Succinct

In a long-ago world, I had the pleasure of being introduced to the joys of French literature, principally by Miss Shelley at Lowell High School beginning in the second semester of Grade 10. It was very challenging at first, because few of us in the class had had much real experience with the language and it was a task to lift a corner of the literature curtain when reading the texts was a bit of a plod involving frequent recourse to the dictionary. I soon realized that using contextual clues, along with an increased linguistic awareness, allowed for focus on the content of a piece that transcended the text itself. I watched as the curtain slowly drew back and revealed a universe of tales and verse that mirrored the world back at me and brought on a wealth of insights into politics, social unrest, wars, pestilence, sex and violence. I suppose this might have happened without the linguistic stumbles had someone been able to light the same fire about English (American, Canadian, Australian…) literature, but that never happened, other than little sparks over Conrad and Faulkner in Mr. Lombardi’s English 11 class. Also, there seemed something mildly exotic and risqué about French  material, due to the prejudices of the time and place and the prudish newness of North American society. I couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm for the oriental works that ran across my desk in the course of the World Lit class in Grade 12 because I had to read them in translation and thus didn’t feel the same connection experienced in Miss S’s class.

It follows on that I continued this through a somewhat checkered university stint, and finally, into the public school system here in BC, wherein I found myself attempting to replicate, in some small way, the wonders of what a few had done for me in those risky late-teen days, that is, to drag a small number of students to a point in the study of the language where they could experience the real language and some interesting thought through the study of literature from a somewhat foreign perspective.

So here’s our lesson for the day, a poem by Jacques Prévert:

Composition française 

Tout jeune Napoléon était très maigre

et officier d’artillerie

plus tard il devint empereur

alors il prit du ventre et beaucoup de pays

et le jour où il mourut il avait encore

du ventre

mais il était devenu plus petit.

—Jacques Prévert

Basically, and I’m a poor translator, but there aren’t enough subtleties in this case for me to wreck:

In his youth, Napoleon was very thin

and an artillery officer

later, he became emperor

and he packed on weight and lots of countries

and the day he died he still had

a belly

but he had become a lot smaller.

This looks to me as though someone was encapsulating the decay of empire in a few short lines. It happened to France in Metternich’s time, and again after the Second World War, it happened to the British, and we seem to have a front-row seat (popcorn optional for some) for the American Empire, and we all get to pick our favourite figurehead to substitute for Napoleon.

Since some of us have benefitted materially from empire, it’s a bit of a daunting prospect, no matter how fervently we wish the end of empire, to suffer the consequences, especially if we’ve been paying attention to the lot of Cubans and Russians in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the hot mess that has been part of existence in Africa, say, or Southeast Asia. A good part of the fear stems from not having the option to resign gracefully, or to exert any measure of control over the descent from the heights, especially when combined with the disquiet that accompanies the thought that the same perpetrators are also driving humanity off an ecological cliff, seemingly without much real possibility of restraint or course change.

We might as well have a little poetry to usher us down the hallway to that much-vaunted new normal that isn’t likely what the puppet masters wanted us to see.

Tom Lehrer:

Soon we’ll be out amidst the cold world’s strife.

Soon we’ll be sliding down the razor blade of life.

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