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French Lessons: A Memoir

French Lessons: A Memoir

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Published by University of Chicago Press an imprint of UChicagoPress
Brilliantly uniting the personal and the critical, French Lessons is a powerful autobiographical experiment. It tells the story of an American woman escaping into the French language and of a scholar and teacher coming to grips with her history of learning. Kaplan begins with a distinctly American quest for an imaginary France of the intelligence. But soon her infatuation with all things French comes up against the dark, unimagined recesses of French political and cultural life.

The daughter of a Jewish lawyer who prosecuted Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg, Kaplan grew up in the 1960s in the Midwest. After her father's death when she was seven, French became her way of "leaving home" and finding herself in another language and culture. In spare, midwestern prose, by turns intimate and wry, Kaplan describes how, as a student in a Swiss boarding school and later in a junior year abroad in Bordeaux, she passionately sought the French "r," attentively honed her accent, and learned the idioms of her French lover.

When, as a graduate student, her passion for French culture turned to the elegance and sophistication of its intellectual life, she found herself drawn to the language and style of the novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine. At the same time she was repulsed by his anti-Semitism. At Yale in the late 70s, during the heyday of deconstruction she chose to transgress its apolitical purity and work on a subject "that made history impossible to ignore:" French fascist intellectuals. Kaplan's discussion of the "de Man affair" — the discovery that her brilliant and charismatic Yale professor had written compromising articles for the pro-Nazi Belgian press—and her personal account of the paradoxes of deconstruction are among the most compelling available on this subject.

French Lessons belongs in the company of Sartre's Words and the memoirs of Nathalie Sarraute, Annie Ernaux, and Eva Hoffman. No book so engrossingly conveys both the excitement of learning and the moral dilemmas of the intellectual life.
Brilliantly uniting the personal and the critical, French Lessons is a powerful autobiographical experiment. It tells the story of an American woman escaping into the French language and of a scholar and teacher coming to grips with her history of learning. Kaplan begins with a distinctly American quest for an imaginary France of the intelligence. But soon her infatuation with all things French comes up against the dark, unimagined recesses of French political and cultural life.

The daughter of a Jewish lawyer who prosecuted Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg, Kaplan grew up in the 1960s in the Midwest. After her father's death when she was seven, French became her way of "leaving home" and finding herself in another language and culture. In spare, midwestern prose, by turns intimate and wry, Kaplan describes how, as a student in a Swiss boarding school and later in a junior year abroad in Bordeaux, she passionately sought the French "r," attentively honed her accent, and learned the idioms of her French lover.

When, as a graduate student, her passion for French culture turned to the elegance and sophistication of its intellectual life, she found herself drawn to the language and style of the novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine. At the same time she was repulsed by his anti-Semitism. At Yale in the late 70s, during the heyday of deconstruction she chose to transgress its apolitical purity and work on a subject "that made history impossible to ignore:" French fascist intellectuals. Kaplan's discussion of the "de Man affair" — the discovery that her brilliant and charismatic Yale professor had written compromising articles for the pro-Nazi Belgian press—and her personal account of the paradoxes of deconstruction are among the most compelling available on this subject.

French Lessons belongs in the company of Sartre's Words and the memoirs of Nathalie Sarraute, Annie Ernaux, and Eva Hoffman. No book so engrossingly conveys both the excitement of learning and the moral dilemmas of the intellectual life.

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Publish date: Feb 15, 2009
Added to Scribd: Jun 30, 2011
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reservedISBN:9780226424231
List Price: $15.00

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ajbraithwaite_1 reviewed this
Rated 2/5
A free read from the University of Chicago Press. I share Kaplan's fascination with the French language, although not her skill with it, but that wasn't enough to make the book more than mildly interesting. I was interested by the ethical issues around her interview of the Holocaust denier but overall found the book a bit too much of the 'look at me aren't I clever' genre to be enjoyable.
annelim_2 reviewed this
Alice loses her father when she is 8. She is sent to Switzerland and begins to fall in love with and hide behind the French language.
thom001_1 reviewed this
Rated 4/5
Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons is two books in one. In one sense, it is a linguistic autobiography, the story of her relationship with the French language from her childhood year in a Swiss boarding school through her current position as a professor at Duke University. In another, it is a psychological memoir, analysing how the author’s relationship with language developed from her experiences as a child, an adolescent, and finally an adult.In a piece about the difficulty of translating French Lessons into French, Kaplan has commented that she sees herself as occupying an in-between place, an intermediate spot between two languages and cultures. As such, her memoir will be of interest to anyone who has learned a second language or lived in a different culture. Whether it is her recollections of her initial attempts to learn French in Switzerland, her laborious efforts to perfect her linguistic skills and become a part of French culture as a university student in Bordeaux, or the intellectual passion for literature and teaching that has characterized her life as an adult, Kaplan’s experiences will strike a chord with readers who are themselves bilingual or bicultural, or who want to be.The only parts of French Lessons which seem less engaging to the general reader are the sections that deal with the strictly academic aspect of Kaplan’s language background. Her reflections on Céline and her study of French fascism that formed the basis of her Ph.D. dissertation are certainly relevant to her story. As one of her primary intellectual interests and also as the setting for a dramatic personal story, the author’s study of fascism and collaborationism certainly needs to be part of the book. However, the amount of detail involved, including accounts of university departmental politics, become a bit tedious to readers whose interests lie somewhere other than academe.Nonetheless, French Lessons is a fascinating account of an American’s love affair with the French language. Kaplan’s self-reflection provides a surprising insight into the role a second language can play in one’s life. It affects intellectual development, social activities, professional life. In fact, a second language weaves itself so thoroughly into the fabric of existence that it becomes part of every aspect of life. French Lessons is a book that I wish I’d thought of writing before Alice Kaplan did. But everyone’s story is unique, and so perhaps Kaplan’s greatest contribution is in inspiring her readers to consider and to appreciate the role of language in our own lives.
Publishers Weekly reviewed this
Kaplan ( Reproductions of Banality ), a teacher of French literature at Duke University, describes the impact of her preoccupation with the French language on her life. Initially, her passion for French culture provided her with a route out of her midwestern Jewish background. While studying in France, she was drawn to the work of Celine, the brilliant French novelist who was also a virulent anti-Semite. At Yale she wrote her dissertation on French fascist intellectuals; she discusses here the impact of the later discovery that her revered professor, the deconstructionist Paul de Man, had written for the pro-Nazi Belgian press. Since Kaplan's father was a judge at the Nuremberg Nazi war crimes trials, her intellectual investigation adds a unique personal component to this eloquent memoir. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

1993-08-02, Publishers Weekly
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