Thursday, January 1, 2004

On the beach

Having allowed my French to fall into desuetude, and not being able to spend the time in a francophone country that would polish it, I have taken to reading in French. Literary French is quite difficult, and I don’t pretend I could read it without a dictionary (to say the least). So I’m finding the Penguin Parallel Text of French Short Stories very useful.
The stories don’t just make a great learning exercise. They are wonderful expressions of the French love of language, the desire to play in and with words. Take this from Robbe-Grillet’s La plage, the one story in the book that I was familiar with (we studied him for A level, which raised a few uncomfortable memories):
Devant eux s’étend le sable jaune et uni, à perte de vue. Sur leur gauche se dresse la paroi de pierre brune, presque verticale, où aucune issue n’apparait. Sur leur droite, immobile et bleue depuis l’horizon, la surface plate de l’eau est bordée d’un ourlet subit, qui éclate aussitôt pour se répandre en mousse blanche.

Robbe-Grillet has so beautifully created the languor of the beach that the sudden wavelet makes the reader snatch up. Throughout the story, repeated phrases come and go like the tide, like the very waves. It is truly masterful writing, in any language.
The beach of La plage calls to mind Camus’ beach, although the latter doesn’t have the pristine blondness of the former, if I remember correctly. It’s a long time since I read any Camus, although I called him to mind when I was in Amsterdam, knocking back a jenever. Although L’étranger is the better-known book, La chute struck a chord with me. Its discussion of personal responsibility and its limits influenced my own philosophy inordinately. Camus offers no hiding place – when you make your own rules (as the thinking being must if it is to take responsibility for its own thinking) you cannot make appeal if you break them.

I do believe in rules. I believe they should be, I mean. Without them, the world seems fragmented, shattered even. It may be that the world really is that way, but even if it is, to have it so is to have it unliveable. The pretence of order at least allows us to live lives that seem to make sense to us. It is, I think, how we have become what we are. We take the complexities of the universe and find pattern, sometimes where there is none. We humanise the world. In personal terms, of course, the patterns are more real, because we are already human. The rules that we live by, or at least by which we understand one another’s behaviour, are real because they describe something that is ultimately constructed, not organic (however spontaneous we might feel we are). Of course, I do not mean that these rules should be anything prescriptive. Rather they are rules in the sense that Newton’s laws are laws. No court sets them but that they are evident.

In my profession, the rules are essential. My knowledge of them is what I live on. My ability to employ words that obey them is what allows me to say I can write (by which I do not, as some seem to think, mean to say merely that I know how to put words on paper but that I am confident they are the right words – or at least properly chosen out of the words that can be right). The rules are not, though, the straitjacket that (mostly unskilled) wouldbes like to make out. They are the natural consequence of the desire to communicate – guidelines in a concrete sense. I sometimes use the metaphor that they are the road language drives along, not the speed limit or the prohibition against drunkenness. Of course the road is sometimes poorly signposted. You don’t always know where you’re going.

But you should be able to tell when you’re driving on the grass.