Gide, Flaubert, Racine, Sartre, Beauvoir, Villon. For many people these names are remote, or even entirely unknown. They might make you think vaguely of obscure French poets and philosophers, long dead and consigned to musty libraries, but they are not likely to frequent your modern life.
For me, these writers represent the four years of my life that I spent studying French literature at university: hours upon hours reading, translating, attempting to understand their works, in lectures, in seminars, in tutorials, in the library, on the bus, in my bedroom at 2 am in the morning; hours of frantic revision, even tears in the bathroom between examinations. They were four long years of toil. And yet, what have I really gained from those four years? I’m not an academic and I’ll probably never need to know or talk about these people. They rarely crop up in conversation. I’ve never been asked about them in any job interview. What was the point?
Despite this, I do feel that, in some small way, I am better equipped to understand the world and cope with it. Studying each author, you realise that each one has a slightly different take on the world; each one perceives and represents reality differently, according to their environment and their own individual psyche. One author perceives the inherent comedy in the human condition, another chooses to depict its tragedy. When you’re faced with so many different visions of reality, which is the ‘correct’ one? Studying multiple authors makes you confront the truth that there is no one absolute reality, only personal interpretations of it. Whereas before I perhaps held much more dogmatic views about the world, I now have a much more nuanced view of things and a willingness to consider other viewpoints. I’m much less likely to dismiss them as ‘wrong’.
I’m also much more aware of how language is a powerful tool in its own right, something which has a role in shaping rather than just reflecting reality. Certain beliefs and norms are inscribed in our language and imposed by it; one of the most obvious examples of this is how the default pronoun in English and French is ‘he’, reflecting society’s assumption of male dominance. Women and other minority groups, it can be argued, are disadvantaged by the fact that language does not represent them equally: it is much more difficult to assert your power when the very language you speak also speaks of your marginalisation. Exploring topics like these has given me a better understanding of political issues surrounding language, whether it’s the controversy around the correct terminology for trans-people, disabled people or people of certain ethnic groups. I’ve become more sensitive about using the correct term since I realised it’s not as petty as I once thought it was; words are power, and they do make a difference.
There is also the knowledge that however bad I might sometimes feel, sometime, somewhere, someone has felt the same as me and they have written about it. A knowledge of literature gives you countless examples of humans getting to grips with living in an imperfect universe. If I hear a friend complaining about their boyfriend’s relationship with his overbearing mother, I think of how Racine depicted the Emperor Nero’s struggle for psychological independence from his mother Agrippine in his 1669 play Brittanicus. Victor Hugo laments the death of his beloved daughter; Césaire wrestles with the legacy of colonialism; Sarraute muses over the fickleness of memory; Annie Ernaux grapples with gender and class. There is something for everyone. Perhaps this is the most important thing that literature has taught me – whatever your problems, you are not alone.
Alice McMahon went to school in Devon and is a graduate in languages from Oxford University. She spent a year teaching English in Alsace, France on her year abroad and has also taught English in Oxford and Sierra Leone.
She has recently returned from Senegal, where she spent several months teaching English to students from across Africa.