Sunday, March 23, 2008

La bizarrerie de la jeune fille Francophile

I've decided it's my new goal in life to read only books that make me want to yell "Score!" when I find them in a bookstore, and the most recent book to make me do that was a sale copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon, at the airport Powell's. I'm about two-thirds of the way through it, but I've already decided that the beginning of chapter 9 is my new favorite quote. Since I'm a French major, it absolutely tickles me:
I admit I have an ugly fondness for generalizations, so perhaps I may be forgiven when I declare that there is always something weird about a girl who majors in French. She has entered into her course of study, first of all, knowing full well that it can only lead to her becoming a French teacher, a very grim affair, the least of whose evils is poor pay, and the prospect of which should have been sufficient to send her straight into business or public relations. She has been betrayed into the study of French, heedless of the terrible consequences, by her enchantment with this language, which has ruined more young American women than any other foreign tongue.

Second, if her studies were confined simply to grammar and vocabulary, then perhaps the French major would develop no differently from those who study Spanish or German, but the unlucky girl who pursues her studies past the second year comes inevitably and headlong into contact with French Literature, potentially one of the most destructive forces known to mankind; and she begins to relish such previously unglamorous elements of her vocabulary as langueur and funeste, and, speaking English, inverts her adjectives, to let one know that she sometimes even thinks in French. The writers she comes to appreciate--Breton, Baudelaire, Sartre, de Sade, Cocteau--have an alienating effect, especially on her attitude toward love, and her manner of expressing her emotions becomes difficult and theatrical; while those French writers whose influence might be healthy, such as Stendhal or Flaubert, she dislikes and takes to reading in translation, where their effect on her thought and speech is negligible; or she willfully misreads Madame Bovary and La Chartreuse, making dark romances of them. I gathered that Phlox, in particular, considered herself "linked by destiny" (liée par le destin) both to Nadja and to O. That is how a female French major thinks.
Hilarious. I love the image of the French language "ruining" American girls, as if the book had been written in the 1800s and not in 1988. And while nothing irritates me more than women who see Emma Bovary as a romantic heroine instead of a deluded fool, there's always Flaubert's Salammbô if you want sex, violence, luxury, and a naked chick with a snake coiled around her. I love No Exit, Baudelaire, Verlaine...and am proud to share a birthday with Jean Cocteau. I delight in saying dark and mysterious-sounding words like cartouche d'encre--so much more evocative than the English "ink cartridge." Bravo Mr. Chabon for this dissection of the female French major! We're not as common in universities as we used to be, but we certainly are a breed apart.


franQ said...

So glad you've discovered THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH! It's long been my fave since the early mid-90s and I read it over and over again, passing it along to friends whenever I find a sale copy. (I got mine on a discount table for $1.98 way back when!)

I must warn you NOT to rush out and the see the film adaptation which received its premiere at Sundance this past January... It's NOTHING like the book!

Forget about Phlox being a French major... She's BARELY in the movie. You're better off sticking with the novel.

Marissa said...

Thanks for warning me about the movie adaptation. I didn't know there was going to be one, but that makes me glad I'm reading the novel now, before it becomes "cool" to like the movie and so that I can say to everyone, "The book is better." Geez, how can they leave out Phlox? With the way that she models herself after a 1950s starlet, she seems made for the movies!