Alice Kaplan on the pleasure of living in and speaking another language, in this case, French. A new language can release us—to desire different thing, to claim new body parts, to become adult…
“It was not what France gave you but what it did not take away from you that was important”: Gertrude Stein published that line in Paris France in 1940, the year her adopted country caved in to the Nazis.
I’ve been willing to overlook in French culture what I wouldn’t accept in my own, for the privilege of living in translation.
Learning French and learning to think, learning to desire, is all mixed up in my head, until I can’t tell the difference. French is what released me from the cool complacency of the R Resisters, made me want, and like wanting, unbuttoned me and sent me packing. French demands my obedience, gives me permission to try too hard, to squinch up my face to make the words sound right. French houses words like “existentialism” that connote abstract thinking, difficulties to which I can get the key. And body parts which I can claim. French got me away from my family and taught me how to talk. Made me an adult. And the whole drama of it is in that “r,” how deep in my throat, how different it feels.
French Lessons: A Memoir