Few things have marked my life quite as much as French literature. It all began back in December 1999 when I travelled to Paris for the first time, taking the Eurostar with my parents. We rented an apartment for a few days on Boulevard Haussmann, very close to Galeries Lafayette and Printemps with their aquarium like windows filled with magical Christmas displays, and very importantly, close to where Marcel Proust once lived (but more about him later). It’s a total cliché but I fell in love with the city of light, walking down the Champs-Elysées and admiring the trees wrapped in white and taking a trip to the Eiffel Tower late one night and seeing the twinkling avenues spread out beneath my feet. Unfortunately, my poor mother did not enjoy the experience as much as me and started coming down with the flu.
The Café de Flore by Jeanloup Sieff
Confined to her bed for our last full day, I insisted on dragging my father off to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the area made famous by Jean-Paul Sartre and my idol, Simone de Beauvoir. Needless to say, the first destination on our pilgrimage was the Café de Flore where in my then non-existent French, I ordered “deux cafés” and was astonished when the waiter bought two tiny cups of coffee, accompanied by two glasses of still water, realising too late that it was café au lait I had wanted. While leaving the Flore, I spotted a wonderful looking bookshop next to it which had a large window display devoted to Marcel Proust. Not only did I go in but, despite speaking no French at all, I gathered up all seven volumes of ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ and also Stendhal’s ‘Le rouge et le noir’, for the simple reason that I liked the title and the cover. Grumbling that it was ridiculous to buy so many books in a foreign language you didn’t speak, my father nevertheless was kind enough to pay for them and put the experience down to one of my many eccentricities. Years later, when watching the film ‘Frances Ha’, I burst out laughing at the scene where she talks about learning French just to read Proust because that’s exactly what I did.
The famous portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Émile Blanche
Through a mixture of dogged determination and Francophilia, I taught myself French, first through basic language courses, then by reading grammar books, then by tackling the classic novels. There was ‘Madame Bovary’ and Balzac’s ‘Le Lys dans la Vallée’ (very challenging for a beginner), Camus’ ‘L’Étranger’ and ‘La Peste’ and tons of Marguerite Duras until I overdosed. Sometimes I agonised for hours over the meaning of a sentence or the use of a particular tense, but I never gave up. I finally devoted myself to Proust in the university library, arriving as soon as it opened in the morning to get one of the single desks by the window which looked out onto the park. I began ‘Du côté de chez Swann’ and lost myself in the neverending sentences with their quirky syntax and labyrinthine constructions. No other book has captured my heart and imagination like La Recherche and I spent the next ten years not only ploughing through the other six volumes, but also reading everything about it and its idiosyncratic creator.
Henri Beyle, otherwise known as Stendhal
And Stendhal? The summer of 2004 before I moved to Annecy, I finally opened ‘Le Rouge et le Noir’ and fell in love with the book and its author, buying everything by and about him and even giving an awful presentation in French about his famous crystallization theory from ‘De l’Amour’ to other students at the language school (funnily, my friend from Frankfurt remembers little else about her time there, except my talk) and making a pilgrimage to his hated birthplace, Grenoble.
Today these rather battered books by Proust and Stendhal occupy pride of place on my bookshelf and although it has been years since I’ve read them, opening a volume still fills me with excitement and takes me back to that cold but sunny afternoon in Paris all those years ago.