When the World Spoke French Marc Fumaroli, translated from the French by Richard Howard

NYRB Classics, pp.576, 11.99

The civilised world has always needed a lingua franca, through which educated people of international outlook can communicate with each other. For centuries that language was Latin, first the language of theology, then of learning — Erasmus, Milton and Thomas More communicated with a wide community of scholars in Latin. Nowadays, the international language of commerce and culture is English, and from Peru to Shanghai the employees of multinationals talk in their barbarous English idiolects of blue-sky thinking and learning curves, just as their children chant along to the lyrics of West Coast rap.

Between the age of Erasmus and that of Ricky Martin, there occurred the supremacy of the French language. In the 18th and 19th centuries, sophisticated parts of the world found it convenient to talk and write in French. It was the language of statecraft, through which Frederick II and Catherine the Great communicated; it was also the language of the philosophes, and Voltaire’s many correspondents found it natural to write not only to him, but to each other, in French. It had, no doubt, a certain air of sophistication shading, as time went on, into self-conscious decadence. English writers of a certain stamp were apt to attempt to write some of their oeuvre in French. That horrible work, William Beckford’s Vathek, was first written in French. Outside the period M. Fumaroli treats in this book, Oscar Wilde found the French language best for the first draft of his hieratic play Salomé. Samuel Beckett wrote most of his works more or less simultaneously in both languages, so that we can hardly say whether Oh les beaux jours or Happy Days is the original or the translation.

During this period, a thinker or writer would have regarded the ability to converse in French with a distinguished visitor as indispensable. Whenever the question of speaking French comes up in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, a certain embarrassment is evident. It becomes clear that Johnson’s French accent was of the order of Edward Heath’s. Boswell tells us that: ‘While Johnson was in France, he was generally very resolute in speaking Latin… When Sir Joshua Reynolds, at one of the dinners of the Royal Academy, presented him to a Frenchman of great distinction, he would not deign to speak French, but talked Latin, though his Excellency did not understand it, owing, perhaps, to Johnson’s English pronunciation.’ It was a serious lack in Johnson that he could not converse with the Sardinian hero General Paoli in any shared language, meaning French: it was left to the urbane Boswell to act as an interpreter, or as he puts it, like an ‘isthmus’ between two ‘great continents’.

So Marc Fumaroli has an interesting subject for a book. He takes 26 case studies of the French language operating in an international context. Some of these are well-known examples, such as Horace Walpole’s correspondence with Mme du Deffand, or Frederick II of Prussia’s with Voltaire. There are curious examples of foreigners writing books in French, such as the, to me, entirely unreadable Memoirs of the Comte de Gramont from the beginning of the 18th century by the Irish nobleman Anthony Hamilton.

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It’s interesting to note that books written in French by foreigners are often very odd, as if the exercise in writing in an acquired tongue sheds any obligation to decorum or convention. The most peculiar instance here is by a German-born friend of Rousseau, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, in a pamphlet written in satirical defence of Italian opera. At least, that’s what we are told, since Grimm, for some inexplicable reason, cast his satire in the form of a Biblical parody, making it all but impenetrable. In Grimm’s case, it led to nothing much, but the comparable breaking of decorum in Vathek, licensed by the foreign language, created all sorts of disgusting possibilities.

Fumaroli extends himself, too, into writers and figures who did not write in French, apart from routine correspondence, but who betray a strong admiration for the ideals of ‘good manners, alert intelligence and refined taste’, as Fumaroli sums it up, embedded in the 18th-century notion of Paris. Lord Chesterfield’s Letters were not written in French, but are imbued with thoroughly French notions of how to educate a civilised being. Perhaps more dubiously included is the thinker Francesco Algarotti, whose significant works are all in Italian, even the 1750 Saggio sopra la lingua francese.

Fumaroli’s book can’t be recommended to the English reader. It demonstrates, in fact, an unbridgeable gulf between French literary manners and English. Its main fault is a tendency towards dreadful verbosity, and, especially, towards the literary crime we know as ‘elegant variation’. English novelists, for instance, divide into those bad ones who mechanically vary their verbs of speech, and those good ones who austerely restrict themselves to ‘he said’ with a couple of occasional variations. I once had the awful experience of being translated into French by a gentleman who insisted that it was good practice in French to change ‘il dit’ ten times a page into ‘il insista’, ‘il repliqua’, ‘elle s’ecria’, il interrogea’ and similar atrocities. (There was no point in showing him how correct and austere Proust’s practice is in this regard: to vary was just good French style, and that was that.)

Similarly, Fumaroli has an awful tendency to shy away from repeating his subjects’ names, replacing them as the chapter progresses with more and more ludicrous epithets. Maurice de Saxe becomes, in turn, ‘the young count’, ‘the superb young athlete from the east’, ‘the Samartian ogre’, ‘this Lutheran prince’, ‘the hero of Fontenoy’, ‘the ogreish marshal’, ‘the future Academician’ and even more tortured variants. For some French writers, this may be good style. In English, it is an art only practised on the sports pages of red-top newspapers.

Some of this may be the fault of the translator, Richard Howard, who, despite his very high reputation, here lazily writes in a macaronic dialect, as if some words are just too exquisite to put into English, and what English there is has a definite whiff of the Gare Saint-Lazare: ‘And it was quite true that to be a gentleman à la française in London… had a signification of pride and freedom à la Montaigne quite different from what it would be for a French nobleman to function as a courtier at Versailles and an homme de salon in Paris.’ Some curious blunders in translation make Fumaroli sound worse than he is: Howard is not the first translator to believe that ‘chateau’ means ‘castle’ in English, though I don’t think he can be blamed for Fumaroli talking about Robert Walpole’s house in Norfolk as ‘Orford Castle’ (he means Houghton Hall). Mostly, though, what Fumaroli needs is not a translator but a slash-and-burn editor: ‘In the absence of any surprising iconography for the abbe, it is difficult to imagine his physical appearance.’ Translated into English: ‘We don’t know what the abbe looked like.’

This endless verbiage conceals, rather than reveals, Fumaroli’s subjects. You may find his essays easier to follow if you know all about the subject already — but how many of us know anything about the Countess of Bentinck, and isn’t that why we ought to be reading this book? I read with constant recourse to Wikipedia, just to try to understand what on earth he was talking about. There were moments when Johnson’s rude remark came to mind: ‘A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he has anything to say or no…’ If you think this sort of thing is enticin
g, illuminating, elegant, intelligent or interesting, then this book may be for you:

In the Versailles of Louis XV and Mme de Pompadour, a condottiere from the depths of the Hercynian forest, Hermann-Maurice de Saxe — prefiguring in his fashion the fate of another condottiere, this one from Mediterranean antiquity: Napoleon Bonaparte — renewed the frisson of the Homeric hero or the Scythian sage, two fashionable myths of the civilized Paris of those days: strong, frank, direct, intelligent, and barbarous, he would be both idolized and detested by the complicated Lilliputians he had fleetingly preserved from what he himself called their confusion — their embrouillamini.

If Fumaroli’s aim, as I suspect, was to demonstrate by his own refinement and sophistication in prose what has been lost with the decline of French as the international language of choice, I am sorry to tell him that the style disappears quite unlamented.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, France, French, History, Language, Languages, Non-fiction, World history