Enfant terrible

A new novel by Michel Houellebecq (pronounced: Well-beck) is a major literary event in France. L’enfant terrible of French letters is loved by many and detested by some but leaves few readers indifferent.

I was set to dislike the fellow. First of all because I have an automatic distrust of the intellectual. You must understand that in France, ‘intellectual’ is a profession. Writer, journalist, political theorist and philosopher: all are taken far more seriously than in the commercially driven culture from which I hail. They are respected fonts of wisdom that drive opinion in this country.

Secondly because, well…look at the photo. He appears to the picture of the debauched, jaded version of the intellectual, a sort of Serge Gainsbourg of letters. Strike two. Thirdly because his work is controversial and I assumed that his point of view would be distasteful.

But then I read one of his novels. I don’t often read in French as it feels less natural to me than English. Frankly, it’s more work. But when the voice is right it makes all the difference.  And his voice spoke to me. Not only because I understood it, but because he has a style that is intimate, natural, relatable. I liked his voice. So I read another. And became a fan.

Houellebecq is hated by many because he speaks his truth (his version of the truth: all that any writer can do) and it is not one which is politically correct, or even palatable to some. But it is certainly representative of the thoughts and fears of many French people.

Now perhaps you’ll think I’m being pretentious, supporting the very thing I purport to distrust. Intellectuals, writers, artists. But there is one thing that I hold dear and it is the freedom to say or think anything. I posted about this before back when the last wave of terror began in France and some of the comments perfectly captured the way I feel about free speech, whether actual censorship or via the cult of the thought police.

I haven’t read Houellebecq’s new book yet. It’s called Serotonin and it’s on my list. If you’re interested, it’s apparently already translated into English and several other languages.

Interestingly, the novel seems to predict the the current movement of social unrest in France, or at least to have had its finger on the pulse of the discontent behind it.

The author isn’t doing a book tour or making any public appearances for now. This seems to be upsetting le tout Paris, but I can understand why. He doesn’t need the publicity and it’s bound to lead to awkward questions.

What do you think: should writers be expected to defend their political beliefs or be given a pass as free thinkers?

The sneakiest word in the French language

It is the secret agent of the French language. Car il passe souvent inaperçu.

It is only two letters long, and most of the time isn’t even pronounced. Yet it changes everything.

Have you guessed?

Ne.

The little negation word. One of a couple, ne pas, which preface or encircle a verb and transform its meaning from positive to negative.

Fumer. Ne pas fumer. Je fume. Je ne fume pas.

Simple, right? Its role and place in French grammar are perfectly clear. Until it goes undercover.

I didn’t learn this at the Alliance Française or in any French grammar book. I went out on the street and found that in practice, the ‘ne’ is simply dropped in spoken French.

Ce n’est pas becomes c’est pas. But it doesn’t really matter (ce n’est pas grave) unless you’re a stickler like me. Because you are saved by the unmistakeable ‘pas’ which is your very big clue that there’s a negative in there.

‘Je ne sais pas’ becomes ‘j’sais pas’ or, to my non-native ears, what sounds like ‘chez pas’. (At first I wondered, who is this Pas and where does he live? Guess I’ll never know.)

So it’s complicated. But, hey, if them’s the rules, so be it. I can work with that.

Mais non! Ce n’est pas si simple.

To make matters more complicated, in literary French, the ‘ne’ often stays but the ‘pas’ is dropped. There’s a whole lot of rules as to when this happens, which you can read about here.

Et ça se complique. ‘Ne’ is often combined with a whole bunch of other words to indicate negation of some sort: jamais, rien, aucun, personne. Then dropped, like a hot potato, in spoken French.

Person? What’s with that? Une personne, ie a person, becomes (ne) personne, ie nobody.

Another variant is ‘ne plus’, which means no longer. Je ne fume plus. When the ‘ne’ disappears, as is its wont, it becomes ‘je fume plus’. Can we English be forgiven for finding this contradictory? I mean, plus is more, n’est-ce pas? In French, the rather subtle distinction is that when plus means more you pronounce the s, and when it means less you just say ‘plu’.

None of this can be learned in a book.

Et toi? What French words so you find most confusing? Do you ever find yourself, like me, trying to wrap your head around grammar rules?