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In my interests below, I list French language, cinema, theatre, politics, art, and wine. And while French brought me to a lot of these things, I also like all of them in a more general way. I really love languages and their connections. I also have a thing about how theatre and cinema, art, politics and wine all hook up in some way. As I think of these ideas, I can hear the thwonk of the cork coming out of the neck of the bottle, and the gentle squeak as the cork is twisted off the tire-bouchon. Ah, that oakey, musty, acidic aroma wafting, wafting and people talking and talking and talking. And, oh they found out we have some sets of boules and they want to play pétanque. "Let's pick teams and play in the shade of those plane trees." The sounds of summer resonate: the crunch of the terrain under foot, the click of the iron bocce knocking in the players' hands, and the soft kiss of the wooden cochonnet as it hits the ground scuttling down to its resting point where it will await the arrival of each team's battle-worn aggies.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"Mademoiselle Benoir" a novel by Christine Conrad

In her novel, Mademoiselle Benoir (2006), Christine Conrad has Tim, her American protagonist, write a letter to his Mom in which he tries to explain what he means by "deeply French". The term itself is quite fascinating and the way Tim explains what he means invites our curiosity.

Tim is a New Yorker, who has decided to leave the city's hustle and bustle for a quieter life in the Lot area of France. He chooses to live in a farmhouse near the small town of Carjac. To readers acquainted with French names, the "ac" at the end of the town's name will evoke the southwest of France. Armagnac, Bergerac, Cognac and many more remind us of the Roman presence in that part of the world. Latin left its indelible mark as the Celtic people of Gaul adopted and adapted the Roman language. In the southwest, the Petrocorii of the Dorgdogne area, the Roteni of the Aubrac area, the Cadurci of the Cahors and Quercy area, and many more grew to speak Occitan. As Roman cities grew up they would have names like Aureliacum, the town of Aurelius, or Conniacum, domain of Connius. Over time, these would change to Aurillac and Cognac. This would be the case for many Roman place names that slipped from Latin into the Latin derivative of the south and particularly the south-west: Occitan. The long history of the more westerly area of the south, where Tim settles, resonates in the sound "ac", a suffix in many a place name or family name. (The Wikipedia website has a succinct and informative overview of Occitan) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occitan_language

In his letter to his mother, Tim writes about Marcelline, a friend he has recently made. He calls her "deeply French". Then he goes on: "I'm not sure what I mean by this, but whatever it is I feel it strongly. ... My sketching has made me aware of the various French faces, and I've begun to recognize types that probably go back, oh, say 2,500 years. When I was in Villefranche a few weeks ago, I sat right next to a guy in a café who was right out of The Three Musketeers: thin hooked nose, angular face, goatee, an arrogant tilt to his chin. It was like looking at a painting from the seventeenth century. An American lives in a "melting pot," but in France there has been a relatively continuous cultural chain of thousands of years. I'm just beginning to sort out this difference in sensibilities that this longevity creates."

I think that Tim's reflections illuminate several curious questions about France. The first is that as an outsider to the culture, such as Christine Conrad's main character, there is a tendency to talk about the French and France as integrated units. A person arriving in France will tend to generalize particular behaviors or traits to the whole of France or to the French in general. By contrast, a French person will generally view her country as a mixture of many different regional and local identities. Parisians are not Lyonnais or Marseillais. The Marseillais are certainly not Niçois who in turn are not Cannois. The Monégasques are different from the general Provençal population, and Toulousains are not Bordelais. And that's just talking about large urban areas. There are many more differences to be found as you move within a region, from region to region, from small town to rural area, and village to city. Jean Lafontaine's fable of the town and country rat has never been truer of France today.

Another observation that outsiders often make is to see France as having a long stable history that somehow all the French hold in common. When Tim looks at the traits of French faces, he sees 2,500 years of history. It's a beautiful notion to think of the traits of our faces having long histories, of having been here before. It gives us a sense of our long term relationship with this planet. However, Tim sees these facial traits as being stable over those 25 centuries. True, he speaks of a "relatively" constant connection, but he thus does not see that French history seethes with hybridity.

Over the centuries, the face of France has undergone many changes. For sure, as the nation defined itself in the nineteenth century, there was and still is today a yearning for a strong and unified cultural identity centering on the hub of the Republic. However, even if we take the most Celtic, and therefore most ancient of France’s regions, we will find a criss-crossed history. For sure, in the Carnac area, we find the most stunning examples of Celtic or perhaps pre-Celtic monuments. The menhirs standing in long columns bear witness to organized civilization from a long time ago. The lines of stones - some as high as six feet tall - stand like sentinels of time itself. Raised on end and lined up some 6,000 years ago, the stones bear witness to the lasting, creative presence of men and women in Brittany. Yet the Bretons link to Celtic times, while it may have some direct links to those stones is also affected by other historical meanderings.

Fifty years before the birth of Christ, or 50 BCE (before the Common Era), Celtic culture was definitely on the wane. The Roman Empire had control of the whole of France. It also had taken a substantially strong hold on Great Britain. Many of the Celtic peoples of Britain were displaced to the peripheries of BritainCornwall, Wales, and Scotland – where they could integrate with Celtic peoples in those places that the Romans did not conquer. 500 years later, the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain and many of the remaining Celts left the British Isles, particularly from Wales and Cornwall, and established themselves in Armorica (the ancient name of the area we know today as Brittany). The arrival of these British Celts gave a new designation to the people and the place; the people were now known as Bretons and the place was Brittany, a sort of cousin to the island across the Channel known as Great Britain.

As time went by this fiercely independent region steadfastly resisted the power of the Kings of the Franks in the 5th and 6th centuries, and, as the Merovingians, became the Carolingians, then the Capetians, they stood strongly against integrating under those crowns. It would take the marriage of Anne de Bretagne with Charles VIII in 1491 to begin the process that would weld the last autonomous princely state to France. Even then, Anne remained fiercely loyal to Brittany. Even though Queen of France upon her marriage to Charles, she remained Duchess of Brittany. After Charles’ death, she married Louis XII and remained Queen of France and Duchess of Brittany. Brittany remained independent in theory until 1514 when Claude, Anne's daughter by Louis XII, married Francis of Angoulême (later Francis I of France). This wedding in 1532 brought the incorporation of Brittany. (See more about Anne of Brittany at Answers.com http://www.answers.com/topic/anne-of-brittany

Strong Celtic roots honed by language and traditions would resist even the Napoleonic impositions of the nineteenth century and Third Republic attempts to quash the culture. Even then, to see a simple us versus them dichotomy being the basis for this relationship is to ignore other strands of this relationship. The French monarchy largely ignored the issue of local and regional languages or “patois”. However, with the French Revolution and the slow rise of the Republic and republican ideas, policies were introduced to unite the country with one language. This was not seen as an oppressive action but one that would liberate the people. Supporters of the Republic felt that royalists encouraged "regional" languages, in order to keep the people from being united and in an effort to maintain ignorance among the peasants.

All these thoughts from reading a couple of paragraphs in Christine Conrad’s neat and engaging, lavender-scented novel of love and discovery in the region of Quercy. I’ll have to read on and find out what happens.

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