100 Books

To help me with my French, I've decided to read 100 books in French over the next year. I'm far from fluent; I usually end up highlighting about 5-10 words or phrases I don't know on a given page, and that's on relatively simple books like "Le Petit Nicolas." More difficult books end up as a sea of glowing yellow before I set them aside for some later date. But with time and practice, I should get that down to only having to highlight words like margaudions and ventripotent.

Here are my criteria for the books I'll be reading:

  1. They must have been written originally in French.

    This is just because I figure I may as well learn a little bit about French culture while I'm at it. And French-Canadian culture. And Belgian culture. And, you know, Camaroonian culture and so forth.

  2. I must not have read them before.

    This isn't too tough, I think the only French books I've read in translation are "Le petit prince" and "La peste," which kind of hold down two ends of the French literature spectrum, now that I think about it. I've also read all of Asterix and a decent amount of Tintin, which brings me to my next criterion.

  3. They must be mostly words.

    If anything, I'm a fan of bandes desinées, as comics are called in French, but there's a particular challenge to reading a book without pictures to help point the way. Plus, I've already read all of Asterix, and a decent amount of Tintin, and more than I care to admit of Peyo.

That's about it! I'm not going to be jumping right into Rabelais and Rousseau. I'm more inclined to read the French equivalent of Rowling, Rice and Robbins (Tom, not Tony), at least until I get more vocabulary under my belt.

An important note: I am going to be talking a lot about French. But I don't know much French. So I'm going to be wrong a lot. Hopefully I will be amusingly wrong to those of you who speak French, and harmlessly wrong to those of you who do not.

So on to the first book, which I just finished this morning.

Le petit Nicolas by René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé

I should start by pointing out that the French system for capitalizing titles is charmingly random. Or rather systems, because there's more than one. At any rate, I'm just letting you know that the non-capitalized words in titles like Le petit Nicolas are vaguely on purpose, if not precisely standardized.

At any rate, Le petit Nicolas is not in fact the original inspiration for Little Nicky -- thank God -- but rather a set of short, mostly stand-alone stories about a boy named Nicolas who is eight years old and going to school in France in the 1950s, which means among other things that there's a lot more casual punching and wearing of ties than you'd expect these days.

It's written from the point of view of Nicolas himself, who is essentially a cheerful psychopath, which is to say it's a pretty accurate representation of an eight-year-old. One moment he's happily playing le foot, the next he's rolling on the ground crying and threatening to kill himself, and then he's hugging his mom, and then he's in a fistfight, and he's generally pretty happy about the whole thing. Many of the stories end with him looking over the chaos he and his little pals have caused and pronouncing the entire affair terrible, which for the first two stories I thought meant "terrible," but is actually little French boy slang for "awesome."

I'm actually making it sound more dystopian than it is. Nicolas isn't really a "bad boy" character, although clearly most of the adults in his life find him and his friends more trouble than average. The stories are really quite sentimental, as when Nicolas buys his mother a bouquet of flowers, or when he finds a dog and brings it home, dreaming of the two catching criminals together like on TV. In terms of fictional American children, he's more Calvin than Bart. Calvin with more friends and less imagination, and a friend who seems to have an endless supply of pastries in his pockets instead of a tiger.

Even missing most of the wordplay -- and I know there's wordplay because Goscinny wrote it -- I'm catching enough that it's very funny. Here's the beginning of one chapter, followed by my extremely rough translation:

Je me sentais très bien hier, la preuve, j’ai mangé des tas de caramels, de bonbons, de gêteaux, de frites et de glaces, et, dans la nuit, je me demande pourquoi, comme ça, j’ai été très malade.

I felt great yesterday. Here's proof: I ate a bunch of caramels, and candy, and cake, and fries and ice cream. And in the night -- I have no idea why -- I got really sick."

This actually underscores one of my difficulties with the book. You'll see I broke up one sentence into three there. A more literal translation would be:

I felt great yesterday, as proof, I ate a bunch of caramels, and candy, and cake, and fries and ice cream, and, in the night, I don't know why, just like that, I got really sick.

I'm not sure whether the sentence runs on because it's written in the voice of a little boy, or because French is very fond of subclauses and hates all punctuation except the lowly comma, or some combination of the two.

There are more Petit Nicolas books, and I'll probably be returning to them sooner rather than later; they're just about my speed. But I'm going to try for something a wee bit longer first.

Some words and phrases learned:

  • Coup de poing (coo-pwah) -- Punch
  • Coup de pied (coo-pyeh) -- Kick
  • L'encre (lonk) -- Ink
  • Le cow-boy (luh kao-bohee) -- Some sort of figure associated with livestock and law enforcement, I haven't quite figured it out.