Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When Somebody Spoke French

I've remarked before on how relatively easy-going the French seem to have become about acts of wanton savagery committed against their language by foreigners (that would be me, your honor).  Here's one who hasn't given up the old ways: Marc Fumaroli, identified here on the book jacket as "a scholar of French classical rhetoric and art."  The book is entitled --well now, just what is it entitled The English-language edition is entitled  When the World Spoke French,  but the French original was (if you can believe it) more modest: simply Quand l'Europe Parlait Francais--that is "Europe," not "the World."  Oddly, neither is quite accurate: "the World" is a bit of a stretch for a book that says nothing about Hong Kong or Antarctica.  But "Europe" ignores two of the finest and funniest bits--anecdotes about Benjamin Franklin and Gouvernor Morris, who n bore the burden of Paris duty in the cause of their nascent American republic.

"Anecdotes" is the operative word here: in sum, 26 more or less free-standing vignettes about people who were, or wanted to be, or should have been, fixtures on the Parisian during  "the Enlightenment"--defined by Fumaroli as the 100/101  years between the treaties that ended the War of Spanish Succession (1713-14) and the first fall of Napoleon (1814).  They're a varied lot, both in subject and quality.  Perhaps the best is the author's account of Philip Dormer Stanhope, Lord Chesterfield, he who offered such pithy advice to his son.  Fumaroli presents the noble Lord in what will be, I suspect, for most readers an entirely new light--and if he has to stretch to make a Paris connection, why that is perhaps only to be expected.  His piece on Frederic II, by contrast, seems almost perfunctory in the sense that he probably felt he had to include something about Voltaire's royal pal, even though he doesn't have a lot new to say (I admit I did not know, however, that Frederic's father "spat  in the dinner plates of his children  before they were served."

There is one structural oddity about the book that the producers of the English-language edition did not figure out how to resolve.  That is: each vignette ends with a selection of "original source material"--a letter or some such, somehow related to the subject in question.  Fine, but why, exactly?  I suspect the giveaway is in the lede: Fumaroli is a scholar of rhetoric and he meant to show just how supple and powerful was his beloved language.  The trouble is that this will only work if the selections are in French:--but this is a translation, and so they are in English.  As such they don't prove much of anything and are pretty much of a big yawn (I admit I am half tempted to order up the French original to see if I can get any sense of his original point).  I suspect on the whole they might have saved a few trees without loss to human understanding if the translator had simply left them out.  But it's a minor flaw.  Meanwhile, if you want a sense of French culture from a man who obviously hasn't had a happy day since they chopped the head off Marie Antoinettei Fumaroli is your man.

[Wait a minute, Fumaroli?  A student of French rhetoric?  What kinda name is Fumaroli, anyway?]

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