Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me in the UK, I thought I would do a PhD in Montreal, and see a little of the Francophone world. Perhaps there was some element of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Learning French at an Anglophone university was trickier than I would have liked. I did however persevere with the language while obtaining mon doctorat, and eventually I could read, with dictionary assistance, a contemporary novel or comic. The latter, I discovered, had a rich tradition and active culture in France, and as a consequence a serious presence in the neighborhood bibliothèque.
When I left the Francosphere behind, and eventually arrived back in the Anglosphere, the French language fell out of sight and out of mind. There was an abundance of English prose I badly wanted to read, so my habit of reading in French all but disappeared. That is until very recently, when I was inspired by a blog post I stumbled upon. The author of the The Untranslated reflects on five years of running his quite wonderful blog reviewing untranslated books. A great deal of it concerns the practice of learning new languages with the aim of reading specific works. Which makes a refreshing contrast to the usually proffered motivate for language aquisition: being able to order food or ask for directions like a local. So inspired, I set about throwing myself once again into French literary waters.
My first port of call was my go-to French webcomic, Bouletcorp. Started in 2004, it is a veteran of the scene. A typical comic depicts incidents from the author Boulet’s life, alongside ruminations and observations on everything from the quotidian irritations of modern life to lazy tropes in TV and movies. To my rather fanciful way of reading them, these are visual essays in the tradition of Montaigne’s essays. A more suitable reference point is Calvin and Hobbes, in the way Boulet frequently lets his imagination run in fanciful and speculative directions, rendering scenes reminiscent of Waterson’s Sunday strips, filled with all the dinosaurs, alien landscapes, and monsters that populated Calvin’s imagination. One situation that Boulet returns to more that once are encounters with obnoxious members of the public attending his in-person signings at conventions. In one such strip Boulet anonymizes the offending individual by drawing them in various forms: an ape, a cockerel, and finally a grim looking salad bowl of merde. Boulet is an artist with incredible versatility, belonging to the European tradition of Moebius. I grew up in the UK reading the frankly impoverished offerings of the Dandy and Beano, and picking through the debauched excesses of American superhero comics. So I feel like I missed out on the sophisticated the French tradition of bande dessinée. At least I had the adventures of Asterix & Obelix, and Tintin.
Reading my way through the Bouletcorp back catalogue I found one comic in particular that I responded to deeply. Created for the 2017 Frankfurt book fair website it is a reminiscence of youth. A tweenage Boulet is torn form his ordinateur and obliged to do his required reading for school. Disinclined towards his duty, he picks the shortest story in the collection, and finds himself drawn in, captivated, and horrified by the gothic power of Prosper Merimee’s La Venus d’Ille. Understanding that he wanted more of whatever that was he discovers, with the help of the school library, Poe, King, Asimov, and all kinds of fantastical fiction.
As readers we do not get to consume our art communally. Theater lovers go to watch actors tread the boards; film fans get to attend screenings; music fans flock to gigs; football fans sing together in their home stadiums. The solitude of reading has many benefits, to be sure. Frequently the best books we read have a strange power that is hard to assess, and merits might only become clear on second or third readings. But no doubt you have known a friend who has thrust a book into your hands that they can’t stop thinking about, telling you: “You have to read this.” So once you too have read it they can finally talk about it.
In much the same way I enjoy returning to a beloved book, I enjoy being reminded of the revelation that is reading. Of discovering the stories that suspend my disbelief and subvert my expectation. The books which captivated Boulet have some overlap with the books I read as a teenager, but it his experience that resonates so strongly.
That is why, of all the many podcasts that have devoted themselves to the works of the late Gene Wolfe, it is the reader interviews of the Rereading Wolfe podcast that I remain most excited about. The careful chapter by chapter analysis that all the Gene Wolfe podcasts offer are fine and good and wonderful. But there is something reaffirming about people discussing their responses to the work. In one utterly remarkable episode, a reader describes discovering The Book of the New Sun as she grew up in a cult — she had to read fantasy books smuggled in secret from the library. Among all the books she read, she understood at once that BotNS was on an entirely different level. I do not like to ascribe utility to art, but such stories allow me to believe in the vitality of art.
Part of the reason I aspire to become a proficient reader of the la langue française is so that I can return to that state of youthful discovery. I can become like a teenager again, seeing with fresh eyes what the culture offers, all over again. I can be liberated from the weight of expectation and reputation. I can be surprised all over again.