obama, Donatella Versace, the graffiti artist Banksy, and the chef April Bloomfield. Since 2010, she has been based in Europe, covering stories from London, Paris, Copenhagen and beyond. Her memoir, When in French: Love in a Second Language, will be published by Penguin Press on September 13, 2016.

When in French is structured around grammatical tenses: past perfect, imperfect, conditional, subjunctive. How did you decide to structure it that way?

It was kind of a happy accident. For me, structure is always the hardest part of writing. It's at least half the battle.

I was thinking about the story I wanted to tell, and looking for an overarching way to organize everything. I would say to myself, "Today I'm going to work on my book." But there on the side of my desk were all my French textbooks. I was still in the thick of it, trying to acquire more of this new language. And I also knew that the fun and interesting part of writing for me usually begins once the structure is in place. I need a roadmap.

I wanted to tell the story of how I met Olivier, but also how our relationship was perhaps unlikely, given some of the circumstances of my upbringing. And certain parts of the story I wanted to tell had a distinct timestamp on them: my childhood, my move to London, my life in Geneva with Olivier. It was a relief in some ways to arrive at this structure: there's no argument, when you're describing an incident in French, about which tense it belongs in. So having this cut-and-dried structure in place freed me up to play and experiment a bit with the writing.

The story begins in Geneva, when you've just arrived and are feeling disoriented and depressed.

Geneva was the perfect laboratory for some of the questions I was asking about language and culture, about how those threads overlap and how you might try to separate them out. I met Olivier when I was living in London, and he moved to Geneva before I did. I was really miserable [after moving] there, and was convinced that Geneva itself was to blame. But Olivier had a longstanding hypothesis that it was about the language. He pointed out that Geneva was the first place I'd lived that was outside of my native language. Suddenly, I couldn't make myself understood, and I couldn't understand anything.

We've moved to France now, and my French-language skills are much better. I'm much happier in Paris, but it wasn't just the language difficulty. I wasn't cut out for Geneva and it wasn't cut out for me. But Geneva was where I was living when I wrote the book, so I started the story in medias res. The typical American-expat-abroad story begins with the starry-eyed arrival, and then disenchantment sets in. I wanted to write a different kind of story--a slightly more dystopian version.

You encounter a chimneysweep in the first chapter and have no idea how to talk to him or what he's doing there.

Yes! It's a double layer of frustration, the inability to speak a language and also the disorientation of dealing with something you've never dealt with in your life. I'd never encountered a chimneysweep in London or North Carolina. And, though I didn't get into it in the book, there is an elaborate system of chimney-sweeping precincts in Geneva. I had no clue about any of it. So it was an unbelievably disorienting experience.

The first section of the book is the past perfect tense, though, and that's the beauty of it: you know something is coming after it. I hadn't wanted to live in Geneva, and I wasn't happy there. But you, as the reader, know that something comes next. I wanted to start out with a little disenchantment and move toward happiness and contentment.

You say in the book, when you're taking a French class and wrestling with everyday phrases, that "the fantasy of the foreigner is a life more banal." (Even if it doesn't necessarily involve chimneysweeps.)

Yes! It can be exhausting to have to gear yourself up for every single interaction or task in a totally unfamiliar language. In a sense, everyday life starts to seem like combat. You have to psych yourself up and put on your armor to deal with it. That's why these banalities take on outsized proportions in the life of a foreigner. They become much more difficult and also much more interesting. There's a great potential to learn something new with every interaction.

The cornerstone of this book is a line from George Steiner about how you translate between languages, but you can also translate inside them. Anyone who ventures outside the bosom of their childhood language or hometown is going through some of that work. I think of the idea of translation that way--trying to negotiate difference.

The impetus for learning French was not only navigating a new culture, but learning to communicate with your husband in his native tongue. 

A romantic relationship between people who speak two different languages is like an exaggerated case study. It takes what happens between two people in any relationship and magnifies it.

When you're in any kind of relationship, you often have to translate everything into the language of a different gender, religion, regional dialect, political mindset, or other category. When you meet someone and are getting to know them, you're feeling each other out. You're trying each other's sensibilities on for size. Eventually, especially in a romantic relationship, your private dictionaries start to overlap. When you're in a bilingual relationship, you know you're in for a certain amount of work, and that increases with every category of difference.

The great payoff of learning French is striking out one of those categories. Olivier and I still have our differences of opinion and perception, but at least now we can communicate them a little bit better. The simple fact of being different from one another--a man and a woman, or an atheist and a believer, or an artist and a scientist--creates these gaps that you're kind of yelling across. Being able to close one of them, or to make the distance shorter, has been huge progress. Basically, my recipe for long-lasting love is that everyone should think of their significant other as a French person!

At times, you step back from your personal story to talk about the history of monolingualism in the U.S., the neuroscience behind language acquisition, the relationship between the U.S. and France--all these fascinating asides. How did you decide to weave them in?

Maybe it's my journalistic instinct at play, but I wanted to give some context to this very personal story. My experience of a new language and culture was the thing that was lighting me up intellectually and emotionally. My synapses were firing and I was stumbling across all these different things about words in different languages, monolingualism in the U.S., how language and culture are intertwined. I thought they gave some ballast to my personal narrative.

When in French is coming out at a moment when there's widespread fear and distrust of "the other" in our world.

I see this very strange disconnect. On the one hand, there are more bilingual, biracial, bi-national, bicultural couples and families than there have ever been. Everyone seems happy about that increase of choices and freedom. And yet there's also rising xenophobia and nationalism in the world. I don't know what it all adds up to, but it definitely makes for a very interesting tension. So many people are "mixed" in some way, and we are having to reckon with that.

I think this mixture, this globalization of not only the world but our families, is a palpable phenomenon of our moment and our generation. It's something that's very different from our parents' generation, at least in my case. And I'm happy with the faraway trajectory my life has taken, but I'm not an evangelist at all for expatriation.

There's a moment near the end of the book where I run into a childhood acquaintance on a beach near my family's home, and I watch her giving her kids essentially the same kind of childhood that she had. And part of me wondered what I was missing, since I had left. I know the rewards of leaving, of exploring. But what do you get if you stay? That's also a way to build a worthwhile life. --Katie Noah Gibson


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