It Felt Very Lonely
To stare at the implacable and unscalable wall that was French literature, in the fall of 1969 at Cornell University. It was as if I were trying to figure out the wall by feeling it with my fingertips, while blindfolded.
My mistake was to overachieve in high school on what was called the French "Achievement Test." I approached the test like a Rubik's Cube, alert and primed for combat. My score was not spectacular, but it was good enough to create the impression that I had some basic fluency in French, which I did not.
And so I was allowed to skip the introductory courses and to satisfy my language requirement in two semesters only, in second-year literature classes that I took as a freshman. I recall that my first teacher had a standard-issue Beatle haircut and looked and sounded much like the then-young actor Jean-Pierre Leaud.
I remember to this day most of the books and the names of their authors. Some were beautiful themselves. Chretien de Troyes out of the medieval mists. "La Princesse de Cleves." "Les Contemplations de Victor Hugo." "Les Fleurs du Mal" -- The "flowers of evil" of Baudelaire, who resonated strongly for me with Edgar Allan Poe. "Les Jeux Sont Faits," which is what the croupier said, and still says, when all betting must stop. "The Chips Are Down!" And so they were, according to Sartre. The "nouveau roman" "La Jalousie," by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Most intimidating, perhaps, with respect to its bulk at least, was "Combray," the introduction to "A La Recherche du Temps Perdu," which has been variously translated as "Remembrance of Things Past" and, more accurately but also more woodenly, as "Researching Lost Time" or "Searching for Lost Time" (which is, of course, precisely what I am doing now). In "Combray" lies the scent of the famous madeleine, the biscuit that for Proust and his protagonist triggers lost memory.
French literature related to me in the end like the beautiful and imperious Maria Callas, who herself was raised a stranger to French but seemed in the end to master it, like every discipline that she put her mind to, so that the most difficult of things looked effortless -- "Si tu m'aimes, prends garde a toi ... Si je t'aime, prends garde a toi!" - "If you love me, beware ... If I love you, be twice wary!"
And so I turned my back on this powerful and vengeful mistress.