Exploring love and language in a new memoir by Lauren Collins
When in French, a new book from New Yorker staff writer Lauren Collins, is an exploration of the way language shapes us, and the ways we shape language. The premise intrigued me; my affinity to France is physical — I lived there for ten summers, and I return as often as I can. I am pulled back, time and again to an old, slightly shabby, converted barn called Les Marroniers in the Black Mountains near Carcassonne in the South-West of the country, where my parents now live permanently.
The simple, red-on-cream cover of When in French brought to mind the label on a swish bottle of red from an esteemed vigneron. I was expecting, wrongly as it turns out, a rustic memoir of the wiles of the locals in a small French village, and was willing to hate the book vehemently if it contained one droll waiter in a candlelit auberge or overly fastidious town mayor, presented with grand hyperbole for the amusement of Anglophone readers.
Happily this urban memoir contains none of these clichés, instead telling a story at once deeply personal to Collins and far-reaching, incorporating history, psychology, linguistics and myth in search of an answer to the overwhelming question; what does the language we speak say about us? And how can we truly communicate with those we love without the frame-of reference which is a shared language? Through personal incidents, Collins illustrates the fallibility of language, the way in which it is all too human a construct to not be hopelessly flawed. However she also engages us in the story of the French language, which came into being bloody and embryonic, as the omen of a fratricide, the key players in which come with names such as “Louis the German,” “Charles the Bald,” and Lothair.
A self-described ‘preppy’ girl from Wilmington, North Carolina, Collins’s only experience of ‘abroad’ as a kid was a trip on an Epcot-Disney World boat-ride where along with her family she “rode a marionette carousel” in Mexico, “before proceeding southwest to the Teashops of China.” This journey stayed with her, but a family superstition about travel linked to the death of her maternal grandfather, who died on a flight from Philadelphia to Erie, meant that Collins did not leave small-town America for many years.
The book is therefore full of Collins’s amazement that she ended up living in Geneva, married to a French man she met in London. She had turned to London for her adventure of living abroad due the commonality of language — as a writer, words were her agent and English was her currency. To end up living in a foreign language seemed at once strange and wondrous to Collins, rendered as she was, an alien in the medium she knew so well. Rather than avoiding cliches as she had all her life, she sought them out, finding it “such a happy thing to cling to cliché”:
How is one to know that inclement almost always goes with weather; that aspersions are cast but insults hurled; that observers are keen; that processions are orderly; that — as someone apparently decreed in the early years on this century — emails are to be shot and drinks grabbed? In English I strained to avoid such formulations. But, in French, conformity was my goal…I was trying to join in, not distinguish myself.
Collins’s gift for language is apparent throughout the book, where her strange and concise similes describe feelings, people and objects, neatly enough to make you exclaim, ‘Yes!’ After only half a chapter, I could only imagine how marooned she would have felt outside the native tongue in which she communicates so beautifully, often distinguishing herself.
Yet it is Collins’s skill with language, her fascination with how languages work, and why she was left simultaneously fascinated and marooned when removed from her birth tongue. She savors the strangeness and the pithiness of language. To be a third or fifth-wheel in French is tenir la chandelle — “to hold the candle” — she tells us. This phrase reminds me of a Scottish university boyfriend with a wandering eye, who after referring to “a racing-car blonde,” would add, as a sop, “of course, she couldn’t hold a candle to you, my dear.” The idea of candle-holding in different languages appeals to me, as it does to Collins, as I imagine a Wee Willie Winkie, running not through the “toun” but through a babel of languages.
What history, she wonders, has created this new language she finds herself inhabiting, which cultures have collided to chisel away surplus words and add others? How does language — the sole barrier between Collins and her husband, Olivier (Oh-lee-vyay) — make them the people they are? And does something essential change in you when you learn a new language — akin, perhaps, to a religious conversion?
With a journalist’s curiosity, Collins sets out to answer these questions, profiling languages (mainly French and American English, though others have their sound bites) as though they are living celebrities who she is on assignment to interview. (She has profiled Michelle Obama and Donatella Versace; profiling living languages seems almost a natural next step.)
“There are two schools of thought,” Collins says in a presentation to her French language class in Geneva, “one that suggests that each language expresses itself uniquely, another that holds that all languages are variations on a universal theme.” Collins gravitates toward the former theory: that languages are individual, and while they may be channels for expressing our universal humanity, they are nevertheless their own beasts.
French reveals itself to Collins as a language of words which are “impressionable, a little bit fickle, behaving differently according to whom they’re with.” She continues, “A French word, if all its friends did, would definitely jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.” Collins also explores the relationship between language and memory, citing Nabokov, who found that only through writing in Russian could he summon certain feelings in memory. The incidents he could render in any language, something which happened could be translated, but a memory of something felt was different.
As an Englishwoman whose parents live in France, my own experience of learning the language has been less rigorously cerebral, and more of a natural journey where the language seeped into my consciousness as I lay by the lake with friends, or chatted at café tables, or tried to eavesdrop on the conversations between my parents and their friends. I find the language beautiful, but I had not considered properly, deeply, how it had developed, how languages grow in sync with the cultures they represent, and how by speaking a different tongue (as Collins points out, the use of the word tongue, as opposed to say ‘ear’ is telling — to know a language you must do more than hear, you must partake in speech) you are entering a different culture. You eschew one history for another, disrobing part your identity to identify more with an other. To speak a foreign language is to make a sacrifice, but also to acquire a new facet.
To me, French has always seemed simultaneously spontaneous and refined, whereas American sounds like language spoken in italics; a sanitised, urgent, splashy language, slanting forward with a uniform urgency. When Collins writes about Olivier’s reticence in use of language, she compares him to the wife of an American executive who describes herself with the kind of hyperbole with which I, as an English girl, have rightly or wrongly come to associate Americans. “The third line [of her Twitter bio] — ‘wife of an awesome guy’ — struck me as too much and too little, overdone and neutered at the same time.”
Olivier, in comparison, holds some of himself back, both in language and in life, measuring his decisions with care. Collins was to leave him at one point, when she felt he was unable to properly commit. The issue was at least partly one of translation, a tussle to understand one another, not only linguistically, but culturally. Through learning Olivier’s language, Collins was able to know him better, overhearing his “true voice” on the telephone for the first time four years after meeting him, but she has also gone on a cerebral journey of self-discovery, which she shares beautifully in When in French.
I recently went to a dinner party with friends of my parents—Tyler is Scottish and Martine is Tunisian. Like Olivier and Lauren, they had to navigate the choppy waters of love in a different language, learning the alien words, sounds and sentence structures as they learnt about one another. Now in their sixties, with three grown-up children, they have reached an understanding of one another, talking in the shorthand of long-together couples. Tyler is Ty, and Martine is Tin, but only to one another. They have just found a buyer for their French home, having decided to move back to the UK where their children and newborn grandson live. Martine is optimistic about the sale, but Tyler said, “there is many a slip, twixt cup and lip.” She was puzzled.
“Twixt?” She tried the word out. An articulate woman who speaks beautiful English, she found the throwaway use of an antiquated word strange, bordering on incomprehensible. Her flawless English (the type spoken almost solely by non-native speakers) did not take to this deliberate but casual use of “twixt.” I thought of Collins and her newfound language, and wondered what odd rough-edged jewels of French she is still yet to find and wonder at, turning them over in awe at their absurdity.
When in French is released in the US on September 13th. An excerpt published by The New Yorker is available here.